E-commerce is an exciting opportunity for Africa’s women entrepreneurs

The role that e-commerce plays in international business and commerce continues to grow, both in numbers and in importance, with total worldwide ecommerce sales expected to reach $4.5 trillion by 2021. The fact that e-commerce continues to grow at this rate suggest that online business represents exciting opportunities for entrepreneurs to tap into growing global markets. Despite the battle for market share amongst existing big online retailers, the African continent still has an attractive consumer base waiting to be unlocked. Commenting on whether e-commerce is going to be profitable in Africa, given the continent’s socio-economic challenges, Emilian Popa, CEO of Groupon explained, “There are 175 million online shopping users today and there will be 600 million users in 2025. Internet penetration is 16% today and will be 50% in 2025. There are 57 million people who have smartphones in Africa and there will be 360 million in 2025. There are clear opportunities.” The bottom line is that e-commerce represents an exciting mechanism for Africa’s entrepreneurs to get their unique products and brands out into new and exciting global markets, and to do good business. The planning needs to start now!

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Collaboration can generate stronger business outcomes

In an ultra competitive business environment where the challenges for women entrepreneurs trying to break through into key markets still exist, collaboration could be the key to generating stronger business outcomes. Collaborative, win-win partnerships with like-minded women can open up new business opportunities, strengthen business offerings, put additional power behind pitch situations, and ultimately speed up growth. When thinking about embarking on any partnership arrangement, many women entrepreneurs voice concerns about trust - they worry about potential partners possibly stealing their ideas, poaching their customers and their employees. But ultimately, successful partnerships are built on trust and loyalty, and it should be remembered that behind every successful company and entrepreneur, there is a network of supporters, strategic partners, and mentors. They appreciate the power of partnerships to bring something fresh to the business table, to fill the gaps where key skills and experience are needed. That’s why women entrepreneurs should perhaps look to complementary partnerships being the smart business decision to make.

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Women entrepreneurs have to work harder

So here’s a fact that we probably instinctively knew already - women entrepreneurs have to work harder than their male counterparts to make a success of their businesses. According to a Centre for Entrepreneurship study, almost one in five women say they lack the technical knowledge required for their business compared to only one in 20 men - meaning they have to learn as they go. And, a quarter of women entrepreneurs say they don’t have the networks necessary to build their businesses, while fewer than one in ten men say this is a problem. But these challenges are no longer barriers to success, if anything it makes women entrepreneurs more resilient, more open to learning and collaborating, and more tenacious. And here’s the good news from the study - in a marked contrast to normal pay structures, it would seem women entrepreneurs in their own businesses take home twice as much pay as the men.

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You are your own best PR machine

The world of PR is changing, and with the rapidly evolving, 24/7 social media driven world we live in, it means that the notion of PR as we know it is changing in business. Any mystique that existed around this industry has gone, and for startup entrepreneurs there is a realization that there is no one better at selling their businesses and getting their brand messages out there than themselves. So if you are a startup entrepreneur and looking to DIY your PR, here are a few helpful tips to remember. Firstly, always accept that coffee invitation, you never know where it will lead. Secondly, get to know your customers, what they need and want, their buying patterns and habits, and tap into those needs with your messaging. Thirdly, when pitching your stories to news media, do your research and ensure your stories will resonate with their specific audiences. Fourthly, harness the power of social media, it could be your best way of quickly reaching audiences and getting people talking. Finally, first impressions count - make sure your stories and messages are well written, visually well presented, and impactful. And remember, good PR takes time but it’s worth the effort.

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Reinvest in your business for the long term

Many successful entrepreneurs will tell you that their businesses have grown and been sustainable over the years because they have taken conscious decisions to live frugally in the startup years and reinvest back into the businesses. It’s a wise strategy to adopt, particularly because so often one of the biggest challenges facing fledgling businesses is managing cashflows at critical times, and ensuring there is always a source of critical capital available when the business needs it most. But the temptation is always there in any startup business to take cash out in the moment, instead of reinvesting it for the longer term. So take some advice on this subject from one of the most successful women entrepreneurs on the African continent, Divine Ndhlukula, founder of Securico Security Services in Zimbabwe, one of the country’s most successful businesses. She says, “Don't be tempted to take cash out of your early-stage startup venture....when a bit of cash starts rolling in, have the discipline to know that it is not your money yet.  It is still the business’s money because you want the business to grow. So for you to sustain it and enjoy phenomenal growth, that anyone going into business wants, you need to reinvest all the little bits of cash that you get then you can be assured that your business will grow.” Great words of advice!

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Are you prepared for success?

As entrepreneurs, we are all driven by our vision to create a successful life and business for ourselves, but with success comes other challenges. The question is, are you adequately prepared to deal with the way life can change once success arrives? For example, do you have a plan to manage the continual growth of your business, particularly if that growth is rapid, including having a strategy to manage your people? Are you personally prepared to deal with the added responsibilities of managing a bigger business? Are you emotionally prepared to deal with all the stresses and strains that come as part and parcel of building a high growth business? Life as a successful business builder undoubtedly becomes more complicated - the trick is knowing how to prepare for that success, and put in place the building blocks for growth at an early stage, so things don’t catch you out later.

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Life as an entrepreneur is not for everyone

We all know that the life of an entrepreneur is not for everyone, that’s why it is very much a lifestyle choice when embarking on the journey to build a business. When friends and family around you are working 9-5, you are working all hours of the day to make things happen in your business. When others are planning vacations, you are planning how to take your next trip to meet a client and hopefully bring in the next big client. When friends are hanging out in a bar or restaurant as part of their relaxation time, you are at networking events, mixing with fellow entrepreneurs and making valuable future contacts. In the crazy world of entrepreneurship, life and work merge together - the secret is making it work for you so that you can enjoy both facets of your lifestyle choice.

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Failure is a stepping stone to success

If you are in business, and you are out there selling your brand, your products and your services to prospective customers, day in and day out, chances are you will hear the word ‘no’ more often than you hear ‘yes’. It’s all par for the course in the life of an entrepreneur. But you are not alone. Did you know that Huffington Post founder, Ariana Huffington, was rejected by 36 different publishers at the start of her entrepreneurial journey? If that wasn’t enough, she ran for public office in the US against Arnold Schwarzenegger for the seat of Governor of the State of California, winning only 0.55% of the votes at the time - that’s also a fairly big public rejection to get over. Yet she was inspired by the words of her mother who said: “Failure is not the opposite of success, but a stepping stone to success.” Ariana went on to famously to create one of the world’s most successful blogging platforms, write 13 books, and secure her position as one of the world’s most influential women. Now, that’s how to deal with rejection!

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Follow your own unique entrepreneurial path

We all do it as entrepreneurs - we avidly watch how the very successful business builders are getting it right, how they are marketing their products to the world, and how they build sustainable brands that resonate with customers. Often, the temptation is there to try and emulate their success by replicating the way they do things in our own businesses. But it’s important to remember that those entrepreneurs got it right by forging their own paths, doing things their own way - being leaders not followers. Success comes when we recognize that it is precisely what makes us unique that resonates with others, and that goes for our businesses, products and brands too. There is a great quote by the legendary writer Jack Kerouac who says: “When writing the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen.” It’s all about following your own unique entrepreneurial path.

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Getting potential customers to notice your brand

If your business is operating in a busy or congested marketplace, how do you find a way of differentiating yourself and your brand from everyone else around you? How do you make that all important connection with customers when they are being bombarded with rival brands, products and messaging 24/7? No matter what product or service you want to provide, it’s all about doing your homework, studying the market and whose playing in it, watching to see what brands and products are connecting with customers, and then importantly finding practical ways to differentiate your offering. You can do this in various, equally effective and impactful ways - personalize your products and take a more bespoke approach; change your look and feel to reflect a completely different and more cutting edge brand persona; change your customer service approach to offer something that none of your competitors are doing. How you differentiate is up to you, but at the end of the day it’s all about standing out in the marketplace and getting those potential customers to notice you and your brand, and importantly make that purchase.

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Focus on the passion you have for what you do

We all know the saying, “love what you do and you will never work a day in your life” and this especially rings true for many passion driven entrepreneurs. But the reality is that the day to day grind of running a business can be just that in the early start up phase, a grind! You will be required to tackle endless, seemingly menial tasks that drain your creative energy, such as managing your customer lists, or doing your accounts, or marketing to find new clients. You will often find that there are just not enough hours in the day to complete everything you have to do. At times like these, you have to keep that entrepreneurial fire burning, focus on the passion you have for what you do, and keep your eye on the end goal you are trying to achieve. Yes, there will be days when you have to do things that don’t inspire you, but the trick is to find that fire and approach any task as though it’s the most exciting thing in the world. That fire will drive your business and it will pay off in the long run.

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Be open to change

In the two diverse worlds of sport and business, the saying, ‘being on top of your game’ means you recognize the value of what you are doing, you have the edge, and you are determined to stay ahead of any competition. The trick is to make sure you don’t fall behind once you have gained this edge. One of the best ways to stay on top of any situation is to keep learning - whether that’s learning new skills, new business practices, new manufacturing techniques. It’s about welcoming change, embracing new ways of doing things, bringing new technology into the business, and accepting new information and using it effectively. By its very nature, business is always changing and successful entrepreneurs know that learning to adapt to those changes is key. Having the ability to quickly learn and apply those learnings directly into the business practically translates into a more flexible and agile business, better success down the road, and an improved ability to cope with the obstacles life throws in your path. As you learn, and as you apply the lessons in your life and business, you can stay on top of your game.

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Is it time to pivot your business?

It’s one of those key times in the life of any entrepreneur - knowing when it’s necessary to pivot in business. When you pivot your business, you change direction in response to realizing that the way you are doing things simply isn’t working and it’s time for a rethink. And, there’s nothing wrong with pivoting the business, after all, market needs change, customers change, technology changes, all factors that can necessitate a Plan B and a pivot. It’s all about making the right move for the future sustainability of the business. The key is knowing when to pivot. It could be that your business is experiencing difficulty in sustaining its revenue sources. Maybe your business model needs a rethink. Or customer feedback indicates that a business offering needs tweaking to meet their requirements. Ultimately, it could just be that your business is simply not growing as it should be, and new action plans are needed to move it forward. So take a good hard look at the business, start by figuring out where the growth and sustainability is most likely to be, and pivot in that direction.

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How bold do you feel today?

“Fortune favors the bold” as the poet Virgil once famously said, and this is definitely a saying that can be applied to many a successful entrepreneur through history. Just ask Virgin founder, Richard Branson, an entrepreneur who has personified the word ‘bold’ in business over the years. He is a great example of not sitting around and expecting to just ‘get lucky’ in business, but instead going out there and grabbing the opportunities as they present themselves.  He says, “I have often struggled to figure out where coincidence stops and good luck begins, or how just happening to be in the right place at the right time can so dramatically play into one’s path through life. One thing that’s clear, however, is that entrepreneurs who play it safe for fear of failure are the ones who just never seem to get as lucky as the risk-takers. Is this just a coincidence? I don’t think so.” Perhaps the question you need to ask yourself this morning is, “Just how bold do I feel today on my entrepreneurial journey?”

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Customers want to know what you stand for as a business

Look at any successful business that resonates with you and the chances are that you connect with it because you appreciate and understand its core values. It’s something to think about with your own business. When a customer makes that all important decision to buy from you, they’re endorsing your own values and those associated with your brand. That’s why it’s important to define the core values of your business right from day one. Customers need to know what you stand for as a business, what’s important to you, how you operate in the marketplace, how your brand is viewed by others. Your core values help to guide and safeguard your reputation, and help you to build a successful business that reflects who you want to be, and where you want to go in life. They also play a pivotal role in helping you to make big decisions. So, if you haven’t spent time defining the core values that are at the heart of your business, then you could be undermining your business and brand in the eyes of your customers and your employees.

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The Fairtrade mark can provide a real market advantage

In an increasingly consumer conscious society, where buyers want to better understand the provenance of the products they buy and the impact their purchasing decisions are making on society, Fairtrade standards provide a great guide. And, Africa’s impact driven retail entrepreneurs are embracing the Fairtrade philosophy to ensure their products are made to standards set by the Fairtrade Foundation. These standards were designed to help improve the quality of life for producers in developing countries and provide very specific sets of criteria in order to gain recognition with a genuine Fairtrade mark, certified by the Fairtrade Foundation. For those women entrepreneurs in Africa who are looking to break into powerful global retail markets and to win over conscious consumers who want to make a difference through their purchases, the Fairtrade standards and Fairtrade mark can provide a real market advantage and global recognition.

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Innovation has no value until an entrepreneur turns it into a product

How often do you see companies, business leaders, and event programmes talking about the importance of innovation, finding the next ‘big idea’ or new way of doing  something that can change the face of an industry sector? But innovation is only one part of the process, it’s not the end game. Jim Clifton, the Chairman and CEO of Gallup, made an interesting observation on the subject, saying, “An innovation has no value until an ambitious entrepreneur builds a business model around it and turns it into a product or service that customers will buy. If you can't turn an innovative idea into something that creates a customer, it's worthless.” The bottom line, as Jim Clifton suggests, is not that there isn't enough innovation, it’s that there aren't enough entrepreneurs turning those innovative ideas into viable businesses.

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Africa’s women ecopreneurs are making a real difference

The world’s environmental challenges are front and centre of global political, economic and social discussions and debates right now, with daily calls for innovative and sustainable solutions. And there is no doubt that major innovative thinking is needed if solutions to some of the biggest environmental challenges facing the world are to be found, such as how to combat climate change, how to lower global greenhouse gas emissions, how to deal with waste in an effective and environmentally friendly way, and how to preserve biodiversity in the environment. And it’s everyone’s problem and responsibility, to be part of the solution, not the continuing problem. Africa is undoubtedly feeling the impact of many of these environmental challenges, and that’s why a new generation of innovative women eco-preneurs is emerging from the continent with practical solutions. They are building sustainable recycling businesses to deal with waste management challenges in some of the continent’s biggest cities; they are building companies that create world-class products using recycled plastic as their base materials; and they are tackling invasive weed infested waterways by using them as a source of new materials for beautiful products that the world wants. This is the age of Africa’s women eco-preneurs who are making a real difference to the environment through their high impact sustainable business models.

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Find that gap in the marketplace

Women entrepreneurs are often motivated to start their new businesses because they see a gap in a marketplace or community that they know personally and very well. They respond to local needs and wants, they know when a particular product or service is not readily available, and additionally, they understand the customers who are in need of those missing products and services. As a result, they seize the opportunity, and create business and product offerings to fill the gap - whether that be in the retail or local manufacturing space, or in the specialist service sectors. Economists refer to these women business builders as “opportunity” entrepreneurs as they are market driven as opposed to those who are survivalist entrepreneurs who lack other options. These women opportunity entrepreneurs are key to Africa’s regional economic growth, particularly in their own communities, as they are building successful businesses that know their customer needs well, who create products that are highly targeted to meet local needs, and who employ and train local people as they grow. It’s a win-win scenario, particularly if they are given the support and development to take their businesses to the next level.

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Women entrepreneurs are leaders in their communities

Entrepreneurs are very often seen as leaders, whether they are setting new business or design trends, or creating innovative new products that shape future marketplaces, or disrupting existing ways of doing things. They epitomize the very notion of leaders from a business perspective. But it’s also interesting to see just how many women entrepreneurs are also leaders in their communities, using their businesses and their success as a means to help those communities to grow and thrive too. They say that the value chain created by women entrepreneurs is so much longer because they are hardwired to spread the benefit of their business success to others. They look at ways of tackling socio economic challenges in their local communities, they are interested in educating the next generation of children, and they are passionate about finding solutions to environmental challenges affecting those communities. These women entrepreneurs are real leaders, passionate about using business to make a lasting impact, and showing others how it is done. We can all learn from their example and be the change that is needed in the world through the businesses and products we create, and the experience and knowledge we share with others.

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