Talking Digital Support Tools for Women Entrepreneurs

Insights and knowledge-sharing from our event at the British High Commissioner’s residence, South Africa

Last month, we convened a breakfast event at the British High Commissioner’s residence in Pretoria, South Africa with our partners the Small Enterprise Development Agency (Seda) and the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), as well as the UK-South Africa Tech Hub. The event brought together a range of public, private and third sector stakeholders to discuss how digital tools and services can strengthen the support ecosystem for women entrepreneurs.

Nick Latta, Economic Counsellor at the British High Commission opened the event with a warm welcome and emphasis that, to the British High Commission, the economic importance of women across South Africa is of great importance.

Nick then introduced Koenie Slabbert, Acting Senior Manager, PAD and Learning at Seda. Seda stands for the Small Enterprise Development Agency, an agency of South Africa’s DSBD (Department of Small Business Development). Seda provides business development services and non-financial support to micro, small and medium sized enterprises across the country and since this year have partnered with us on the delivery of our award-winning business skills app for women entrepreneurs, HerVenture.

Koenie highlighted the importance of bespoke support, built on consultations and assessments before tailored advice and training, and of “client journeys”: not just seeing business owners once, but rather building a relationship in order to ensure that they get the best support for them.

Hayley Matthews, Senior Partnerships Manager at the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women spoke next, after playing a video highlighting the impact our HerVenture app is having in South Africa in the words of some of the women who’ve used it to grow their businesses.

Hayley offered an introduction to us, an international NGO that exists to empower women entrepreneurs to achieve their potential, with a core focus on business skills training through digital. Hayley highlighted that not only for us but what we see time and again is that partnerships are critical when it comes to successful delivery of digital tools.

Our approach as an organisation is to work with expert local partners to adapt our programmes to meet local needs, then scale through strategic corporate or institutional partnerships. For example, DHL Express enabled us to launch HerVenture in South Africa in 2021 and develop a new track on business resilience, which we saw as a key training need for women entrepreneurs during the pandemic. This initial funding has now enabled us to expand our partnerships: we’re now thrilled to also be working with Seda and GIBS to continue to adapt and scale the app through their networks.

As an international organisation one of the advantages of working in this way is that we’re able to share our learning, ideas and best practice between countries and maximise the impact of our partnerships for the women we work with.

The GIBS Entrepreneurship Development Academy, our partner, has been in existence for 10 years and is a recognised leader in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in South Africa. As such, Miranda Hosking, Managing Executive: Social Education at GIBS offered valuable insights around the specific challenges faced by women entrepreneurs.

Aside from the usual challenges of access to finance and markets, women entrepreneurs often struggle with access to business networks (including mentors). More women also continue to shoulder the burden of care for families – thus resulting in women entrepreneurs having to juggle their multiple roles more than men do.

Miranda emphasized that the HerVenture app is a welcome addition to the GIBS EDA’s offering for women entrepreneurs as it complements their current portfolio of programmes but also works as a stand-alone offering. It is available free of charge, a key consideration in developing economy contexts, and offers bite-sized learning ‘on-the-go’, meeting the needs of women who are having to juggle business and care work.

She noted that in the South African context, particularly for women entrepreneurs in low-income areas, there are challenges when it comes to digital support due to high data costs and poor accessibility to internet connectivity (especially those in low-income areas). Despite this, HerVenture has seen good uptake, highlighting the importance of low-data or offline-available digital tools such as HerVenture.

Venessa Dewing, Head: Core Sales SSA at DHL Express made the excellent case that micro, small and medium sized businesses are materially important to the economic growth of Africa due to their sheer number, ability to provide employment and their contribution to overall GDP performance.

The fact that a significant proportion of those SMEs are women-led means that they have a dual opportunity to also contribute to social change by achieving a more inclusive economy; an inclusive, connected economy has the best chance of long-term prosperity.

With an express purpose of purpose of “connecting people and improving lives”, Venessa was clear that even prior to the pandemic, our partner DHL Express was excited by the opportunity to support global trade for organisations of all sizes, and e-commerce represented a way for these enterprises to enter new markets. The pandemic accelerated the awareness of transacting online and established e-commerce as a way for SMEs to firmly embrace digital. Venessa highlighted DHL Express’ partnership with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women as a fantastic example of cross-sector collaboration to meet this need, harness this opportunity and create a truly supportive ecosystem by providing robust and practical solutions.

The event’s host, Katherine Abbott, Director of UK-South Africa Tech Hub at the British High Commission followed. She was clear that helping women entrepreneurs with digital tools and access aligns with the UK Government’s commitment to support women and girls’ education and economic development.

Katherine underscored that digital tools are completely key for entrepreneurs, and that the better the tools adopted, the better the outcomes. She pointed to Launch League: open license tools funded by UK-South Africa Tech Hub, available to Tech Hubs and entrepreneurs to build Hubs, businesses and communities.

Ntokozo Majola, Executive Manager: Enterprise Development at Seda further reinforced the importance of partnerships. As the organisation’s mandate is very broad, partnerships and collaboration with stakeholders are at the core of Seda’s business delivery model, enabling the organisation to reach out to far-flung areas and to leverage from expertise and other programmes that are offered by other ecosystem partners.

It was particularly interesting to hear this applied to Seda’s delivery of HerVenture. The partnership with ourselves and GIBS address three focus areas of Seda’s strategy: innovative ways of delivering services (with digitisation a key strategic focus), partnerships and collaboration, and targeted programmes for women.

Ntokozo also pointed to another pivotal programme for women entrepreneurs, SheTradesZA, which Seda is implementing on behalf of DSBD in partnership with the International Trade Centre. An online platform, SheTrades supports South African women entrepreneurs to increase their international competitiveness and connect to national, regional and global markets.

Some firm insights

Some key topics came through clearly across the board from all speakers: the need for tailored, contextualised and specific support for women entrepreneurs, the size of the opportunity that digital presents in this respect (and the importance of being mindful of the accompanying challenges such as connectivity and digital literacy), and the crucial role of partnerships and collaboration across public, private and NGO sectors in order to deliver expert support at scale and meet shared strategic goals.

We are very grateful to the British High Commission for hosting such an interesting, rich event in the name of supporting women’s entrepreneurship development. We are looking forward to seeing how the ideas and relationships that came out of it progress!

Contact details

Interested in discussing how HerVenture or our other digital tools can support your offer to women entrepreneurs? Get in touch today.

partnerships@cherieblairfoundation.org