The African Global Women in Business Forum was hosted by Alliance 54 in London on 30-31 October. The two-day conference was held to promote entrepreneurship among African women, both domestically and in the diaspora. Although there were 200 people registered for the event, most did not show up- on the first day, there were reportedly around 80 attendees, and on the second day, only 50 showed up, including speakers.

While registration was meant take place from 8AM to 8:45, with the welcome speech beginning at 9:00. In reality, attendees who arrived for registration were instead treated to standing around until 10:30, a concern that was later voiced by an attendee who wondered how seriously women’s entrepreneurship in Africa was being taken, and Africans can expected to be taken seriously when a business conference started nearly two hours after the indicated start time.

When day two of the Africa Global Women in Business Forum finally did begin, some of the speakers did address gender-specific challenges to entrepreneurship. After a brief welcome, Leonora Klapper, lead economist at the World Bank spoke over Skype on challenges to banking for the African woman. In contrast to the developed world, where nearly 90 per cent of adults have bank accounts, in the developed worlds, almost 60 per cent of adults are not bank account holders. In every developing region, including Africa, women are bank account holders at much lower rates than men.

Both de jure and de facto reasons are responsible for the gender gap in access to banking. Women are hindered from managing, inheriting, and controlling property, which Klapper posited has a detrimental effect on their ability to access financial services.

The World Bank, along with the Alliance for Financial Inclusion (AFI), has committed to increasing the availability of financial services to female entrepreneurs in 40 countries, many of which are in Africa. Policymakers have committed to financial inclusion; however, when asked by a member of the audience for anecdotal evidence of increased access to banking, Klapper admitted knowing only about M-Shwari, a paperless banking service provided by M-PESA, a mobile-phone based money transfer and micro-financing service. And while mobile banking has been lauded as a panacea, the AFI found that only 15% of payments made in Africa are done with mobile banking. Suggestions by the AFI and World Bank are to put women’s names on utility bills in order to build credit, allowing them easier accessibility to banking.

Dr. Amany Asfour, Chair and President of Federation of Business Women Associations (FEMCOM) of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), also spoke about challenges to entrepreneurship in Africa, noting that 95% of enterprises in Africa are SMEs, and combatting the challenges of doing business in Africa must engage civil society. Dr. Asfour’s presentation merely scratched the surface. Despite the presentation’s lack of depth, Dr. Asfour did stress the importance of developing indigenous human capital, and pressuring governments to make policy reforms that SME’s to access capital; issues that are often neglected by governments interested primarily in yielding high profits through foreign investment.

Vimi Appaddoo, chairperson of the National Women Entrepreneur Council in Mauritius and vice president of Women in Networking, Mauritius who is additionally an entrepreneur herself, also stressed the importance of access to financial capital. When she started her own business, she said, she used all of her savings. Typically, entrepreneurs can expect to look at not taking home any salary for the first several months, or even a year. For women who don’t have savings that can allow them to not make money for the whole year, accessing financial capital is a huge challenge.

Appadoo said that she has found across the board local banks do not meet the needs of most female entrepreneurs. In Mauritius, women make up only 24 per cent of business owners. As a response, the government founded the Mauritius’ National Women Entrepreneur Council, solely to provide support for female entrepreneurs. Although they do not have the means to provide financial support, they provide women information and networks to be able to grow their businesses. While there is a Small and Medium Enterprises Development Authority, which is an umbrella organization providing support to all entrepreneurs in Mauritius, the reality is that men and women do not face the same challenges to entrepreneurship, in Mauritius, and throughout the entire continent.

Despite the challenges, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation believes that “Women entrepreneurs are a largely untapped market for financial institutions in developing countries.” The key challenges to the entrepreneurial aspirations of African women are accessing financial services, not having financial capital, lack of training or technological expertise, and not knowing how to market their products and services. Leveling the playing field between male and female entrepreneurs has formidable, although not insurmountable, challenges. Female entrepreneurship can be enhanced in many ways- training for women to teach them how to sustain and grow their business, promote their products and services, enhance product quality, and increase competitiveness through technology and research, and being able to access finance that doesn’t require guarantors (usually male).

The speakers on the second day of the AGWIB forum addressed specific and poignant concerns that hinder women’s ability to participate in entrepreneurship. Alliance 54 is “dedicated to the promotion of international trade and investment between Africa and the rest of the world”, so why did less than half of registered attendees show up to hear the message? Is it reflective of indifference towards empowering African women to economic independence? While there are organizations such as COMESA and DAWN, a Washington DC-based organization that promotes diasporan women’s leadership in development, the lack of attendees at this event dedicated to promoting the involvement of women indicates that the priorities of businesspeople in Africa do not lie in the empowerment of women.

The African Global Women in Business Forum took place in London on the 30 and 31st October 2013

Doreen Yomoah