Women Empowerment will benefit us all


Tomorrow’s Investors are women

from all walks of life:

Their potential empowerment will

benefit us all



“There were white women, black women, ordinary women, wealthy women, educated women, uneducated women, rural women, urban women.” These are the words of South African social entrepreneur Wendy Luhabe, describing the 18,000 women who were empowered to become investors for the first time 20 years ago, when she pioneered a company called Women Investment Portfolio Holdings.


Ten years later, she started another initiative which was a first in Africa; a private equity fund for women. It’s worth reflecting on these milestones as 2016 was the African Year of Human Rights, with a particular focus on the rights of women.


Last year, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report identified the continued burden of economic inequality and gaps in economic opportunity for women across the world. And this data isn’t just about representation and greater opportunity. It is important for so many other trends related to sluggish global economic growth.


At a global level, this is clear. Put simply, ‘When more women work, economies grow’ and you may be startled by just how much they can grow. A recent McKinsey report estimates that ‘$12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality’. The report has an even greater projection if women play an ‘identical role in labor markets to that of men’, predicting the figure added to global GDP as high as ‘$28 trillion, or 26 percent’.


So what does this mean at a national or local level? Well, in my country, South Africa, it means Empowering women (and children) through structured skills, sustainability and enterprise-development initiatives. Let me explain what this means in relation to gender equality.

South Africa is one of the countries in the top ten (no.6) of those where women work more minutes per day than men. This reflects global data which shows that women still spend more of their time on unpaid work such as housework, childcare and care for older people.’ This means less time for women to pursue economic opportunities, fewer women in senior management positions, and limited participation in shaping social and economic policies. All this compounds existing inequalities as women have a lack of access to important assets like financial loans, or a lack of secure access to land rights. Gender based violence is also a serious issue in the country, with ‘intimate partner violence’ accounting for up to 70% of female murder victims by some estimates.

Progress has been made in legislation for women’s equality, education and political participation, but to convert legislation into action requires local engagement with socially conscious local partnerships involving civil society, the private sector and the government. In Luhabe’s words, to be “an investor responsible for your own financial independence” you need the knowhow to “to assess projects and opportunities and risks”.

So how do we begin to take the measures necessary for women’s economic empowerment? As a member of Rotary, the global nonprofit at the intersection of commerce and cause, I believed that I had to make an impact at a local level. Rotary’s model is unique because although many organizations allow you to network professionally or get involved in community projects, few allow you to combine both of these opportunities.

Thirteen years ago, I decided to start an NGO called Sešego Foundation in South Africa, as I personally wanted to get involved to improve the wellbeing of our communities, and push forward sustainable change to affect the status of women. We’ve educated and empowered thousands of women to start their own bakeries, gardens, libraries, and other small enterprises to boost their sense of self-worth, lift themselves out of poverty, learn transferable skills, and transform their communities.

One project of which I’m particularly proud is the Zandspruit Bakery in Johannesburg, which opened its doors in 2012. This is a self-sustaining micro-enterprise powered by a solar oven, which can cook great quantities of food to feed many, with no fuel costs. With private sector sponsorship, and help from a local Rotary club, the facility trained entrepreneurs seeking to enter the formal economy. Eight community members participated in a Business Management training course, and now run the bakery at a profit, as the goods, including bread, scones, biscuits and doughnuts, are sold to the local community at a cost lower than other supplier. Profits are reinvested in the community, and the solar oven is a more affordable alternative to electricity.

Now, when I started Sešego Foundation, I knew that helping adult women enter the formal job market was only one part of addressing gender equality problems. To really make gains in the long-term, you need to provide more opportunities for children. This is why another project, the Lerato Educational Center, has proven so popular. Just over a decade ago, sixteen children, from ages three to ten, first attended this new school for both sexes, but devoted to empowering women, from the girls who are able to receive a good education, to the teachers, who are supported in taking the courses required to propel their careers forward.

Educating children means not only a stronger workforce, but its also a fundamental prerequisite to reduce poverty, and (globally) for every additional year of education for women of reproductive age, child mortality decreased by 9.5%.

It’s not easy to translate gains in education into better labour market outcomes, which is why we need grassroots projects from early education, to early career entrepreneurship, in addition to national and international legislative progress to secure the basic rights and opportunities that underpin women’s economic and social empowerment.

This is the significance of the African Year of Human Rights, and if we take action now, more women will be able to provide for themselves and their families in the future. We are slowly making progress, and it’s uplifting to see the pride and sense of ownership in the eight female entrepreneurs who we’ve trained in management skills at the Zandspruit Bakery. Those entrepreneurs chose a new name for their bakery. It is ‘Vukusenzele’ which means ‘Wake up and do it for yourselves’.