Almost one in four female African entrepreneurs have innovated, according to a UNESCO survey

Almost one in four female African entrepreneurs (23.9%) have innovated, according to a study released by UNESCO this week. The study analyses the findings of a survey conducted jointly by UNESCO and the Africa Women’s Forum of 427 women entrepreneurs in ten African countries: Benin, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco, Mozambique, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia.

Of the women who said they had innovated, 8 had created an application for a mobile phone alone or in partnership and 17 had patented their invention. Others reported having registered their product with regulatory bodies like the Food and Drugs Board in Ghana.

Five women described the process for registering their intellectual property as being lengthy, costly and/or bureaucratic, and other women lamented the lack of information and guidance available to them on the patenting process.

Some of the women surveyed explained their reluctance to register or patent their product or process by the fact that they ran an informal business. Reasons given for not formally registering their business included considerations of cost and the complexity of bureaucratic procedures.

The survey found that eight out of ten respondents used technologies in their businesses. These ranged from traditional and solar ovens to sewing machines, mills, kilns, digital design software and social media platforms.

Nearly one-third of the women surveyed used the Internet to promote their business (30.8%) and one in four (25.4%) reached out to customers via social media.

One-quarter of the women worked in the food sector (26.4%). This was followed by textiles (13.8%), services (such as accounting) [11.5%], web platforms (8.3%), beauty and personal care (6.9%), digital marketing and services (6.9%).

Access to finance greatest barrier

Access to start-up finance was the most commonly identified barrier. Seven in ten of the women surveyed cited this obstacle. When the women were asked what kind of support they would most wish to obtain from their government or prospective partners, financial support came second only to training.

More than one-third (39%) of respondents were aware of the existence of a local incubator for tech start-ups and one-quarter of these women (24%) reported having received support from one. Training was the most common form of support received from incubators (57%). This was followed by finance (27%), encouragement (25%), co-working space (14%) and equipment, including software (10%). In some cases, the women benefited from more than one of these services.

Of the 125 women who specified that their start-up finance had come from a source other than a start-up incubator, half (62 respondents, 49.6%) had obtained a bank loan and one-third (42 respondents, 33.6%) had used their own funds or those of family or close friends.

Only one out of ten women an entrepreneur for lack of other options

Many women reported having been motivated to launch their own business by success stories in their wider entourage or those relayed by the media, including social media.

Only one in ten women said they had started their own business for lack of employment opportunities or owing to poor treatment at the hands of their previous employer. At least half of the women entrepreneurs held at least a bachelor’s degree in nine of the ten countries studied. These findings contradict a misconception in Africa that women launch their own business for lack of education or other career options.

One in ten women considered advances in equality and inclusion to be essential for the next generation of female entrepreneurs. When asked why she had started her own business, one woman in South Africa stated simply, ‘for my daughter.’

The survey was conducted by UNESCO and the Africa Women’s Forum between October and December 2019, in order to fill a gap in available information on demand for science and technology by female-owned small businesses and start-ups and, thereby, inform the forthcoming UNESCO Science Report, which was released in June 2021.

The survey findings have been released as an occasional paper in the UNESCO Science Report Library, entitled Challenges and Opportunities for Women Entrepreneurs in Africa: a Survey of Science and Technology Usage.

Both the 2021 edition of the UNESCO Science Report and the survey of female entrepreneurs in Africa have benefited from generous financial support from the Fondation Ipsen.