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At the Global Startup Awards Africa event in June 2022, LevelUp sponsored and moderated what many people said was their highlight of Day 1: a panel discussion around the future of funding and gender-lens investing in Africa.

The panel consisted of:

  • Sarah Dusek, venture capitalist and founder of Enygma Ventures, who is on a mission to help grow scalable, sustainable businesses that have the power to transform communities, cities and nations;
  • Senior Programme Associate at the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE), Tendai Mugabe, who was instrumental in developing an innovative 7-year programme that focuses on the uplift of vulnerable girls across South Africa called “PowerGirls”;
  • Women in Tech visionary Tebogo Mokwena, co-founder of Akiba Digital, a data and tech company that provides financial intelligence solutions, with a vision is to unlock financial opportunities for consumers, businesses and society using alternative data. Akiba is an alumnus of LevelUp; and
  • Winner of the Women in Tech category, Menna Shahin, founder of the Tekeya app in Egypt that encourages the repurposing of food that would otherwise be thrown away.

The panel was moderated by LevelUp’s Heather Parker.

Here are some harsh facts relating to gender-based funding in Africa:

  • More than 50% of business in Africa are built by women;
  • Across Africa, just 16% of funding goes to women-owned start-ups.
  • In South Africa, the figure is just marginally better – though it’s still low, at 19%.
  • Women-owned businesses have a better three- to four-year survival rate; they have a better record for paying back loans; they are more inclined than men are to put their success and money back into building community.
  • And yet the statistics have not changed in 20 years.

A possible explanation for this is a theme with which women become unutterably bored: in a perhaps unconscious belief that they aren’t capable, women are mentored to within an inch of their lives without follow-through in the form of funding. “Women are over-mentored and under-capitalised,” said Tebogo. “The assumption is that we’re under-qualified. Often, the opposite is true.”

Investors, the panellists agreed, tend to look at male-owned start-ups through the reward lens, while women-owned start-ups are viewed through the risk lens.

So, what can women do to on their part to accelerate the change in perception that would translate to fixing the imbalance? The panel – every one of them experienced and successful in their own right – suggested that instead of erring on the modest and cautious side, women would do well to think bigger, and make bolder claims for their business ambitions. They were also encouraged, when pitching for support, to be extremely metrics-focused (that’s how investors’ thinking works): how long will things take; what’s the trajectory of success; what’s the impact. “We can’t afford to play a small game,” said Sarah.

And the time is now. Sarah made the point that while Silicone Valley is 50 years down the line, the tech start-up scene in Africa is little more than a tenth of that. Africa has energy and motivation, and the opportunities are extraordinary for investors. The message to investors is this: diversity is an opportunity. Address the bias, and set out deliberately to work with women founders. Give women capability to access the market. Allow them to do what they want to do. We will all be the winners.