Breaking Barriers: Women Entrepreneurs Add Value to Local Economies in Africa

AWRA Founding Member Reem Abdellatif sat down for a one-one-one interview with entrepreneur and presenter Vickie Remoe, a prominent multimedia producer, entrepreneur, and presenter from Sierra Leone. We discuss all the barriers against women entrepreneurs in Sierra Leone and Africa and what we must do to break them. 

Q: What was it like launching your business first in Sierra Leone?

A: I launched my first startup in Sierra Leone in 2008. At the time I was naive about entrepreneurship. I didn’t ask myself whether the market needed TV media content. Led by my desire to tell stories about post-war Sierra Leonean life, I leaped heart first into production of a travel, business, and culture show. I didn’t think about risks or profitability.

As a first time founder there were no business support services for young women entrepreneurs. So running the business was very isolating, I was learning, and doing it on my own. I grew professionally but my business didn’t get off the ground because the environment was hostile.

I experienced countless instances of sexual harassment when I went out to pitch my show to build business relationships with prospective sponsors. The response I got most often was: “This is great, but I can only sponsor the show if you become my girlfriend”. It took years for me to understand that when men accepted business meetings it was to proposition me for transactional sex not to do business with me. These men were predatory using their positions of power to coerce women into sexual relationships in a post-conflict country where resources and opportunities were few and far in between.

Q: So, you’re based in Ghana now and things have changed, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. Looking back, what advice would you give a younger you? 

A: When I relaunched my media company in Ghana in 2013 I was able to grow really quickly, I had 4 years of entrepreneurship under my belt and the market in Ghana is far more favorable for women entrepreneurs. In Ghana 46% of businesses are women-owned businesses– the highest of any other country in the world. While women still face barriers and gender bias, there are many more support structures and opportunities to women entrepreneurs.

I developed–C19 Dignity Project. I started C19 after learning of the lack of preparedness at the nation’s treatment centers. I fundraised online to purchase emergency medical supplies for Sierra Leone’s COVID-19 treatment centers. In the first three months of the pandemic we were able to raise about $60,000 and our work supported over 400 treatment beds– 80% of the COVID-19 beds in the country.

Going to treatment centers, I was able to get first-hand accounts of the conditions faced by frontline female healthcare workers especially. In one facility for mild and asymptomatic patients, I learned that patients had sexually harassed female nurses and community health workers.

I was able to amplify this and lobby the government officials leading the COVID-19 response to increase security personnel at that facility to safeguard the women. We were the first to deliver bedsheets, oximeters, thermometers, and nasal prongs to most of the treatment centers in Sierra Leone, even before the National COVID-19 response.

I was always a digital devotee, but what we were able to accomplish as a team reaffirmed my belief in the power of digital advocacy for social change and for community engagement.

Q: Why is it important today more than ever to encourage and support women of color who are entrepreneurs? What about particularly in Africa?

A: Entrepreneurship gives women choices, and financial freedom. Most importantly women add value to local economies as tax paying producers and service providers who create jobs. It is in each African country’s development interest for women entrepreneurs to have the resources they need to scale their ventures. No African country will achieve sustainable development without women actively participating in private enterprise as founders, and leaders.

Q: What is the number one issue facing women entrepreneurs in Africa?

A: We should not count women out when they’re beginning their entrepreneurial journeys. The number one issue facing women when they become entrepreneurs in the early stage is the low family and community support and lack of women tailored business support programs. Young women entrepreneurs especially aren’t treated with seriousness when they start, that in itself is enough to dissuade you.

As soon as a woman gets into business in Africa, they need all available business support services as they try to operate in sexist and toxic business environments that are not designed for women to thrive. Women need support networks, hubs, and coaching to help them understand the landscape of doing business within their country, community and sector. They also need to know how the odds are stacked against them as women in business and the tools and knowledge they need to advocate for themselves as they grow their ventures.

Reem Abdellatif

The Author

Reem Abdellatif is an AWRA founding member. As a former foreign correspondent, her in-depth stories on women marginalization, gender-based violence, and domestic abuse are testament to her passion for creating social impact. Reem is Egyptian-American and is part of the first generation of women in her family to escape Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Egypt.