Today is the best day to be a woman entrepreneur, but we do need allies  

When US President Barak Obama spoke in Nairobi last week, and extolled the power of entrepreneurship, he called out two Kenyan entrepreneurs who gave him hope, and referred to women as “powerhouse entrepreneurs.”

I was one of the two. But what President Obama didn’t know was that, as a child, every night before I went to sleep, I would pray to God and ask Him to change me to a boy. And every morning when I woke up, I would look at myself and see if anything had changed. Nothing did, and my daily tasks went on as usual.

Looking back, I realise that I was just a little girl praying to be treated better, to be told you are not limited by the gender role assigned to you.

I grew up in a patriarchal society in northern Kenya, and that role as narrow. I wanted the right to be a child just like the boys, and most of all to be believed in and celebrated — and to be sent to school.

My brother saw my passion to learn, and slowly persuaded my father to let me go to class. At the age of eight, I joined the five-year-olds.

I kept going to class, all the way through graduating from university with a degree in computer science. Shortly after, I moved to Nairobi to join the booming community on tech-preneurs. 

Everyone was creating something. I wanted to create something that would help the ordinary Kenyan, the Kenyan who farmed with a hand-held hoe, without market information, without ready buyers for her crops — but with a great deal of knowledge about farming, and with a cellphone in the pocket.

I joined forces with two other young women to create m-Farm, the mobile platform that President Obama spoke of at the Safaricom Stadium. M-Farm uses cellphone technology to connect farmers to each other and to markets, helping to ensure that farmers can sell what they grow. 

As a result of m-Farm, farmers who have been stuck in poverty have doubled their incomes. They are investing in their future.

By enabling collective action and entrepreneurship, M-Farm is encouraging a wave of commercial farming led by smallholder farmers. We have served 14,000 farmers and look forward to growing 100-fold.

I can honestly say that today is the best day to be a woman entrepreneur. Ten years ago, women across Africa were considered second-class citizens.

If a mother had funds to educate one of her children, she would choose to educate her son over her daughter. If a family had title to their land, it would be in the husband’s name alone. 

Those trends are changing. Not only has women’s empowerment become a human right but it is also becoming a pathway to achieving sustainable development of societies. People’s beliefs and actions change as they see the benefits of equal opportunities for women.

But despite these strides, not all our girls are getting educated, and still only a minority of our aspiring entrepreneurs can access funds. Many women in rural areas are yet to benefit from the support and resources that exist.

In Kenya, for example, 30 per cent of public tenders are for women, but only 3.8 per cent actually go to women, since this information is primarily available to the elite. 

Even when people change their views — as my father did — deep-seated structural problems may hold us back, and these problems may extend all the way to the global market.

Not long ago, an m-Farm co-operative of 200 garden pea farmers secured a contract with a local exporter who ships to a London-based supermarket chain. The farmers delivered their produce on time. But when I met with them to discuss future plans, they were worried and angry.

They had not yet been paid. As I later discovered, the supermarket chain had not paid the exporter — who then did pay the farmers once he had been paid. 

Without getting paid, the farmers were unable to invest in the next season’s crops, or even to pay their children’s school fees. One farmer took me to his house, where his daughter served me tea. She had been out of school for three weeks. In that young girl, I saw myself — yearning for the education that would open new doors.

So here we are, at the dawn of a new era — a time when the world is coming to terms with the fact that women must make big strides if we are to achieve a better future. Yet poverty remains perhaps the biggest obstacle to the equality of opportunity we seek, and those who benefit from the status quo can be slow to change their ways.

Women are powerhouse entrepreneurs, and to realise that power we need allies that will help to overcome the inertia of vested interests.

President Obama put it best when he said, “In order to create successful entrepreneurs, the government also has a role in creating the transparency, and the rule of law, and the ease of doing business, and the anti-corruption agenda that creates a platform for people to succeed.”

The success of women entrepreneurs depends not only on our creativity, knowledge, and commitment, but also on an alignment of allies across government and business that progressively removes the structural obstacles to equality and sustainable development, and replaces them with new systems that take the best from the old. This is the innovation we need.

Jamila Abass is the CEO and founder of m-Farm