Being an entrepreneur is hard. Being a female entrepreneur, in some ways, is harder. Being a female entrepreneur working in sub-Saharan Africa trying to build a fashion or lifestyle brand is a herculean endeavor. With the right support, though, it is achievable. At an event hosted this weekend by ‘SheTrades in the Commonwealth‘, titled ‘Preparing for the Export Market’, women who have had success with fashion and lifestyle businesses shared insights and experiences with women who hoped to follow in their footsteps. These women, many of whom work in cosmetics, apparel, and handicrafts, listened with rapt attention to learn the secret about how they too could one day create a brand that is exported regionally or even globally.
The panel consisted of Roberta Annan of the Impact Fund for Africa; Valerie Obaze, the founder of R&R Luxury and Chiedza Makonnen, the founder of Afrodesiac Worldwide. According to reporting from Joy FM, a Ghanaian radio station, the Impact Fund for Africa will invest 100M Euro in African fashion and lifestyle brands. R&R Luxury creates natural shea-based products such as essential oils and soaps which are available for sale in Ghana, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, and South Africa as well as in North America and Europe. Afrodesiac Worldwide ships their handmade clothes and accessories globally from their Ghanaian atelier. All three women are pioneers in a burgeoning market for quality African-made goods.
While everyone in the room was striving for a world where women and men were treated equally in business, the women shared tips on working in today’s male-dominated business context. Makonnen said, “Never apologize for wanting to be heard.” Annan shared another perspective. She tries to be the last person to speak in a meeting so that by the time she has opened her mouth, her male audience is blown away by her competence. Obaze was unapologetic. “If you have an issue with me being a female, it’s entirely your problem, not mine.”
All of the women were realistic when it came to fundraising. “You are always short on cash,” shared Makonnen as the women in the room nodded with knowing empathy. She advised the audience that if you need $10,000 but you only have $1000, find a way to make it work and turn that $1000 into $10,000. Annan, who represented the investor point-of-view, counseled that you need to become a master in your field before seeking investment, otherwise “you can be in a room full of investors and not even know what to ask.” Before concentrating her investments in fashion, Annan, who already had a master’s degree in biotechnology and years of experience working for the United Nations, went back to school.
These women have had global experiences but chose to build their teams locally in Ghana and Nigeria. They agreed that to build successful teams in African markets, you must keep your expectations high. Obaze stressed the importance of setting your expectations with your staff from the moment you hire them. It’s important that they know, “This is how we are. This is who we are. This is why we are doing it.” Then it is up to you to train them and “before you know it, they are even better than you.” Mokonnen added, “Creativity, quality, and hard work are all here. We need to work on our consistency.” She puts the onus on the entrepreneur. Speaking generally about entrepreneurs, she said, “We don’t take the time to invest in our employees.”
Finally, the women had a frank conversation on the difficult road ahead for the entrepreneurs in the room. “It’s not glamorous at all. I’m still waiting for the glamour to kick in,” shared Obaze. Annan stressed the importance of resilience, sharing that it’s not falling that is important, “but what you do after the fall that matters.” She added, “If someone tells you that you are not going to achieve your goals. Achieve them and take pictures.”
While we still have many miles of hard work ahead of us before we will reach gender parity in the trade, with the support of programs like SheTrades, women are not alone in trying to break through and achieve audacious goals. We can’t wait to see the pictures.