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The Circle of Global Business Women is a new attempt by African women to reach out to women around the world and build a network to give them better international access.

The Circle was launched in South Africa in April and has just held its first virtual session in London with a call for women from around the world to work closely with the African counterparts.

The theme of the London session -“The role of women in the global economy”- heard host Kim Phatoli stress that the Circle wasn’t just another talking shop:

“It’s about implementation, about creating a community of women to help us grow and reach our full potential’.

Kim is a managing director in her own right and sits on the advisory board of South Africa’s National Youth ICT Council. She says the Circle will provide skill sharing and practical training to empower women to break through the glass ceiling into the boardrooms of leading global corporations.

In addition, it will provide networking opportunities and mentoring from women leaders from across the corporate sector. It will also run Enterprise Development Programmes and deliver training on e-commerce platforms and marketing to equip African women to compete in global commercial markets.

The United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is keen to collaborate with the Circle and believes it can share the ambitions of her Generation Equality project:

“This brings together business, youth and investment for all women to put them at the centre of economic activity. Generation Equality has raised $40 billion which will be used across the world to implement gender equality”.

This global scheme is mirrored in South Africa by She Trades SA programme which already has more than 5,000 female-owned businesses on its books. According to South Africa’s former Small Business Development Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, now Minister of Communications and technology, the aim is to help these women get their products into the marketplace, and she points to some early successes:

“We’ve managed to get some female-owned companies producing beauty products to get their products into the mainstream high street pharmacies where they sit alongside international brands.

Likewise, we’re trying to promote our fashion and clothing industry and make their designs accessible worldwide”.

These successes were welcomed by the UK’s Trade Commissioner for Africa Emma Wade-Smith whose Trade Commission is supporting more than 3,000 women-owned businesses who have generated £32 million in sales. The UK operates three African Tech Hubs which are providing the digital skills training to help the women become more tech-savvy in their businesses. According to Ms Wade-Smith the Covid-19 crisis has made this work more important than ever:

“Covid has disproportionately affected women, making it harder for women to achieve their dreams”, she said, “but the fact remains that in Africa more women than men choose to become entrepreneurs and it’s the case that women entrepreneurs generate a better return on investment. So, we want women to be at the forefront of our recovery.

“The Circle of Global Business Women is absolutely key to building the networks to ensure we get female access to markets where their voices are heard, their talent nurtured, and their innovations celebrated”.

One persistent theme the Circle knows it needs to address is how to educate girls to become tomorrow’s business leaders when the schooling systems doesn’t always provide the education they need – and here these challenges have been amplified by the Covid-19 crisis. Millions of girls have had their schools closed or have dropped out of school all together during the pandemic.

In South Africa the government reported that some 300,000 primary school children have dropped out, while in Kenya even when the schools reopened thousands of learners failed to report back with girls the most affected as a significant number of them had become pregnant or got married during the time they were out of school.

This month ESSA- Education Sub Saharan Africa- published a very timely report called The State Of Women Leading. It was designed to promote female leadership in African education at tertiary level.

It uncovered two significant trends which highlight the challenges the Circle of Global Business Women faces. First, the desire of African women to assume leadership positions is high, but second, in contrast, the number of women in leadership roles is still extremely low.

ESSA surveyed more than 400 female university faculty, students and graduates and discovered that 89% of women aspire to be leaders but there is a massive gap between these aspirations and the reality on the ground.

In Ghana for example only 8% of leadership roles, such as Professorships, are held by women while women make up just 2.7% of Ghana’s Vice Chancellorships.

The Ghanaian example is largely mirrored across the continent. In Nigeria for instance 98.3% of Vice-Chancellors are men and just 1.7% women.

The women questioned for the ESSA report felt that a combination of cultural low expectations of women and gender stereotyping were two of the key barriers to their progress. According to Ama Duncan, the Founder of the Fabulous Women Network, the solution lies in mentorship and training:

“I think the majority of the barriers I faced had to do with my mindset. I battled with low self-esteem and thought I wasn’t good enough to lead and rally other women. The biggest thing that worked were the people who mentored and still mentor me. They used their own experiences to teach and coach me”.

All this means that the Circle of Global Business Women has a big job to do, but its mission to build an international network of women to support, train and mentor each other gives it a crucial role towards achieving gender equality.

Born in South Africa, it could be an African solution to a global problem.