Female Entrepreneurs in Africa—Southern Sudanese Women Make their Mark on the Private Sector

May 25, 2011

Sometimes all it takes for your ideas to blossom is a little bit of encouragement from your peers.

Back in 2007, a series of Gender Action Plan workshops was organized to support female entrepreneurs in Africa. Initially seven countries participated: Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. This led to the formation of the East Africa Women’s Network, for which the World Bank still provides technical and capacity-building services. Last year, the project was replicated in Southern Sudan.

On January 9, 2005, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. The CPA marked the end of Africa’s longest civil war and the beginning of a new era of peace, reconstruction and development. In a recent referendum the South Sudanese voted for independence.

Nevertheless, twenty-one years of civil war had provoked instability. They had also denied many Sudanese the opportunity to actively engage in economic activities or to access vital development resources. The few people—predominantly women—who traded across the country’s borders did so to fend for their families, while most men went to war.

Although, in the private sector, women constitute over 60 percent of the country’s workforce and are key to commercial productivity, in Southern Sudan their involvement in business has been slow, not least because, as the 2006 Sudan Household Health Survey and anecdotal updates suggest, girls there are more likely to die in childbirth than to complete primary school.

With this in mind, it has become increasingly evident that women would benefit from entrepreneurial development opportunities.

GAP Funds Help Female Entrepreneurs

In 2009, the Government of Southern Sudan and the GAP launched the Business Plan Competition (BPC). This was designed to support the growth and expansion of small and medium-sized enterprises. In total, a grant of US $1.1 million was allocated to the development of female entrepreneurial skills and microfinance grants. One thousand six hundred applications were received from across all Southern states and, to date, twenty-five of the country’s female entrepreneurs have been awarded grants of US $20,000 each.

In addition, the microfinance institution, Finance Sudan Limited (FSL) also received GAP funds and now offers financial services to over 270 women clients. To ensure that the microfinanceloans have a sustained, positive outcome upon the livelihoods of women entrepreneurs, development organizations, like BRAC and the FSL itself, have provided grant recipients with basic business training.

The training course enabled women to develop business skills, such as book-keeping, cash flow and inventory management. It also gave them the self-confidence to interact with banks and to establish an entrepreneurs’ association, where they brainstorm on how to extend the reach of their activities.

These first grant winners hale from all ten states of Southern Sudan, and are working in sectors as diverse as agricultural production, manufacturing, agro-industries, health and sanitation services, computer services, tailoring, and lodgings.

Within only a few months of grants being allocated, the GAP efforts to support business development started to produce positive results, such as job creation. For example, most of these female-driven enterprises currently employ 2-5 employees and plan to expand in the near future. One of the entrepreneurs, Ms. Eunice Eliama, has plans to recruit university graduates.

The Launch of the Southern Sudan Women Entrepreneurs’ Association

In March 2010, four winners came together to form the Southern Sudan Women Entrepreneurs’ Association (SSWEA).

The SSWEA is a private association with a vision of transforming Southern Sudanese women into economically independent women, with the will, confidence and capacity to drive their country towards sustainable development. The SSWEA has also now forged links with the East African Women Entrepreneurs’ Exchange Network.

With the encouragement, technical and logistical support of the World Bank Gender Division and the Private Sector Development staff based in Juba, the SSWEA was registered as a legal entity in August 2010. After two months, the association’s membership had more than doubled, to include over 15 members. Then in November 2010, the association received another GAPgrant of US $100,000 for institutional support.