Developing women-owned SMEs is a major step in ensuring gender parity while strengthening the national economy too


For three years, ‘the women have been waking up in the early hours – 1 am – to go to what used to be a river and dig holes in the sand and wait for water to come out. For each woman to get 20 to 25 litres of water, they had to wait until 8 am. With the serious three-year drought we have just had, things are quite difficult’. This is how Sizani Ngubane, founder of the Rural Women’s Movement (RWM), an NGO based in KwaZulu-Natal, describes part of her work with groups of women in districts such as uThukela, uGu and Sisonke.

RWM works with 50 000 indigenous and rural women and girls, and comprises a coalition of more than 500 community-based organisations that are affiliated to it. ‘Even without the drought, women are finding it hard to grow food in their own home gardens because their gardens are not fenced, and they don’t have the tools and the money to run their farming businesses as their economic empowerment programmes.’

In SA, rural women make up the large part of the 18 million people dependent on social grants, says Ngubane. ‘The majority of women in rural areas are mainly surviving on these grants. There are no jobs available in the rural areas. The farmers in the rural areas are exploiting them. None of the women are earning even a minimum wage.’

Ngubane highlights the plight of rural women to secure the basic resource of water because it illustrates how the corporate sector could assist them in terms of their economic empowerment programmes. To start, help them secure access to clean water and, by extension, food. Until that happens, she says, education and skills training simply are not viable.

The challenges faced by rural women are daunting. Poverty, unemployment and inequality mean that basic resources are scarce, the agency to obtain resources scarcer still, and acquiring the skills necessary to find employment is out of reach for many.

Globally, rural women typically work longer hours than men due to additional reproductive, domestic and care responsibilities, according to the UN. In Benin and Tanzania, women work 17.4 and 14 hours respectively more than men per week.

While similar statistics on SA’s rural women are lacking, there is reason to assume the situation is similar. A parliamentary report released earlier this year notes that women make up more than 51% of the population, yet they own less than 15% of the land. And according to the recent Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs (2018), just 18.8% of business owners in SA are women.

‘Rural women are the hearts and brains of households, and they’re struggling,’ says Ngubane. Empowering women and girls is key not only to the well-being of individuals, families and indigenous communities, but also to overall economic productivity, given women’s large presence in the agricultural workplace worldwide.

Vimala Ariyan, founder and MD of the Southern African Institute of Learning (SAIL), agrees. ‘Rural women are the principle part of the labour forces after men have left the villages to work in the cities,’ she says. ‘Businesses and corporates can assist these women by supporting them with access to funding and resources that will provide vocational training and promote entrepreneurship. Corporate social initiatives must accommodate and support long-term programmes that will improve infrastructure and increase provision of social and other services in the rural areas.

‘Setting up small businesses will require funding, and it would help if businesses could provide training and seed capital to get things started.’

In September, SAIL launched the 1956 Women’s Business Empowerment Programme, which commemorates the 1956 women’s march to the Union Buildings. It will provide development training worth R5.6 million to more than 1 500 disadvantaged females nationally via the institute’s e-learning platform.

The sourcing and selection of women for the programme will involve community development organisations and projects, local radio stations, provincial government departments, youth development agencies and advertisements.

‘The women will be provided with entrepreneurship training and then be absorbed into an incubation programme for a year to offer support and measure progress,’ says Ariyan.

‘They will receive mentorship, online chat options and phone-in advice during the start-up phase. We can support them for a longer period should there be funding available to keep them on.’

Yet what about the wider corporate sector? It surely serves corporate (and humanitarian) interests to empower and develop this under-supported and under-utilised strata of the population.

‘Corporates can do more within the rural regions and assist rural women to become self-sustainable – there is a huge need,’ according to Elain Vlok, founder of Clover Mama Afrika, Clover’s flagship CSI programme. ‘In our case, Clover is representative of a vast rural agricultural industry where women have fewer work opportunities than men,’ she says.

Started in 2004, the Clover Mama Afrika initiative identifies women who are already providing certain services in their community; supports their facilities; and provides skills training so that these can be transferred to members of their community, creating employment and income-generating opportunities.

To date, more than 2 100 individuals have been directly trained in the programme, and close to 150 income-generating self-help projects have been supported. The programme received the Trialogue Strategic CSI Award last year. ‘When comparing the investment in Clover Mama Afrika since the project’s inception to the income that project participants have generated, return on investment stands at 116%,’ states the Trialogue report.

Nedbank provides various women with support that extends to business acumen and business development programmes that provide appropriate training, mentoring and technical support augmented with networking and strategic guidance.

‘Through ongoing enterprise development initiatives, each owner is provided with the necessary skills and support to assist them on their journey of becoming sustainable job creating businesses and accelerating business growth,’ says Nirmala Reddy, Nedbank’s enterprise development senior manager. ‘Apart from two different women-specific programmes, Nedbank also has a significant component of women-owned businesses in our supplier development programme and other interventions that are implemented nationally.’

Meanwhile, PwC, together with the City of Tshwane, has contributed business and entrepreneurial skills to women from previously disadvantaged communities under the Faranani Rural Women Training Initiative.

The project aims to nurture women who have demonstrated the motivation to become business owners by providing them with the necessary proficiency to get started. Annually, PwC also builds the skills of more than 100 underprivileged women from rural areas through the Business Skills of South Africa Foundation, with the aim of creating jobs, promoting sustainability and increasing wealth.

In 2007, Old Mutual established the Masisizane Fund in consultation with National Treasury. The non-profit funding entity provides enterprise development to SMEs and has partnered with government’s Isivande Women’s Fund, which focuses on black women at the bottom of the economic ladder, assisting female-owned businesses based in rural or peri-urban areas that require capital.

These are only a few of the examples of corporates dedicating CSI spend to empowering women in business. But what more can be done to help female SME owners develop their companies? ‘Industry bodies and associations can do a lot to take a more hands-on approach to facilitate linkages between business owners and mentorship relationships with key role player businesses within the various industries,’ says Reddy.

‘More stringent monitoring and evaluation principles to training and mentoring will enforce high-quality, high-impact training, while a shift to mentors that offer less academic and more practical and experiential guidance has proven to be far more effective, resulting in a significant shift in business growth and sustainability.’

Jerry Gule, CEO of the Institute of People Management, says entrepreneur-development programmes should not be uniform. ‘Programmes must be guided by some form of needs analysis and research to guard against stereotyping women-owned businesses,’ he says. ‘A carefully conducted needs analysis would point to exactly what each entrepreneur requires, and broader research would also show up essential features that need to be built into these programmes if they are to deliver what is expected and required by the users.’

A finely focused CSI spend that promotes and supports entrepreneur initiatives will provide women and girls with possibilities – not only their own futures but that of their communities and the generations to come.

By Rachel McGregor
Image: Muti