"There were white women, black women, ordinary women, wealthy women, educated women, uneducated women, rural women, urban women." These are the words of South African social entrepreneur Wendy Luhabe, describing the 18,000 women empowered to become investors for the first time 20 years ago, when she pioneered a company called Women Investment Portfolio Holdings.
Ten years later, she started another initiative which was a first in Africa; a private equity fund for women. It's worth reflecting on these milestones on International Women's Day, when bold action is required to challenge the recent prediction that the gender gap won't close entirely until 2186, which is too long to wait.
The World Economic Forum's latest Global Gender Gap report identified the continued burden of economic inequality and gaps in economic opportunity for women across the world. This data isn't just about representation and greater opportunity. It is important for global economic growth.
Put simply, 'When more women work, economies grow' and you may be startled by how much. A recent McKinsey report estimates that if women play an 'identical role in labor markets to that of men', this could potentially add '$28 trillion, or 26 percent' to the global GDP.
So what does gender equality mean at a national or local level? Well, in South Africa, it means empowering women (and children) through structured skills, sustainability and enterprise-development initiatives.
South Africa is one of the countries in the top ten (no.6) of those where women work more minutes per day than men. This reflects global data which shows that 'women still spend more of their time on unpaid work such as housework, childcare and care for older people.' This means less time for women to pursue economic opportunities, fewer women in senior management positions, and limited participation in shaping social and economic policies. All this compounds existing inequalities as women have a lack of access to important assets like financial loans, or a lack of secure access to land rights. Gender based violence is also a serious issue in the country, with 'intimate partner violence' accounting for up to 70% of female murder victims by some estimates.
I started a nonprofit called Sešego Cares in South Africa, based on a model that combines socially responsible business with sustainable projects to empower vulnerable people through skills and enterprise development.
Progress has been made in legislation for women's equality, education and political participation, but to convert legislation into action requires local engagement with socially conscious local partnerships involving civil society, the private sector and the government. In Luhabe's words, to be "an investor responsible for your own financial independence" you need the know how "to assess projects and opportunities and risks".
So how do we begin to take the measures necessary for women's economic empowerment? As a member of Rotary, the global nonprofit at the intersection of commerce and cause, I believe that I have to make an impact at a local level. Rotary's model is unique because although many organisations allow you to network professionally or get involved in community projects, few allow you to combine both of these opportunities.
Twelve years ago, I started a nonprofit called Sešego Cares in South Africa, based on a model that combines socially responsible business with sustainable projects to empower vulnerable people through skills and enterprise development. We've educated and enabled women to start their own bakeries, gardens, sewing projects, libraries, and other small enterprises to boost their sense of self-worth, lift themselves out of poverty, learn transferable skills, and transform their communities. As our model channels the power of private sector volunteerism through mentorship and job creation, we've also managed to eliminate administrative costs.
One project of which I'm particularly proud is the Zandspruit Bakery in Johannesburg, which opened its doors in 2012. This is a self-sustaining micro-enterprise powered in the beginning only by a solar oven, which can cook great quantities of food to feed many, with no fuel costs. With private sector sponsorship, and help from a local Rotary club, the facility trains entrepreneurs seeking to enter the formal economy.
Eight community members participated in a Business Management training course, and now run the bakery at a profit, as the goods, including bread, scones, biscuits and doughnuts, are sold to the local community at a cost lower than other suppliers. Profits are reinvested in the community, and the solar oven is a more affordable alternative to electricity.