New faces, new voices

Graça Machel (left) and Nomsa Daniels

Nearly a year and a half after the passing of global peace icon, Nelson Mandela, his widow, Her Excellency Graça Machel, has managed to stay out of the public eye. In fact, she hardly ever grants one-on-one media interviews, but that does not mean that the former Mozambican politician and humanitarian has retired from doing what she loves most: advocating for women's and children's rights.

On the contrary, the once Mozambican First Lady and Minister for Education and Culture, is busier today than she has ever been, serving in various capacities in several organisations, among them the Elders, the Africa Progress Panel, and the UN Millennium Development Goals Advocates Panel. She is also an Eminent Person of the GAVI Alliance and the UN Foundation, Chair of the Board of the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes and Chancellor of the University of Cape Town - continuing to support efforts aimed at realising the rights of Africa’s children and women on a number of key fronts.

Throwing her weigh solidly behind then the Graça Machel Trust’s New Faces New Voices (NFNV) initiative, which aims to expand the role and influence of women in the financial sector and embrace women as active economic drivers in Africa, Machel remains an inspiration to millions of African women.

According to the World Bank, women comprise approximately 50% of the population on the African continent, yet with 61% of women active in the labour force, they earn the lowest incomes in the world. Today, nearly 26% of formal businesses in Africa are owned by women, but only 21.5% of women are formally banked, with an estimated funding gap of $20 Billion – emphasising the need of organisations such as the Graça Machel Trust and its NFNV network.


Meeting Graça Machel

Nomsa Daniels, Executive Director and co-founder of the NFNV, clearly recalls her first meeting with Machel, who she acknowledges as the “true founder and patron” of the NFNV, in 2009: “I had been asked by a friend to bring together a diverse group of women to meet with her and that afternoon literally changed my life. We thought she had brought us together to tell us about a new initiative she was launching but she turned the tables on us and asked us why our faces were invisible and our voices were silent from the important discussions and debates that were taking place about women in the country, on the continent and globally. After that day, a small group of us kept meeting on a regular basis with Mrs Machel and it was through those early discussions that NFNV was born.”

“This was not long after the global financial crisis where discussions about reshaping the global financial system dominated the media. We felt that the voices of African women were missing from these debates and decided to do something about it. We decided then to focus on how to better position women in the financial sector as agents of change rather than as victims of gender inequality and poverty by highlighting the need to harness women’s untapped economic potential in order to accelerate the growth of African economies,” she told BBQ.

As Daniels explains, they believe African women are an under-utilised resource. She says women make an enormous contribution to our economies, but because that contribution is not properly quantified and measured for a variety of reasons, our societies do not value women as they should.

“When I say this, I am not just talking about the fact that women make most purchasing decisions at home, or drive consumer spending, I am also referring to the fact that women are the bedrock of our societies -- they feed this continent, nurture it’s children and influence its leadership. Numerous studies have shown that when women’s income improve, the lives of their families and communities also improves because women tend to measure their value not by how much money they have but in how their actions can better society. In Africa, however, the majority of women operate in the informal sector and outside the formal financial system so their value as economic agents is diminished,” says Daniels, who was born in South Africa, but grew up in Toronto, Canada, where she lived for 27 years.

Advocating for business women at all income levels who need better access to finance and financial services, Daniels says this includes those running micro enterprises to those who are running big businesses. According to her, some of these women at the lower end are serviced by microfinance institutions who have done a great job of reaching the poor so we didn’t feel the need to play in this space.


'The missing middle'

For them, the real gap is in the area called the “missing middle” where many business women languish – being too big for microfinance institutions and too small for commercial banks to take them seriously. She says these are the women they advocate for more vigorously because of their high growth potential.

“We also advocate for corporate women who work in the financial sector because we want to see their employment conditions improve, and more importantly, we want to see more of these women occupying senior management positions and being at the helm of financial institutions, either as part of the EXCO team or as CEOs and Board members,” she says.

As Daniels explains, women business owners account for 30-40% of all small business owners on the continent and are growing at a faster rate than their male counterparts, according to a study done by the World Bank in 2012. She says Ghana and Nigeria are examples of countries where the number of female entrepreneurs exceeds male entrepreneurs so women in business are definitely a dynamic and growing force.

“We also have high percentages of women working in the agricultural sector but we need subsistence farmers to see agriculture as a business, hence our focus on meeting the financial needs of women in agribusiness. The financial sector, though, is still highly dominated by men especially in the senior ranks and women’s representation on the boards of financial institutions (both public and private) is still very small. Bringing more women into decision-making positions and expanding their numbers on boards is also one of the initiatives we are driving,” she says.

Looking at some of the challenges that women face in getting into the financial and business sectors, Daniels admits that women tend to have less business training than men. As she points out women also engage with money differently and are sometimes hampered by cultural norms not to pursue careers in business and finance -- which is typically seen as a male domain.


The struggle to provide

Daniels says a number of things can be done to make financing more accessible to women, starting with improving the quality of education for women and making sure they grow up financially literate from a young age. She says another thing that can be done is demystifying the image of banks, which are often seen as service providers for large corporates and the rich rather than serving the needs of ordinary people.

Bringing banking services closer to the people will also make a difference, according to her, as will acknowledging that women have a good track record when it comes to servicing their debts, which should be factored into lending terms by financial institutions. Lastly, she says, when banks are designing financial products and services, they need to engage with women to see what they want and what their needs are so that these products are consumer driven. The other important area to tackle in making financing more accessible to women is removing legal restrictions on women’s ownership of land and changing inheritance laws that discriminate against women.

When comparing women in small business and women in corporate roles, she says many women who run small businesses do so out of sheer economic necessity because they cannot find employment elsewhere. She says necessity-driven businesses tend to differ from opportunity-driven businesses in that they remain stuck at the micro level and don’t tend to grow. With opportunity-driven businesses the owner is more likely to be better educated and to have a personal profile and skill set that will ensure better outcomes and greater levels of success she says.


Teaching women

As part of the objectives of NFNV, it aims to strengthen the skills and capacity of women as entrepreneurs, consumers, and investors to access finance. “We do this by teaching women how to engage with financial institutions, how to improve their knowledge of business and finance and to think beyond being consumers to becoming serious investors. In our research, we have found lack of money, or access to capital, is not always the problem when it comes to understanding why women’s business grow at a slower rate than men’s.

“Part of the problem lies with the women themselves who are intimidated when it comes to dealing with banks, and who are lacking in self-confidence when they try to raise finance. This problem can be solved by helping women understand how banks operate, what products they offer and which of these products will best serve their needs and how they charge for their services. It is also important for women to know that there are other alternative sources of capital such as private equity which they can tap into,” Daniels says.

NFNV is also a pan-African organisation. When asked about the importance of taking a pan-African approach, Daniels says by and large, African women face the same challenges from country to country in advancing their economic interests, although the cultural and policy nuances might differ from place to place. For example, she says, women struggle with access to land and property rights that don't always work in their favour across the continent.

Women also bring their own qualities to the business world. “Women are not superior to men but we do have certain traits, which make us valuable assets in business. We tend to be more conservative about taking on debt and more reliable when paying it off. Women business leaders also bring a different management style that is more team-oriented and more consultative.

“All these positive attributes show the importance of having diversity in the workplace because companies that recognise this and can tap into the brainpower, talent and expertise of both men and women tend to do better. It is not surprising then that a growing body of work shows that companies with more diverse boards and management teams have a higher return on investment and a higher return on assets than monolithic teams,” Daniels says.


Tapping into the potential of women

So what can be achieved by making business more inclusive of women across Africa? According to Daniels, although women make up half the population of Africa, it has not served the continent well not to tap into the potential of women as a resource. She says there is enough evidence that shows that when capital is in the hands of women, societies benefit.

“We are more likely to see inclusive growth if business becomes more inclusive of women. In President Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union address he stated, emphatically that “when women succeed, America succeeds.” African governments and businesses need to show the same level of determination to eliminate gender inequalities in order to harness the full potential of women and build thriving economies.

“Africa has many challenges and these challenges will only be solved by men and women working together as equal partners to further our development, ensure inclusive growth, and make Africa more prosperous for all. We want women to have a level playing field and to have access to the same opportunities and resources as men to improve the quality of their lives. Empowering women does not mean disempowering men,” Daniels concludes.

Michael Meiring

Graca Machel plants trees seeded by her late husband Nelson Mandela in the aptly named Mandela Park during the official opening of Steyn City original.jpg IMG_2062.JPG IMG_1274.JPG IMG_1270.JPG
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