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August 21, 2007

Africa, Gender, and Equity

Our next guest blogger is Joanne Thomas Yaccato, the founder and president of the Toronto-based Thomas Yaccato Group, a consultancy that specializes in helping companies create authentic products, services and business strategies that attract the attention and loyalty of women consumers. She attended our Atlanta deep dive, and has some strong thoughts on the topic of women in Africa, and the way the media portrays them. Feel free to comment and get some conversation going on this important topic.

I was recently interviewed for a Canadian newspaper about my work helping companies create an internal, wide-angle gender lens so they can better reach and keep women as customers. The specific focus of this piece was my latest endeavor with banks in Africa who are now waking up to the enormous economic influence of women. When the article came out I sat in my kitchen, jaw dropped, stunned to read yet another media account that missed the mark.

Believe me; I was painstaking in my care to describe the work. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, created the Gender Entrepreneurship Markets initiative in December 2004. The goal was to address economic inefficiencies and social inequities that happen when aspiring businesswomen aren’t able to realize their full potential because of gender barriers. I explained to the reporter that African women enthusiastically participate in entrepreneurship. In Nigeria alone, women comprise an estimated 50 percent of the economically active population. Yet they remain seriously under represented in the formal banking system. One of the first banks to join the GEM program was one of Nigeria’s largest, Access Bank Plc. Of Access Bank’s entire small and medium enterprise portfolio, only 5 percent of lending went to women-owned businesses. However the default rate in the women’s section of their portfolio is 0 percent, compared to 8.3 percent for their loan portfolio as a whole. This is a pretty typical global scenario.

The reporter was particularly fascinated to learn that even though African women are a powerful economic engine, the vast majority believe that companies do not treat them with respect. The Nigerian focus groups we conducted revealed that banks, some of the biggest offenders, demonstrate an over-reliance on husbands to validate women’s businesses. The women shared that there is dishonesty as it relates to the chances of loans and what it takes to get one. Opaque processes such as refusing to explain products, policies and procedures create an even stronger sense of their powerlessness.

The central point of my lengthy discussion with the reporter was that if a bank (or any company, for that matter), was to successfully reach women, they would need to be convinced that the company was serious. I cited IFC’s program of policy reform, investment, and advisory services that addressed this by providing pioneering local financial institutions with $40 million in financing and hands-on support from global industry leaders in the area of gender and business. My company was chosen to create the internal cultural shift necessary within banks to make this program successful.

I also spoke about GEM’s mandate to try and create a more stable middle class by targeting women professionals and business owners, people like Muni Shonibare. Shonibare owns a successful 150 employee furniture company in Nigeria with considerable growth potential. Her clients include Shell, Texaco, the Abuja Hilton, and others. With demand for her products high, she has considerable potential to increase earnings and create more jobs in the local economy. But something has always blocked her way. Male bankers in Lagos simply did not want to finance a woman-owned business with ambitious expansion plans. She could not speak the language of finance well enough to convince them. But with support from GEM, Access Bank gave Muni an $800,000 five-year loan (not exactly chump change) for her long-term capital expansion plans.

This was a good news story in every sense. But even though I stressed there were an enormous number of Muni Shonibares all over Africa, the journalist fell into the trap of the classic North American stereotype of  “African woman”. The photo that accompanied the piece was the cliched colourfully-clad market women showing their wares. This incongruence confused me considering the story was about women professionals – lawyers, doctors and dentists - and business owners. There was “victim” all over the story. Half the piece was dedicated to “women’s life and death struggle with poverty”, “ramshackled villages”, and “buses with no doors.” My goal in this interview was to attempt to break down that tired belief that all African women live this appalling reality. But the journalistic lure of the conventional African drama was too great. The integrity of the article was damaged beyond repair.   

For companies to put women at the center of its business they need to change the very lens or filter they use to see the world. This is where that wide angle gender lens comes in. The Royal Bank Financial Group got this in spades. Having recognized the economic potential of women, they came to us to create a plan. We conducted market research so they knew what women’s consumer and entrepreneurial issues were. All of their internal and external communications were audited through a gender lens. We undertook a 5-year training program to change the internal culture and educate the front line. One year into this, the bank witnessed a 10-point jump in marketshare (and this in an industry that dukes it out over a one or two point increase) and a staggering 29 percent increase in customer satisfaction levels of women with their account managers, the largest one year increase in bank history. But the unexpected benefit to the bank was this – focusing on what women want in a consumer relationship raises the bar for everybody. If you make something “women-friendly, you make it every-body-friendly”.

My advice to any company going into Africa is to heed the story of Royal Bank. Like Access Bank is currently finding out, women will come and more importantly stay as customers and tell all of their friends.

August 21, 2007 in Africa | Permalink


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Skills Audit?

I chuckle when I read this piece about Africa is lacking in skilled labor? We have graduates working entry level jobs in the western world (USA, UK) who would be ready to go and utilize their qualifications in Africa. These folks are doing mediocre jobs to make ends meet and to provide to their families and extended families back in Africa. A study (a few years back) published in New York times highlighted how Africans and Caribbeans immigrants in the USA were the most educated (Masters and Graduate degrees). Many of the western educated African professionals would fill the skill gap and transfer lacking skills/knowledge to Africa if given a chance and renumerated accordingly.

Posted by: Macharia | Sep 18, 2007 12:17:15 PM

Often we forget the little guy, the SMB, in our discussions of the comings and goings of the Internet marketing industry. Sure there are times like this when a report surfaces talking about their issues and concerns but, for the most part, we like to talk about big brands and how they do the Internet marketing thing well or not so well.


Posted by: abass | Jan 15, 2010 4:51:15 AM

If you're your operating system is anything but Windows 98 then you have a built-in firewall.

Posted by: Skylink Door Contact Sensor | Apr 20, 2011 2:22:38 AM

I am out of the office until 04/24/2011.

Ill be out of the office until April 24th. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Dan Briody

Note: This is an automated response to your message [Global Innovation Outlook] Skylink Door Contact Sensor submitted a comment to Africa, Gender, and Equity sent on 4/20/11 3:22:44.

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Posted by: GIO Editor | Apr 20, 2011 3:03:27 AM

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Posted by: tory burch reva | Jul 26, 2011 7:18:07 PM

I am out of the office until 08/08/2011.

Ill be out of the office until August 8th, checking email infrequently.

Dan Briody

Note: This is an automated response to your message [Global Innovation Outlook] tory burch reva submitted a comment to Africa, Gender, and Equity sent on 7/26/11 20:18:10.

This is the only notification you will receive while this person is away.

Posted by: GIO Editor | Jul 26, 2011 9:03:27 PM

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