The past few years have seen a rise in the number of women-owned businesses in Africa. Be it in IT, oil, mining, or in the aviation sector, female entrepreneurs are breaking gender stereotypes and showing that what a man can do, a woman can also do, if not better. Bold and fearlessly ambitious, these are some of the female business leaders who shape the future of the continent and inspire not only countless other women, but also anyone who dares to dream.
1. Njeri Rionge – Kenya
The Kenyan business magnet started her first business at the age of 19, selling yoghurt at schools in the capital, Nairobi. She went on to sell clothes and run a few other small businesses.
Today, Njeri Rionge is one of the women pioneer investors in the IT sector in Africa, having co-founded Wananchi Online, East Africa’s first mass market internet service provider which has grown to become the region’s leading internet company. Over the years, the serial entrepreneur has established a host of other thriving businesses, including Ignite Consulting, a flourishing business consultancy; Ignite Lifestyle, a health care consultancy; Business Lounge, one of Kenya’s largest startup incubators; and Insite, a booming digital marketing agency.
When Njeri is not busy expanding her business empire, she is imparting knowledge and skills to young entrepreneurs in her country, and helping them grow their own businesses.
2. Isabel do Santos – Angola
With an estimated net worth of $3.3 billion, the eldest daughter of Angolan president Jose Eduardo dos Santos is the richest woman on the continent.
Isabel accumulated her wealth in oil, diamonds, as well as in the communications and banking sectors. She boasts shareholdings in Portuguese banks and energy firms such as Banco Portugues de Investimento and Portuguese Energias de Portugal respectively. In Angola, she’s the chairwoman of Unitel SA, one of the country’s largest mobile network companies, valued at more than $5 billion.
While it’s unclear how the 42-year-old mogul got her start, she says she used her savings to open one of Luanda’s most expensive nightclubs, Miami Beach. From there, she started a trucking company to transport products for the club and other businesses.
3. Folorunsho Alakija – Nigeria
Folorunsho Alakija started her career as a secretary for the now-defunct Merchant Bank of Nigeria. She quit her job in the 80s to study fashion design in England, returning to her native country a few years later to set up Supreme Stitches, a fashion label that catered for elite Nigerian women.
Fast forward to 2016 and the 65-year-old businesswoman is Africa’s second wealthiest woman, estimated by Forbes to be worth $2.1 billion. No, she didn’t make all her money from her fashion venture. Instead, a significant portion of Folorunsho’s fortune comes from her oil exploration company Famfa Oil. She also has investments in real estate.
4. Sibongile Sambo – South Africa
When Sibongile Sambo applied for a flight attendant job with South African Airways, she was rejected as she did not meet the minimum height requirements. Instead of giving up her dream of flying, she started her own aviation business. Today, she is the founder and managing director of SRS Aviation, the first black female-owned aviation company in South Africa.
SRS Aviation offers professional and personalised flight options to destinations around the world, with charter services in a variety of categories, including VIP charter, tourist charter, and cargo charter. The company also provides game count and capture, and medical evacuation services.
Sibongile’s inspiring work has seen the 42-year-old entrepreneur accumulate a number of awards over the years, including the Regional Business Woman of the Year award, the Black Women in Business award, and the Top Emerging Gender Empowered Company award.
5. Divine Ndhlukula – Zimbabwe
Devine Ndhlukula tackled a male-dominated industry head on, inspiring countless women on the continent to pursue their dreams despite the odds.
Divine is the founder and Managing Director of SECURICO, a security company she started in the late 90s in her cottage with four employees and very little capital. Today, SECURICO is one of the largest security firms in Zimbabwe, with more than 3,500 employees. Divine is ready for regional dominance, with plans to expand into other countries on the continent, starting with Mozambique and Zambia.
Last year, Divine was selected as one of the most influential female leaders in the world by Empowering a Billion Women by 2020, a global women empowerment movement whose list also included world leaders like Michelle Obama, Hilary Clinton, and Mozambican former first Lady Graca Machel.
6. Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu – Ethiopia
Growing up in a small neighbourhood in Addis Ababa, beloved entrepreneur Bethlemen Tilahun Alemu discovered that most people in her community were living in poverty and that some of them possessed artisan skills. Spurred by this realisation, she sought to find a way to translate the skills of her people into a business, and thus SoleRebels was born, in 2004. The eco-friendly footwear manufacturer creates hundreds of local jobs.
Not only has Bethlehem’s company grown to be one of the largest footwear companies in Africa, but it has also become a successful world class venture, with flagship stores in Taiwan, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, U.S, Singapore, Japan and many other countries.
Bethlehem has received a number of accolades for the work she has done to empower the Ethiopian youth with opportunities. In 2011, the 36-year-old entrepreneur made it into the World Economic Forum’s list of Young Global Leaders. She’s also been named by Forbes as one of 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa, and one of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.
7. Tabitha Karanja – Kenya
Tabitha’s success story is that of resilience and fortitude. The 51-year-old is the founder and CEO of the only large-scale brewery in Kenya owned by a Kenyan. She launched Keroche Breweries in 1997, initially making fortified wine and later moving into spirits and, from 2008, beer.
Tabitha ventured into a territory where a few before her had dared to, breaking gender stereotypes and taking on East African Breweries (EAB), an international company that had monopolised the Kenyan market for more than 90 years. EAB’s dominance had Tabitha struggling to find distributors willing to sell her beer, but she continued pressing until the market responded to her main beer brand Summit.
Summit is now so appreciated in the country that last year Tabitha opened a $29 million expansion of its brewery. As Keroche enjoys continued growth, Tabitha plans to expand into neighbouring countries, including Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda.
8. Hajia Bola Shagaya – Nigeria
Hajia Bola Shagaya is the founder and CEO of Bolmus Group International – a Nigerian conglomerate which has its fingers in every pie. Oil, real estate, banking, communications – Hajia is certainly a savvy businesswoman who knows where the money is. Oh, she is also involved in photography – her company Fotofair is a leading photo laboratory firm in Nigeria with over thirty laboratories across the country.
Hajia started out in banking, working for the Central Bank of Nigeria before starting her first business in 1983. Around 2005, she became the managing director of Practoil Limited, one of the largest importers and distributors of base oil in Nigeria, and in 2011 she founded another exploration company, Voyage Oil and Gas Limited. She is also one of the board members of Nigeria’s Unity Bank and has a significant stake in the bank.
9. Salwa Akhannouch – Morocco
Salwa Akhannouch is an ambitious woman. She ventured into business in 1993 when she established a distribution company for floor laying materials. Her determination and hard work saw her become one of Morocco’s prominent entrepreneurs.
Today, Salwa is the head of Akwa Group, a distributor of petroleum products, and the founder of Aksal Group, a Moroccan giant in luxury goods, retail, department stores, and shopping malls. Her company has a 50% stake in Morocco Mall, one of the largest shopping malls on the continent. Salwa also holds the exclusive license to sell high end fashion brands such as Zara, Gap, and Massimo Duti in Morocco.
10. Bridgette Radebe – South Africa
Beginning as a contract miner in the 80s managing shafts, Bridgette Radebe harboured bigger dreams. She went on to launch Mmakau Mining, a successful business with interests in gold, platinum, coal, ferrochrome, and uranium assets.
As South Africa’s first black female mining entrepreneur and president of the country’s largest mining chamber, the South African Mining Development Association, Bridgette is a shining example that women power is an unstoppable force.