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These Black Female Founders are Breaking Barriers in Africa’s Startup Ecosystem
The Org spoke to five female founders in Africa who are breaking boundaries when it comes to closing the funding gap for female entrepreneurs, building globally relevant businesses and paving the way in the male-dominated fintech sector.
Sisters Michele and Mo Mokone. Image courtesy of Mo'sCrib.
7 minute read

This year’s theme for International W omen’s Day, centered around the idea of breaking the bias, sent a message around the urgent need to address structural challenges women face. Goldman Sachs released a report in February outlining the big entrepreneurship gap in the U.S. One of its stark findings was that while black women make up roughly 6% of the U.S. population, only 2% run their own businesses. In several African economies where the vast number of the population is black, women run more than 25% of all local businesses, but many of them face the same universal challenges as women in the U.S..

The Org spoke to five female founders in Africa who are breaking boundaries when it comes to closing the funding gap for female entrepreneurs, building globally relevant businesses and paving the way in the male-dominated fintech sector.

Naadiya Moosajee and Hema Vallabh: Closing the gender financing gap in Africa

After 17 years in partnership and building several ventures together, Naadiya Moosajee and Hema Vallabh have come full circle by establishing a $30 million, pan-African seed investment fund called Five35 Ventures. The fund was born out of Moosajee and Vallabh’s realization that the playing field isn’t leveled for women. They took the pain points they experienced building their award-winning non-profit organization WomEng and company, WomHub, a boutique incubator, accelerator and innovation co-working hub for female founders to build the fund. “It feels as though the conversation around gender equality has been going on far too long globally and we wanted to be innovative in our approach and to do things differently,'' Vallabh, who is a General Partner for the fund, told The Org.

They have the largest database of insights about engineering talent in Africa, and are now beginning to gather rich data about female entrepreneurs on the continent. “Access to capital remains a challenge for female founders, as a result of not being part of the robust network you get through the Ivy league schools and the like.… The other issue that came up strongly was that most of them had experienced a ‘me too’ moment, in a subtle or very overt way. Sexual harassment is very prevalent for women when they are looking to raise funding or grow their businesses, but no one is talking about this,” Moosajee said.

One of the reasons very little capital is allocated to women-run businesses, they believe, is that there aren’t enough female investors and women at investment decision-making tables, as the barriers are just so high and funds tend to target ultra-high net worth individuals. Five35 Ventures has lowered the barriers by setting up the 35’erClub, presenting an opportunity for 35 global women who can invest $35,000 or more, as limited partners, to serve as a catalyst to encourage more women to become investors. Five35 is targeting female-focused, tech-enabled ventures that have to be co-owned or co-led by women or employees must primarily be women or have a deliberate female consumer base.

Hema Vallabh (middle) & Naadiya Moosajee (right)

Hema Vallabh (middle) & Naadiya Moosajee (right). Image courtesy of Five35 Ventures.

Michelle and Mo Mokone: Product innovation scaling globally

It was a passion for producing storage solutions out of recyclable material that led sisters Michele and Mo Mokone to turn their side-hustle, Mo'sCrib, into their main hustle. Mo had been working as an executive assistant to the HR director at Nestle South Africa and Michelle as an agricultural economist when they both decided to focus on the business full time in 2019. They used their retirement savings and downscaled their living standards by moving in together to give the business the best possible chance of success. Little did they know how quickly their sacrifices would pay off.

Mo’sCrib has grown from supplying two local retailers in South Africa to include several other international ones such as Target (launching in August 2022) and Crate and Barrel, within a space of a year. The sisters were recently featured on NBC’s Today Show, which led to their online store almost crashing due to the high demand for their product. Their business grew 600-fold in 2021 and they are on track to have a $2 million turnover in 2022, through collaborating with big brands and expanding their online presence. Obtaining funding to grow the business proved to be a challenge for them. They were reluctant to approach commercial banks but were fortunate to attract grant funding to the value of about $330,000 and recently received equity funding of about $500,000 to support their expansion plans.

All their products are manufactured in South Africa using recycled materials for their flagship range. “Our company values are all about creating sustainable products , using sustainable material in order to create sustainable jobs,” Michelle told The Org. Their products are handmade and they have been able to create over 100 jobs and actively put people over profits in their company through providing benefits such as free hot meals and lodging for their artisans, access to financial literacy programs and free medical consultations and transportation subsidies for staff in their packaging department.

“What we truly enjoy about entrepreneurship is making an impact and seeing all the people we have hired receive their salaries and having their lives transformed. We really want to be recognized as a global brand through scaling extensively and are looking into expanding our production capacity to other African countries,” said Mo.

When the Org asked the sisters what breaking the bias means for them, Mo shared how attaining success is often associated with people that are highly educated , but for her she only has a high school diploma, but through hard work , she is building a business that is scaling globally.

Ruth Iselema: A pioneering female entrepreneur in fintech and blockchain

Ruth Iselema developed Bitmama out of curiosity about blockchain and as an early adopter realizing the need to have more secure platforms in West Africa. She was working as a pharmacist in Ghana and moved to Lagos in 2015 to attend the Greenhouse Lab accelerator. Bitmama has since become the most popular secure cryptocurrency exchange currency in Nigeria and Ghana and has more than 30,000 users, with plans to expand into other countries. Bitmama raised $350,000 in pre-seed capital led by Flori Ventures in 2021 and has received further funding of an undisclosed amount from several investors, including Five35 Ventures.

When it comes to bringing on investors and attracting talent, Iselema has been intentional about the issue of diversity and inclusion of women. “Five35 was appealing to me due to the fact that it’s female-led. As we grow our intention is to have quotas around hiring tech talent so that there can be more women working in the fintech space,” Iselema said. She sometimes gets scrutinized, she said, primarily by prospective investors, about whether as a woman and one of the few female-led blockchain startups on the continent she can build a credible venture in fintech.

In her view she believes issues around gender biases stem from the environment in which women are raised and the limits that parents tend to put on them when it comes to career paths. She believes that aspiring female founders should also back themselves to own space and challenge the status quo when the teams they engage with don’t reflect any form of diversity, whether it be around gender or race.

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