“If you want to leave a legacy of economic change that creates wealth for Africans, you must be in policy”. This was the way one of the women put it.

I have just spent the last four years working with Vital Voices Global Partnership as a consultant on SPARC: Supporting Public Advocacy for Regional Competitiveness.  The importance of advocacy and policy changes with regard to economic development has never been clearer to me.

SPARC brought together the Business Women’s Association of South Africa (BWASA), Women in Management, Business and Public Service of Nigeria (WimBiz), the Uganda Women Entrepreneurs Association Limited (UWEAL) and the Kenya Association of Women Business Owners (KAWBO) to advocate for the improvement of the entrepreneurial ecosystem for women.

On a continent where we are often (justifiably) accused of poor organization and illegitimate representation, these four associations are truly remarkable.  They serve over 70,000 women entrepreneurs and in this 4-year period, were able to make tremendous strides in improving the business environment for women in their respective countries.  Below are just some of their key successes.

  • All 4 business associations have been able to bring the discussion on policies to improve the economic ecosystem for women to the highest levels of decision-making in their countries engaging stakeholders such as the head of state (Uganda and Kenya), the parliament (South Africa, Uganda and Kenya), the Central Bank (Nigeria)  and more.
  • Policy changes such as the bill that guarantees women, youth and the disabled 30% of the 330 billion Ksh ($32 billion) public procurement market, have been secured. To seize this opportunity, over 700 women have been trained on bidding for public procurement contracts in Kenya.
  • Over 500 women entrepreneurs in agriculture have been trained to access government resources for farmers in Uganda.
  • There now exists a WimBoard Institute in Nigeria to prepare women to sit on corporate boards and WimBiz holds a database of over 100 women who are board-ready.

These women entrepreneurs are blazing a trail for the continent.  They are demonstrating that key to economic growth on our continent, is an enabling environment for the vast majority of African women who are already active in their economies. Vital to creating this enabling environment are policies that impact tens of millions of women entrepreneurs and professionals.  Through SPARC, Vital Voices enabled these women to carry out full-fledged advocacy campaigns, learn from one other across countries and regions, inspire one another as they shared both successes and failures and build a continental network that is engaged with high-level decision-makers in each country.

As true entrepreneurs, these African businesswomen innovated and adapted as they went along.  Their combination looked a little like this:

Advocate against all odds!

In some countries the businesswomen’s association (BWA) had to help parliamentarians (who are often short-staffed and/or lack the skills) to draft the law.  In others, the BWA had to inform and train civil servants who are meant to be implementing the law on exactly what the law was. Advocacy often entails going beyond your campaign to assist and train other stakeholders, they did it.

Be ready to seize the opportunity!

UWEAL owns real estate in downtown Kampala

Every woman advocate has heard the excuse “we would love to give women the opportunity, but we can’t find any!”  The BWAs built in a step to answer that question.  In Nigeria WIMBIZ is training women to be board-ready.  Their database of over 100 women can serve companies and organizations in Nigeria, Africa and globally.  In Kenya, KAWBO is training women entrepreneurs to be able to access public procurement contracts and in Uganda, women are being trained to access the agricultural resources government offers.  To make the laws and policies being advocated for implementable, a key step is that the constituency of women entrepreneurs must be ready to seize the opportunity.

Be relentless!

The environment is constantly changing and it is important to remain riveted on the policy objective and to adapt strategy and carry on.  In one country, the key decision-maker and champion the BWA had been working with was fired, in another the entire program the BWA had been fighting for was scrapped by government and replaced with another, the BWA had to start over from scratch.  In yet another, parliament attempted to back track from a law that had already been passed.  Whatever the changes in their environment, the BWAs simply took in the new information, redrew their strategies and charged on.  Policy work means constantly adapting, but never losing your energy and focus.

On the purely policy advocacy level, there are other key lessons we can learn from businesswomen in South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria.

1)      Define a clear, precise advocacy objective

Women Farmers in Uganda

In South Africa and Nigeria the focus is on increasing the number of women on corporate boards with a target of at least 30%. In Kenya it is on accessing 30% of public procurement.  In Uganda they are advocating to ensure that over 7 million women farmers access at least 50% of the agricultural resources that government makes available.

2)      Do your homework and build a case with evidence

To build their advocacy campaigns, each association carried out the research to build a business case.  BWASA carries out an extensive census naming and shaming the top 100 companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange with regard to the percentage of women on their boards. UWEAL built a compelling case by demonstrating the contribution of women farmers to the Ugandan economy, KAWBO had to identify and analyze each step of the procurement process to determine the exact hurdles women entrepreneurs face and the best possible solutions for each.  WimBiz carried out extensive research on the number of women on bank boards in Nigeria and determined the cycle of board member replacement, to be able to influence the banks.

3)      Build an advocacy network and cultivate champions

All of the BWAs worked with high level champions in government, parliament and the private sector.  They cultivated relationships, trained their champions and made tremendous efforts to accommodate the schedules of these champions who are extremely busy people.  No group or organization can bring about change alone.  It is networks that bring about change.

4)      Be bold and knock down obstacles

All of the BWAs faced tremendous obstacles.  All looked like they were going to fail at a given point in the campaign.  All took the justness of their cause as a passion and boldly challenged obstacles and barriers to find solutions.  Sometimes they were diplomatic, other times they were confrontational, at all times they focused on their end goal.

5)      Make the media your friend  

None of these campaigns would have worked without the media. Over the 4 years, I watched these women become amazing spokespersons who engaged journalists effectively.  They built a business case and talked with serious economic statistics.  Women’s entrepreneurship was positioned not as a “nice to have”, but in its rightful place as a “must have” for economic growth and competitiveness in Africa.

“To leave a legacy, you must be in policy.”  I thank the women of KAWBO, WimBiz, BWASA and UWEAL as well as Vital Voices for giving me the privilege of contributing to the legacy they are leaving for Africa’s economy.