10 Most Inspiring African Women Entrepreneurs
Teta Isibo, 34, had no education in design, fashion, or business when she founded her jewelry and accessories brand in Rwanda. Educated as an urban planner in the UK, she returned to her home country shortly after her studies.
Making jewelry and accessories was just a dear hobby and a “part-time side hustle”, as she says, until she took the leap and started focusing on locally made fashion in 2010. She did all her marketing herself on social media.
“As I didn’t have a background in business, I attended many different entrepreneurship programs that helped me learn how to run a business,” she told FemaleOneZero in an email from Rwanda.
Nevertheless, Teta Isibo was named one of the 30 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs in Africa 2017 with her Inzuki Designs.
Pieces produced by Inzuki combine traditional Rwandan and modern designs using local patterns, materials, and skills. Teta Isibo is currently seeking to enter international markets through distributors and an online shop.
I would like to grow my business into a global brand selling ‘Made in Rwanda’ across the world.
Tara Fela-Durotoye pioneered the African beauty industry when she founded House of Tara International in her living room in Nigeria.
The founder and CEO of House of Tara International, based in Lagos, now leads a network of makeup studios, stores, and workshops in Africa. She has also launched beauty brands focusing on women of color.
Tara Fela-Durotoye was a 20-year-old law student when she took the first steps to create her beauty brand in 1998. She had already started beautifying brides in her own home when a friend suggested turning her love of cosmetics into a business.
In 2013, Forbes listed her one of the “20 Young Power Women In Africa”, and she has reaped awards at home and abroad.
Today, as a 39-year-old businesswoman and a mother of three boys, Tara Fela-Durotoye mentors young women to follow her footsteps. According to her personal website, some 1,500 women have graduated from her makeup school.
Of her success, she says she owes a lot to what she has learned from her doting father and her stepmother.
“She is the one who gave me the passion for cosmetics and beauty, because she was extremely fashionable and liked to look beautiful. She was in a salon every weekend, having her nails polished,” Tara Fela-Durotoye recalled in CNN’s African Voices program in 2017.
“Sometimes I would sit down as a little girl and polish her toenails as well,” she said.
Sometimes I would sit down as a little girl and polish her toenails as well,” she said.
Driven by the wish to promote black authors in South Africa, Thabiso Mahlape founded her publishing imprint, BlackBird Books, in 2015 under Jacana Media.
“My work is really centered around black people, publishing black people, and making black stories heard,” the 34-year-old publisher told FemaleOneZero.
It took her time to discover the world of publishing, first studying four years to become an engineer then attempting to shift to journalism.
She finally sought an internship in publishing in 2010 at Jacana Media after a career counselor advised her to consider a career in the field.
She soon discovered that the South African literature and publishing world was essentially white and decided to take on the challenge of changing that. While female intuition can help in publishing work, she admits that being a black woman sometimes slows her down.
“Authors disrespect you more, and distribution channels owned by men just aren’t willing to see you, even when you do the work that you do… Even with black men—because I don’t always do things the way they want me to—it can be a bit problematic,” she said.
Thabiso Mahlape next wants to take her work outside South Africa. She has recently travelled to Botswana and now wants to help start developing the local book industry in the country.
Despite her workload, she says making time for her 4-year-old daughter, friends, and family keeps her happy and productive.
South African winemaker Mbali Masike, 36, founded her company, Ngiyi Mbali Wines, while still working as a marketing manager in a large insurance company. She recently took a leap of faith to only do what she truly loves: making wine.
A wine lover since her first hesitant sip of red wine on her 18th birthday, stepping into a whole new sector was a challenge. Managing to convince a fifth-generation South African winemaker to offer a mentorship, she created a family business with six ranges of wine currently offered. The growing demand for South African wines has helped her business to take root while she has started to receive quotes from abroad.
“I grow more excited as the time goes by. I always wake up happy. But it’s also been challenging. This has been an industry dominated by white men,” the female African entrepreneur told FemaleOneZero on a call from South Africa, saying prejudice remains.
The mentorship continues, as Mbali Masike makes wine in her mentor’s yard until she can buy her own piece of land. Currently she is working on adding sparkling wine to her ranges, to be launched by the end of 2018. For next year she is preparing to add the first food products—chutneys and jams.
“I’m going at it, and I’m going at it hard. I’ve risked a lot, I put all my savings in this and left a very good job,” she said.
I know I have it in me to make it work… It is very important that we, as women, understand our potential.
Monica Musonda, Zambian founder and CEO of Java Foods, became a food processing entrepreneur in 2012 after a long, high-profile career as a lawyer.
Today, Java’s first product—eeZee Instant Noodles—is one of the leading brands in Zambia.
Before entering the unpredictable world of entrepreneurship, she held what she called “a comfortable job” with Nigerian manufacturing conglomerate Dangote. In a speech in TEDx Talks in 2016, she revealed her “aha moment” was when her Nigerian boss pointed to the lack of economic activities in Zambia by Zambians.
“I was living in Nigeria and seeing that Nigeria runs its economy, but in Zambia, we are just spectators in our economy, and we’re happy to do that,” the 43-year-old said.
Over the past years critics have especially voiced concern over Chinese dominance in the Zambian economy amidst Zambia’s growing debt to China.
So I began to think about it: why were we spectators? Why weren’t we active participants in our economy?
According to Java Foods, Monica Musonda also serves as non-executive director on the boards of several companies in Zambia.
As a small girl in Kenya, Lorna Rutto turned plastic litter into earrings. As an adult disturbed by plastic waste in her country, she founded EcoPost, a social enterprise collecting and recycling plastic waste. The waste is used to manufacture a variety of products ranging from road signs to garden furniture and equipment.
Like many other female African entrepreneurs, she initially held a “safe” job, shifting to her eco-business from banking.
In her Twitter account the 34-year-old describes herself as “a change-maker and multi-passionate social entrepreneur with a vision to have a Green Africa free from poverty”.
In 2012, EcoPost received the International Energy Globe Award and in 2011 the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award.
Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, 35-year-old Nigerian social entrepreneur, already knew as a student that she wanted to set up a recycling business to address her country’s large waste problem.
Upon graduation from Massachusetts Institute of Technology—or MIT—where she specialized in waste management, she returned to her home country to found Wecyclers in 2012.
The company’s employees tour households by bicycle and gather their waste in exchange for points which later are translated into prizes or incentives for the families. The material is weighed and sorted before sold to recyclers.
“I saw the opportunity that was there, in this field, and I also saw the impact we could have on people’s lives, and that’s really what drove me,” Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola said in NdaniTV’s Yeong CEO program in 2014.
She has received awards from MIT and won Cartier Women’s Initiative Award in 2013.
Sibongile Rejoice Sambo
A pioneer in female aviation, Sibongile Rejoice Sambo is the founder and managing director of SRS Aviation in South Africa in 2004.
Airplanes have been her passion since she was a little girl, but initially she had air hostessing in mind—luckily, she was too short to qualify. Today her all-female-owned company SRS Aviation (standing for the initials of her name) offers a wide range of personalized charter flights for private and business purposes worldwide. The entrepreneur holds a BA in administration and majored in political science and industrial psychology and initially worked in human resources. She founded her business with loans from her mother and aunt.
“I decided to go for what lies within in me, and this is the passion for airplanes and being around the airport,” she said to CNN in 2016.
In another interview the 44-year-old said that she initially noticed a high volume of flights to and from Africa, especially by people working in the mining industry, via France. Somebody needed to provide direct charter flights.
I have the philosophy that I am where I am today is because someone invested in me. It’s my opportunity now to invest in other people.
Nkemdilim Begho, sometimes referred to as the “leading lady” of the Nigerian IT sector, is responsible for setting up one of the country’s top IT service companies.
Educated in Germany in bioinformatics, she is the founder and managing director of Future Software Resources—or Futuresoft— as one of very few women in the sector. Upon returning to Nigeria, she took over a business her well-known father Chris Uwaje had set up, rebranding it and shifting its focus to providing online services such as website design, IT security, web hosting, and online social media management, as well as e-learning platforms for students.
“African women have always worked very, very hard. When you have to go very far for water and for food, that turns you into a hardworking person,” Nkemdilim Begho said in a LoA “Women in Tech” interview in 2015.
She is very passionate about education and the e-learning service provided by Futuresoft.
At the moment everybody is looking at Africa and saying it’s the next frontier. There are a lot of foreigners coming to do things we could actually do if we had the education.
Ghanaian businesswoman Salma Okonkwo, 48, is a rare female face in the energy industry and is CEO and Founder of UBI Group.
Amidst the debate on climate change, alternative energy resources, and poverty, Salma Okonkwo is building Ghana’s biggest solar farm—called Blue Power Energy—expected to be opened in March 2019.
In an interview with Forbes, Salma Okonkwo explained that she was born to a family of 14 children in a clan in which women are also active providers for the family economy. After graduating from university in Los Angeles, her career in the energy industry began upon her return to Ghana in 2003 when she was hired by the oil and gas company Sahara Energy Group.
In an interview in 2011, Salma Okonkwo said that her family had had to travel long distances for fuel, and that in the coming five years she wanted to reach every village in Ghana to fulfil their energy needs. Meanwhile she was already dreaming of greener long-term solutions.
“Our purpose is to ensure that every Ghanaian, every village in Ghana, has their required petroleum products. We want to make a difference by being green, and in Ghana we’re the first company to do that,” she said in a video interview with Voices of Ghana.
We think of ourselves as taking our social responsibility seriously.
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