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Female Business Owners Need to Overcome Challenges

The number of women entrepreneurs in South Africa continues to grow, but the increase is not at a level it should be due to the higher number of challenges they face in comparison to male entrepreneurs.

Chana Boucher



Female entrepreneur amongst male entrepreneurs

This is the outcome of a number of studies done on the state of entrepreneurship in South Africa. While many of the findings are inconsistent, the feeling that women have the potential to play an increasingly important role in the country’s economy is evident. The South African Women Entrepreneur’s Network’s (SAWEN) study ‘Women Entrepreneurs in South Africa’ claims: “Women entrepreneurs are expected to increase rapidly in the next decade and they are expected to make an important contribution to their national economies.”

The South African female entrepreneur

According to the FNB and Centre for Entrepreneurship at the Wits Business School White Paper on Female Entrepreneurship, up to 38% of all established businesses in South Africa are owned by women. Of these more than 25% are making in excess of R750 000 a year. The research found that the general age of female business owners was 35 and above, while start-ups were mostly under 35. Women entrepreneurs were as likely to be married as unmarried and one one-third have children. A further finding by the research was that most women entrepreneurs have at least a Grade 12 certificate, and many a national diploma or bachelor’s degree. Most of the start-up business women were black.

The ‘Survey of Women Entrepreneurs’ by the SAWEN states: “Women business owners do contribute positively to our economy, with most employing between five and ten people. Both formal and informal businesses contribute significantly towards employment with the slight dominance of formal business.” It also claims that women-owned registered businesses generally dominate over informal businesses in the finance and investment, ICT, minerals and energy, construction, services and transport sectors. Informal or unregistered businesses are more common in the agriculture, arts and crafts, manufacturing, retail, textile and clothing, and tourism sectors.

Starting a business

According to the Survey of Women Entrepreneurs, most women started their businesses for financial reasons. The White Paper said that it is untrue that women were not natural entrepreneurs and only started a business because they had to or to do good. The research showed that most women are choosing to start a business even though they have other options. Some of the most common motives included wanting to be their own bosses, wanting to develop a product idea or wanting to gain recognition. The paper showed that women had the same motivations for starting a business as male entrepreneurs. Many wanted to start their own companies because of the lack of career opportunities in their previous jobs, but also wanted to keep learning and growing, have greater flexibility, build on past experiences and training and increase their income.

The ‘Women Entrepreneurs in South Africa’ study found the reasons women had for becoming entrepreneurs included the challenges/attractions of entrepreneurship, self-determination/autonomy, balancing career and family, lack of career advancement and organisational dynamics. Another strong motivating factor for women entrepreneurs was helping others. “Research suggested that this caring attitude manifests in women’s leadership styles and that goals other than economic growth guide a woman’s business.”

The majority of respondents surveyed for the White Paper, almost 80%, used their savings to start their businesses rather than obtaining external funding. Many also use their personal credit cards or overdraft facility, or they continue being employed part-time and use their salaries to maintain their company. This sentiment was shared by the Survey of Women Entrepreneurs. It said: “The major obstacle to starting up was of a financial nature. The source of start-capital has been mainly the women’s own personal savings or investments. Those women operating in the mining, energy, transport, and retails sectors also used bank loans.”

Major challenges

According to the White Paper, women feel their families are supportive of them in their business endeavours, but their communities value women being employed far more than them having their own businesses. They believe there are greater barriers for women entrepreneurs than men.

The Women Entrepreneurs in South Africa study found that women generally lack the necessary resources for starting and developing their own businesses. It said women had less human capital for the management and development of their businesses. Some of the major obstacles women face include finance, a lack of sales and marketing skills, educational and work background, motivation, comparative earning levels and external networking. For some family responsibility was another challenge. “Pressure to run a home, look after children and care for a husband and family limit women.”

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This Podcast Interview Will Inspire Every Business Women

Fumani Mthembi and Teresa Oakley-Smith, both MDs and founders of their own successful businesses, share their personal stories of fighting gender and racial stereotypes in pursuit of a dream. Mthembi and Oakley-Smith, spoke at an Investec Women in Leadership event, entitled, “The Courage to Change.” We bring you this inspirational podcast.

Investec Specialist Bank and Asset Management




International Women’s Day highlights the imperative role women play in business, the economy and households. Whilst women have come a long way in terms of recognising their worth, we’ve got a long way to go – and that starts in the boardroom. According to an EY study, there is overwhelming evidence that links gender parity to innovation and improved financial performance.

Businesses with women in top management roles experienced an increase in “innovation intensity” and were worth, on average, about US$40m more than companies with only male leaders. Yet on average, in SA, women earn about 73% of what men earn. (Ipsos 2017 survey)

In a frank and honest chat with Investec, two inspirational female leaders, Fumani Mthembi and Teresa Oakley-Smith, share their extraordinary business journey from having “a big dream” to surviving through the mean and lean times.

Fumani Mthembi, is a founding member of the Pele Energy Group – South Africa’s largest 100% black-owned independent power production and development firm – and MD of its research and development subsidiary, Knowledge Pele (KP), and Teresa Oakley-Smith, is the founder of Diversi-T, a change management consultancy with a focus on transformation and diversity training.

Listen to the podcast below for the full interview.

Here are some of the stand-out highlights from the interview:

1. Overcoming challenges female entrepreneurs face

Both Fumani and Teresa believe that, based on their respective experiences, men don’t take women seriously.

iwd_teresa_fumani_article-image-option-2“It’s very common in my industry to attend a meeting and have all the men address each other and not you,” says Fumani.“So I’ll be sitting there and they’ll all have their backs turned and they’ll be having a conversation amongst themselves.”

“I’ve had to work twice or three times as hard as male competitors to gain a contract; I’ve had to bend over backwards to actually make sure that my delivery is ten times better,” says Teresa.

2. Breaking down stereotypes

“In households of dual income, often the woman is bringing in more than the man, yet when we have to approach institutions of power, we feel somehow belittled, or we somehow lack our courage in an appreciation of the power we actually hold,” says Teresa.

Related: Feel Like Quitting? These 9 Women Prove Grit Can Lead You To Massive Success

“One of my clients is a very large retail company and they only have one woman out of a board of 40, and I was challenging them by saying: Who does the shopping? Women hold the purse strings, women go to the supermarkets, so why are they not represented? Why are their voices not heard?”

3. Encouraging diversity in the workplace

Teresa work centres around helping employers create work environments that encourage intersectionality, and recognise women’s unique needs.

“Does your company provide proper facilities for breastfeeding women and supply feminine hygiene products in case a female staff member is in need?” asks Teresa.


4. Educating about the need for empowerment

Fumani’s aim when starting her company was to transform society through knowledge and power and make a difference through a legacy that creates a new kind of context in which people like herself – a young, black female entrepreneur – could operate. “We wanted to spread the justice dividend and to use our privilege responsibly,” she says.

In her experience, banks struggle to recognise the need for women to seek finance for start-ups, because “they don’t need to take on that kind of risk. And that’s the thing about this dual economy, and as women we represent that second economy,” she says

“We’re a new risk; the things we want to do in this economy are new. Everything we do and present is new and we can be disruptive. So while we can ask for change, we can also be the change, and we can create these institutions that really understand us.”

 5. Seizing the power within you

Both women agree that recognising the challenge of being a woman in South Africa, should lead to women standing together and reclaiming their power. “We can only own our power if we join together as women of all races, ages and abilities and understand each other,” says Teresa.

Related: A Great Time To Be A Woman In Business

Out of Fumani’s 25-strong staff complement, only five employees are men. She puts that down to the talent and intellect shown by her women employees. But this female-male mix is far from the norm. Why? “What I’ve often seen is that women are very risk averse they’re incredibly bright.

We just don’t want to take a bet on ourselves,” says Fumani. “All these institutions are growing on the back women’s efforts. There’s a reason why 54% of graduate are women – we can do it, it’s just a matter of taking that chance on yourself.”

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Support for Women Entrepreneurs

A Great Time To Be A Woman In Business

South Africa’s growing band of female entrepreneurs have many lessons to teach us all.

Morné Stoltz




South Africa’s growing band of female entrepreneurs have many lessons to teach us all. In our first article in this feature, Marine Louw showed us the power of passion.

In this article, Cresi Heslop offers living proof that opportunities are everywhere – if we can see them and are prepared to seize them. She is building a business by identifying opportunities as they open up and then working hard to exploit them.

“It’s all about using what you have and thinking a bit laterally,” Heslop says.

Heslop and her husband started a youth sports blog in order to provide a motivational platform for a new generation of South African sportsmen and – women. They saw the blog, Heslop Sports, as a labour of love, with no commercial intent. However, spending so much time among athletes did reveal a potential commercial idea: a towel specially designed with sports in mind and that South African athletes could use with pride, especially at international events.

Related: Funding And Financial Assistance For SA Women Entrepreneurs

The result was a new business, Wonder Towel. Its flagship product is a microfibre towel designed to look like the South African flag, supplemented with a range of other microfibre products.

“Microfibre is environment-friendly because it’s so absorbent – it dries easily and stays fresh longer, and it takes less water to wash,” she says. “It’s also super light, thus great for travelling.”

Since then, the business has grown, selling primarily to the travel, beauty, baby and household markets, as well as the sports industry. Much of the selling is done via her online store and agents in Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria – as well as the e-commerce platforms. She singles out which, she says, does a great job in helping small businesses put themselves on the map.

She’s also just signed up a new distributor who is targeting independent schools, and schools with big water-sports teams.

Mentorship provided Heslop with welcomed inspiration and stability. She has built a solid relationship with a businesswoman who she respects enormously, Hendrien Kruger, the head of Inoar SA, which distributes a range of imported Brazilian hair products.

“We met seven years ago and I can turn to her at any point for sensible advice or just a good chat over a cuppa,” she says. “You should find some worthy people who inspire you in your field. They could even be people that you admire from a distance or whose books and lectures have become part of your way of seeing things.”

Because mentorship can play such a positive role, it’s vital that women offer themselves as mentors. Many successful women don’t realise how great an influence they could have on the next generation, starting what she calls a “cycle of future goodness”.

We’ve always heard about the power of the old boys’ club, and how it gives men a head start in business, but says Heslop, networks seem to be opening up.

“Female small-business owners are still in a bit of minority in South Africa, I believe however we are in a wonderful season of change at present,” she says.

Related: How Women Entrepreneurs Can Change the SA Business Landscape

“I recently had dealings with one of South Africa’s oldest and most established suppliers in a particular market sector, and I found them both welcoming and nurturing to an industry newcomer – something for which I am very grateful.”

Of course, entrepreneurs must also learn how to cope with challenges all the time. Heslop says that she keeps strong by sticking to a set of habits and actions. Her religious faith is an important mainstay and she daily affirms her commitment to making a difference, to being alert for hidden opportunities, and to spreading love and respect always.

“At the end of the day it will all boil down to confidence, belief in ourselves, joyous passion and delivering extremely high quality of products and services that will command respect and ensure us our rightful place in our beautiful nation’s economy,” she concludes.

MiWay is an Authorised Financial Services Provider (Licence no: 33970).

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Company Posts

Celebrating Women In The Signage And Printing Industry

The event will take place from 13-15 September at Gallagher Convention Centre.




Women are increasingly making their mark on the traditionally male-dominated signage and printing industry. For those who want to enter this industry, or want to grow their businesses, the Sign Africa and FESPA Africa expo, co-located with Africa Print and Africa LED, offers many opportunities for entrepreneurs. The event will take place from 13-15 September at Gallagher Convention Centre.

Diane Jacobson, Managing Director at Ellis Lehman Signs, has been in the industry for 25 years, and enjoys being in a career that is dynamic, creative and interesting. ‘No two jobs are identical, and because it is an industry that serves a variety of businesses, it offers exposure to many types of people and companies,’ she said.

Related: Ideas To Start Your Own Business In Signage And Printing

‘I’ve worked with fantastic people and managed very interesting projects, from manufacturing plants to religious institutions, to petrochemical companies to retailers and sports events. I have met wonderful people over the years and have had the opportunity to travel to interesting places. It is an industry that has allowed me to grow my business skills in a creative space.’

Sign Africa candidates

Lehman’s key to success is understanding and servicing the needs of customers. ‘They are the lifeblood of all business. There is so much poor service out there, so doing things better and paying attention to detail and the final finished item sets anyone apart,’ she said.

Printing SA, the official trade federation representing printing, packaging and associated businesses in the industry, has a number of projects to empower women. The organisation runs a screen printing programme, which most recently trained 10 unemployed women from Cottonlands. The programme includes three elements: the theory of screen printing, practical application, and basic business skills that would assist in growing a small business.

A success story from the programme is Eunice Ngwenya, Managing Director of Eunique Printing, who completed Printing SA’s very first screen printing pilot course during 2014. Printing SA recommended Ngwenya to Konica Minolta South Africa.

Eunique Printing, which operates from Konica Minolta South Africa’s Johannesburg campus, has been in business for almost a year, employs three people and prints books, magazines, business cards, calendars, receipt books, brochures, invitations, photographs, as well as offering ring binding and glue binding services.

Ngwenya has always been interested in printing, and had done silk screening on plastic for 25 years. She is glad that she applied for the Printing SA training as it has led her to where she is today. ‘I’ve learnt so much from Printing SA, I wouldn’t be where I am without them, and with the help of Konica Minolta South Africa, I see myself going very far,’ she said.

Related: Celebrating The Multi-Faceted Woman

Sonja Groenewald is CEO of Colourtech Design & Print CEO, which has operated for 26 years. Its main focus is the publishing and education markets. The business has a unique set up as in addition to printing, there is also an in-house dispatch and deliveries division, which helps service 350,000 students.

Being in the printing industry, you’d think technology would be Colourtech’s most important asset, but it’s not. ‘Our staff are our most valuable resource – we consider each and every one of our employees as part of our family,’ said Groenewald.

They are integral to the business’ success. ‘I’ve always told my employees to treat each customer like royalty – whether a client is just popping in for a small pack of business cards, or taking on a major order. Good service is crucial.’

For more information about the Sign Africa, FESPA Africa, Africa Print and Africa LED expo’s, and to pre-register online, please visit:


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