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African Women Entrepreneurs Break Barriers
March 29, 2018

Ndhlovu and Tshabalala stand in front of their Waste Management Team in the warehouse
Nomuntu Ndhlovu joined SiyaBuddy Recycling and Waste Management founder Siyabonga Tshabalala (right) in putting village women to work around Steenbok, South Africa. (Courtesy of Nomuntu Ndhlovu)

After budding Kenyan entrepreneur Chebet Lesan quit a lucrative job as an industrial designer to concoct eco-friendly charcoal briquettes in her parents’ Nairobi backyard, she overheard them mutter more than once, “What is she doing out there?”

“It’s dirty work. It’s not like you’re mixing lavender and oils to make a fancy perfume. Everybody was freaking out,” says the founder of BrightGreen Renewable Energy.

Eventually, her parents came around and invested in her social enterprise, which now has a production facility and has sold over 500 tons of briquettes since its March 2016 launch.

A man lays out charcoal on a table to be sold
BrightGreen’s charcoal, made from organic waste, produces less smoke. Photo courtesy of BrightGreen Renewable Energy.

Lesan exemplifies a new breed of African women entrepreneurs venturing into male-dominated fields.

Instead of selling clothes, crafts or cosmetics, they are starting technology enterprises, as Charlotte Horore Bebga has done in Douala, Cameroon, or helping run a waste recycling business, as Nomuntu Ndhlovu is doing in a rural South African municipality.

Like Lesan, they are opening doors for other women and, in some instances, giving them a chance to earn their own livelihoods for the first time.

Eighty percent of BrightGreen’s 50 distributors are female. Lesan was inspired to start the enterprise after attending a Massachusetts Institute of Technology design conference in Tanzania on renewable energy.

The men on her team “from the start believed in me,” she says. Still, she faced others who told her selling charcoal “is a man’s job. I’m less than 5 feet tall and can’t even lift one of our 50-kilogram bags of charcoal.”

Training new tech entrepreneurs

Bebga, after earning a degree in IT management, opened an e-business selling clothes but soon decided she could put her advanced computer skills to better use helping other women with e-commerce startups. She created Likalo 2.0, a digital marketing agency, and launched the nonprofit African Women in Tech Startups to provide training.

Last year, a woman from Côte d’Ivoire whom Bebga trained won a prize in a Radio France International Challenge to develop mobile applications to improve girls’ education.

“A lot of women and girls get passionate about becoming tech savvy and building their own businesses,” says Bebga. “The most important thing to have at the beginning is a viable business [plan]. Then you just have to start and do it.”

‘Keep pushing the limits’

Ndhlovu is managing director and part owner of SiyaBuddy Recycling and Waste Management in Steenbok Village in Nkomazi Municipality. SiyaBuddy has eight employees and 10 contract workers and pays more than 500 people — mostly women — to collect recyclable waste in 52 villages.

“In a month we recycle 50 tons,” says the former management consultant turned social entrepreneur. “These collectors were previously unemployed. Now they make 400 rands a week — not a lot, but it’s a start.”

“It’s been quite difficult to be taken seriously as a female in the recycling business,” she says. Her advice to other women: “Be strong and be prepared to face those challenges. Keep pushing. Once you break that glass barrier, the sky’s the limit.”

Interested in taking the next step with your business? Check out our #YALIEntrepreneurs page.

The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government. YALI Voices is a series of podcasts, videos and blog posts contributed by members of the YALI Network.