Women Entrepreneurs in Africa — Hear Them Roar

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Female-run enterprises are growing exponentially all over the world, contributing to household incomes and the growth of national economies. However, these women often face challenges like social and physical constraints that might limit their ability to grow their businesses.

Today, we talk to Melanie Hawken, founder and Editor-in-Chief of Lionesses of Africa, a group that brings women entrepreneurs from all over Africa together under a singular platform.

Melanie Hawken

Melanie Hawken

Can you tell us a little about yourself and what inspired you to start Lionesses of Africa?

Lionesses of Africa originally started out as an idea for a book that I wanted to write — which I am writing, soon to be published this year. Having lived and worked in South Africa and on the African continent for the past decade (I am originally from England but have lived and worked around the world for the greater part of my life), I have met some of the most inspirational women entrepreneurs from all industry sectors and from all corners of Africa.

As a writer and editor, I have always found their stories of how they were inspired to start a business and the personal entrepreneurial journeys that follow both fascinating and hugely motivational. I felt compelled to start telling some of these stories. My hope was to inspire new generations of women entrepreneurs in Africa and around the world through the achievements and successes of these incredible business women, particularly as many of them have battled against significant challenges to get to where they are today.

Yet, when I started the background research for the book and began to speak to women entrepreneurs across Africa, it quickly became apparent that there was a need for more than simply a book that featured just a handful of these incredible women. As a result, the idea of creating a powerful online community where women entrepreneurs could share their startup stories, network with other like-minded women from across Africa, and connect with key influencers with an interest in Africa from around the globe came into being. And so Lionesses of Africa was born.


What are some of the most incredible stories you have come across so far while working with these amazing women entrepreneurs?

I have to say that I am inspired on a daily basis by the stories of Africa’s women entrepreneurs. They are all so different — each one is highly personal, hugely engaging, and very motivational, often an incredible example of success against seemingly impossible odds.

Some of the stories that resonated with me personally include that of Tabitha Karanja, founder and CEO of Keroche Breweries. She is one of Kenya’s leading entrepreneurs, a remarkable trailblazer and an example of a woman made good against all the odds.

Tabitha chose to venture where none before her had dared. She took on an 87-year-old business monopoly and entered an industry with a deeply entrenched male gender stereotype: She broke the mould to become Kenya’s first home-grown beer and alcoholic drink manufacturer.

Today, her company’s state-of-the-art factory produces 600,000 bottles of beer per day, and she is striving to claim a 20% market share. For her enormous contribution in liberalizing the liquor market in Kenya, Tabitha was honored by President Mwai Kibaki in 2010 with a most significant Kenyan accolade — the Moran of the Order of the Burning Spear (M.B.S.) Award.

Another story that is wonderfully moving is that of Julian Omalla, who today is one of Uganda’s biggest entrepreneurial success stories. She began her working life as an employee of her brothers, while at the same time saving her own money to start a business as a small trader.

Just over a decade ago Julian Omalla lost everything when her business partner ran off with all the cash she had advanced to purchase stock. The only things left were a wheelbarrow to take fruit to sell at the market and a red dress that she would wash out every night. So, although devastated by what had happened in her first entrepreneurial venture, Julian began again as a simple trader, wheeling fruit in her wheelbarrow to market and saving the proceeds of her sales each day.

Mama Cheers, owner of Uganda’s largest juice processing factory, Delight Ltd

Mama Cheers, owner of Uganda’s largest juice processing factory, Delight Ltd

At that point, she had nothing except her sheer grit and determination to succeed. Today, Julian Omalla is the owner of Uganda’s largest juice processing factory, Delight Ltd., and she’s known affectionately as “Mama Cheers” after her popular fruit drink brand, Cheers.

Julian has now diversified into a range of other business activities, too, including poultry, a flour mill and bakery, and a student hostel capable of housing four hundred people. On top of those, she also coordinates women’s farmer cooperatives in the country.

Lydie Hakizimana, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Drakkar Ltd., a reseller and distributor of educational textbooks in Rwanda

Lydie Hakizimana, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Drakkar Ltd., a reseller and distributor of educational textbooks in Rwanda


Finally, a wonderfully inspirational story of how one woman entrepreneur can make a huge difference to her country and its people is that of Lydie Hakizimana from Rwanda. She is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Drakkar Ltd., a reseller and distributor of educational textbooks in Rwanda.

For Lydie, it all started back in 2006 when her passion for reading and books led her to open a small second-hand bookstore. Before long, her entrepreneurial instincts had her developing relationships with numerous publishing companies, eventually striking a deal with a UK publisher, Pearson Education.

Drakkar rapidly evolved into a leading educational textbooks publisher and reseller in Rwanda, becoming an important enabler of her country’s vision for building a knowledge-based economy.

Today, Lydie is also the chairperson of the Rwanda’s Chamber of Young Entrepreneurs, and, in 2012, she became a member of the Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellowship Programme. Her new project will see her building and running her own foundation schools in Rwanda to further instill a love of reading in the youngest of her country’s citizens.

There are just so many inspirational Lionesses of Africa stories that deserve to be told and each one will resonate with the reader on so many levels. Africa has long had a tradition of storytelling, and at Lionesses of Africa, we believe in the power of stories to raise the profile of women’s entrepreneurship in Africa. We believe that doing so will also inspire others on their entrepreneurial journey.


What are the differences and similarities in traits and background between female entrepreneurs in Africa and outside Africa?

One of the most striking things to me, emerging from my work with women entrepreneurs both here in Africa and around the world, is that most of the traits of successful women entrepreneurs are the same, no matter where they are in the world or what their backgrounds are. They share a tenacity: A can-do attitude, no matter what life throws at them, and a real passion for their chosen entrepreneurial journey.

I think the biggest difference is that women entrepreneurs in Africa have a genuine conviction that what they are doing in their entrepreneurial life can make a difference, not just to themselves but to their communities and their countries. They are committed to empowering other women through their success, and in many instances, their business-building efforts are indeed a lifeline for their families and their communities.


What do you think are the common struggles African female entrepreneurs face?

One of the most common responses to this question when I am interviewing women entrepreneurs from across the continent is getting access to funding. So many of Africa’s women entrepreneurs have had to build their businesses the hard way, providing the funding they need through their own hard work and determination, without the support of financial institutions or private investors.

Victoria Kisyombe, Founder of  SELFINA, a pioneering microcredit and micro-leasing company in Tanzania

Victoria Kisyombe, Founder of  SELFINA, a pioneering microcredit and micro-leasing company in Tanzania


Yet, interestingly, there are also now some truly inspirational women entrepreneurs who are looking to change this by establishing financial institutions that are geared towards supporting women entrepreneurs and women cooperatives. One only has to look at the amazing work and vision of another true Lioness of Africa, Victoria Kisyombe, who created SELFINA, a pioneering microcredit and micro-leasing company in Tanzania. She is now providing access to finance for women entrepreneurs, and, in the process, empowering and inspiring a whole new generation of women in her country.

Another key challenge for women entrepreneurs in Africa is meeting social and cultural expectations in certain communities and countries. For those women, who, through necessity or choice decide upon an entrepreneurial journey, they have to juggle daily the challenges of building a new business and breaking into new and often very difficult markets, whilst at the same time fulfilling their roles as wives or partners, mothers, child educators, and proactive community members. It is a real balancing act and one that requires huge commitment and often sacrifices in terms of personal time and resources.


How do you think Lionesses of Africa can help these female entrepreneurs?

Lionesses of Africa provides a powerful online community to women entrepreneurs in every country and in every community on the African continent through which to showcase their companies, products, and services. It is a place where they can network with other like-minded women entrepreneurs across Africa and around the world, sharing ideas and gaining valuable insights.

Our aim is to provide a community where they can connect with influencers and industry advisors that can help them build their companies and brands. More importantly, it is a source of inspiration, where each of these amazing women entrepreneurs can share their stories and experiences in order to inspire and motivate the next generation of young women who will follow in their footsteps.

At a practical level, we take great pleasure in writing and crafting the most inspirational stories and profiles of each woman entrepreneur who joins our Lionesses of Africa community. We provide a really effective digital launch platform for their companies to promote their new products and services and a practical way of connecting women entrepreneurs with each other through our community network.

At a personal level, we also provide a daily news and information touchpoint in their lives which makes them feel part of a greater community that cares about what they do and the challenges they are facing in their own entrepreneurial journeys. At Lionesses of Africa, we appreciate only too well that being an entrepreneur can often be a very lonely and challenging experience, and being amongst like-minded people who share the same hopes and dreams can be extremely helpful.

Ultimately, I hope that Lionesses of Africa would be able to provide a digital home and community that is welcoming and supportive to all of Africa’s women entrepreneurs.


What does Lionesses of Africa wish to achieve within the next five years?

We wish to give a louder and more powerful voice to Africa’s women entrepreneurs. In order to achieve this goal, we believe women entrepreneurs themselves need to raise their voices on issues that matter. Africa’s women entrepreneurs should share their success stories and be an inspiration to others, and there should be more news about their startups and businesses, not just here in Africa but around the world.

We need to see more coverage of women’s entrepreneurship and the success stories across all the media platforms. Often we find that women entrepreneurs in Africa, and indeed across the world, are very focused on just getting the business done and quietly just build their companies and their brands, often without talking too much in the public domain about their personal entrepreneurial journeys. We would like this to change. We hope that by providing a platform that encourages all women entrepreneurs to have a voice, this will encourage more women to be inspired by their stories and to follow their lead. In this way, we hope that a new and exciting era of women’s entrepreneurship will emerge in Africa and which in turn will be a source of inspiration for women around the world.