Corporates are recognising that the upliftment of women in the rural economy has far-reaching impact


‘Build back better’ is a slogan used by the US government in reference to its post-pandemic recovery plan, and it’s one that perfectly captures the opportunity presented to all nations around the globe as they emerge from the economic chaos and existential crisis of the past two years. Equality, economic inclusion and sustainability are no longer negotiable, and must be at the heart of any worthwhile re-establishment of the status quo. In SA, that means prioritising rural women.

More females reside in traditional/rural areas than their male counterparts and, according to Stats SA, in 2020, 50% of households in the country’s rural areas were headed by women, particularly in provinces with large rural areas such as the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

Rural women ensure food security for their communities, build climate resilience and strengthen economies; they represent a radical force for stabilising and nourishing society from the roots up. They also have a massive potential to contribute to the economy – if, however, they can gain access.

Some progress has been made. Research conducted by the South African Medical Research Council in conjunction with Wits University over three decades found that ‘trends seen over the last quarter century present a transitioning South African rural woman. She is living longer, more educated and more mobile, and opting for fewer children. When she does decide to have children, she is likely to deliver at a health facility and be attended to by a healthcare professional’.

However, the biggest challenge facing women is educational inequality and, by extension, employment inequality. According to Stats SA’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey, in the first quarter of 2022, black African women were still the most vulnerable segment of the population, with an unemployment rate of 40.6%.

The SA government’s upliftment blueprint – guided by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – is outlined in its Women’s Financial Inclusion Framework, and covers strategies for increasing access to markets for women-owned businesses; improving access to employment opportunities; skills development; and land rights. It’s an essential, well-outlined step in the right direction, yet one that cannot be implemented without support from grassroots organisations and the financial muscle of the private sector.

‘Collaboration from the public sector, its social partners and the private sector is needed to radically increase the economic upliftment of rural women,’ according to Shirley Machaba, the first black woman to be appointed CEO of PwC Southern Africa, and national director of PwC’s Faranani Rural Women Training Initiative.

‘The responsibility does not lie with one sector of society, organisation or community; it is a collective responsibility that requires all of us to work together and lend our support in the areas in which we know we can make a positive contribution.

‘As a female CEO, I take it upon myself to “lift as I rise”. This is something I encourage other female leaders to do, and this way – as we pave a path for younger female leaders – we strive towards achieving equality where our women are not only seen and heard, but are in spaces where their opinions are valued and considered,’ she says.

Generally, CSI spend aimed at empowering women is consolidated under the banner of upliftment of rural women, youth and people with disabilities, or women and girls in more urban settings (scholarships, and so on).

PwC has a dedicated programme aimed at uplifting rural women. Annually, it contributes R2.4 million to the Business Skills for South Africa (BSSA) foundation, which helps run the courses, of which R1.2 million is spent on the Faranani Rural Women Training Initiative.

‘Every year we see the positive impact the programme has on families and communities,’ says Machaba. ‘To date, 3 909 women across Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Eastern Cape, North West, KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State and Western Cape have graduated from the programme.

‘Seventy percent of women who have completed this programme have been able to increase profitability in their businesses.’

Machaba shares the success stories of Helen Ntobela and Mapule Moabelo, two of Faranani’s recent beneficiaries. ‘Helen runs a branding and printing company in Tembisa township and has considerably grown her business. Mapule left her full-time job to invest more time in her home-based bakery business almost a year into the global coronavirus pandemic. After completing a business course through Faranani, her home bakery business has expanded to become more lucrative than her full-time job ever was.

‘She will soon be in a position to buy professional baking equipment to bake bread and supply it to her community in the Alexandra township. This is in addition to having daily cake and pastry orders for birthdays, corporate functions, weddings and funerals.’

Although not exclusively focused on rural women, diamond mining giant De Beers’ AWOME – Accelerating Women-Owned Micro-Enterprises – initiative has many rural beneficiaries. Launched in 2017 in partnership with UN Women and local government, the programme provides mentoring, network, business- and life-skills training to beneficiaries, and takes a sustainable approach by upskilling and equipping local trainers to ensure the initiative will endure into the future. In 2021, De Beers extended its commitment with a further $3 million to expand the programme as part of its goal of supporting 10 000 female entrepreneurs in SA, Namibia and Botswana by 2030.

To date, De Beers has supported more than 1 800 women entrepreneurs to build their businesses in partnership with UN Women, including rural ‘agriprenuers’.

Perhaps one of SA’s best-known – and awarded – private-sector rural-upliftment programmes is Clover’s Mama Afrika, which identifies women who are already making a difference and caring for others in their communities (both rural and urban), and gives them resources and skills to amplify their impact.

The programme has strict criteria for selection – such as a minimum of five years of caring for a group or care centre – to ensure that beneficiaries will do the most for their communities. Since its inception in 2004, the programme has supported 56 ‘Mamas’ and, by extension, more than 2 310 indirect beneficiaries under the Mamas’ care.

Elain Vlok, manager of the initiative, says a lot of care is taken to ensure that the Clover Mamas are willing to put in the work. ‘I think upliftment needs to be a two-way street – more need to uplift, but in the right ways, and those on the receiving end need to be willing to come to the party. The Clover Mama Afrika project encourages women to work hard. Selection is very important.

‘Unfortunately, over the 19 years of this project, I have witnessed that when you train 10 people, over time, only three will continue with the work and be a part of our project. This is why we are so stringent with our selection of Mamas; they need to be passionate and hard working. The Clover Mama Afrikas will all tell you one thing – success comes to those that work hard.’

In rural KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo, more than 1 300 women farmers have received digital-literacy training via Vodacom’s Women Farmers programme, a collaboration between UN Women and South African Women in Farming. The first phase of the programme helps beneficiaries learn basic digital skills such as word processing, creating financial spreadsheets and using search engines and social media, while the second phase connects them with larger enterprises and suppliers through Connected Farmer, an app designed by tech company Mezzanine, a subsidiary of the Vodacom Group.

Another private-sector company collaborating with UN Women to help rural women farmers grow their operations is Standard Bank. In January 2019, the organisations partnered with the aim of empowering more than 50 000 women farmers across SA, Malawi, Uganda and Nigeria – in the first half of 2020, the project delivered agricultural inputs to 2 753 women farmers in SA, including drought-resistant seeds, organic manure, farming equipment and training on climate-smart agriculture.

Initiatives such as these are helping to uplift rural women across the country – yet it’s only a fraction of what is needed to break the cycle of poverty for so many. What’s clear, though, is that the private sector understands that giving is not enough – skills, education and access to basic resources are required to ensure sustainable transformation.

As Machaba explains, ‘if we can empower rural women to become financially independent, it leads to the empowerment of more than just people who are poor; you are empowering communities. The empowerment of rural women is vital to the success of South Africa’s economy’.

By Robyn MacLarty
Image: Gallo/Getty Images