Women business key to unlocking Africa’s economic future

Simone Cooper Head of Business Clients at Standard Bank South Africa (winner of the 2021 Efma SME Banker of the Year Award).

As social restrictions are lifted, the South African economy has an opportunity to apply key disruption learnings to small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs). As South Africa returns to a new-normal, Simone Cooper Head of Business Clients at Standard Bank South Africa (winner of the 2021 Efma SME Banker of the Year Award) discusses how women entrepreneurs are key to turning our economy around by creating sustainable, inclusive jobs growth.

At the inaugural 2021 Women’s Economic Assembly, President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed his dissatisfaction with the level of participation of woman-owned businesses in key sectors like steel, energy, mining and agriculture. The President vowed to prioritise female entrepreneurs in state procurement, especially since women are disproportionately impacted by the current unemployment crisis.

As the full economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded in South Africa, it became clear that women were bearing the brunt of disruption, particularly those working in small, medium and micro-enterprises.

With the South African economy recording its worst unemployment rate ever, 35.3% in the fourth quarter of 2021, it is notable that even in this dire circumstance Statistics SA reports that men are more likely to be in paid employment than women, regardless of race. Women are also more likely than men to be doing unpaid work. Moreover, the overall proportion of men in employment is higher than that of women, with more men than women participating in the labour market.  

By the end of 2021, a staggering 50.8% of women were unemployed (expanded definition), compared to 42.1% of men. Although there are more women in the population, men outnumber women in all sectors, across both formal and informal jobs. The one exception is in private household employment where women, working overwhelmingly as domestic workers, outnumbered men.

And even where women were in formal employment, Statistics SA reported that men continued to outnumber women in decision-making positions across most sectors.

The impact of such imbalances on individual lives, is enormous; the clearest being that women are more prone to be economically dependent on men, further perpetuating social ills like gender-based violence. At no time was this more apparent than during the initial Covid-19 lockdowns when domestic abuse cases skyrocketed.

Achieving true diversity through gender parity in the South African economy is essential to protect women from the broad range of exploitation that stems from financial inequality. More generally, however, various studies show that gender diversity also enhances the efficiency and effectiveness of workforces by introducing new perspectives to business, driving innovation, and enhancing competitiveness.  

Significantly, a recent study appearing in the Harvard Business Review reported that there was a correlation between greater gender diversity and improved performance, provided that it is culturally accepted that gender diversity is important.

The solutions to work-place gender imbalances do not, however, lie with established businesses operating in what has been understood up to now as the formal economy. As automation, technology, digitisation and artificial intelligence increasingly disrupt the nature of businesses and the gig economy increasingly re-shapes traditional concepts of employment and earning, consistent and substantial new job creation, especially in developing markets, must come from the SMME sector.

While the SMME sector is undoubtably where innovation and fresh thinking is developed, it is also where risk resides. This presents both a challenge and an exciting opportunity for those seeking to fund the growth and expansion of the SMME sector.  

Often, SMMEs require advice and practical business support as much as, or even more, than they require money. This presents funders with an opportunity to rather understand the value chains and broader ecosystems in which SMMEs operate. Understanding this ecosystem – especially if a bank is already actively funding other players in these value chains – provides the insight to understand and assess an SMMEs potential and lend with confidence.

In short, adopting an ecosystem view – as opposed to a collateral-debt view – unlocks the ability to look beyond money, recognising that businesses and their owners also need guides, templates, and mentorship opportunities to grow. An ecosystem view also broadens the assessment lens, considering alternate criteria in addition to cash or physical collateral in the construction of informed funding solutions.

While having an intimate understanding of business clients and their abilities is key, being present in multiple value chains across the full business ecosystem in South Africa also provides Standard Bank with a huge advantage in assessing opportunity.

Standard Bank has, for example, been able to directly fund skills development projects such as Sebenza Mbokodo, Basali Development Programme, Timbali, Mme re ka thusa, and Femtrepreneur, and also enter into partnerships with the likes of International Women’s Forum of South Africa (IFWSA) by applying an ecosystem – rather than a collateral-debt – lens to supporting and growing SMME’s, especially those that are woman-owned and operated.

The Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs report revealed that South Africa moved up one place to rank 37th (across 65 economies) on the 2021 Index compared to the previous year. Moreover, although Women’s Entrepreneurial Activity Rate declined in most economies during the pandemic, South Africa is one of only 12 economies where women’s entrepreneurial activity rates increased.

It is our belief that support initiatives of this nature have helped in this increase.


Recognising that diversity matters to all, as a business we must continue to drive gender transformation by practically enabling women to assume their rightful role as business operators, owners and leaders in the South African economy.

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