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Empowering African Women Through Business

In 2012, Patricia Nzolantima was selected to join the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), a U.S. State Department program aimed at inspiring and supporting African business. It had a major impact on the Kinshasa-based entrepreneur. “2012 is when everything started really,” says Nzolantima, 41. “I met Barack Obama, I met John Kerry, I met Hillary Clinton. The program changed everything for me. It opened the door, it pushed me to be better and to do more.”

YALI confirmed Nzolantima’s feelings about her business mission. “We were trained to think about the new challenges that we face in Africa. How can we change our environment? For me that was all about the impact I could have on the lives of African women,” she says. “In Africa it’s very difficult for women to scale up businesses. I wanted to change that African narrative.” It’s particularly challenging in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which ranks 176th out of 189 nations on the U.N.’s Gender Inequality Index (GII), only just ahead of Yemen.

Nzolantima’s first company — which she opened in 2008 after a stint at advertising giant McCann — was marketing agency ComunicArt. It was one of the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa and now, after a merger with South Africa’s EXP-Agency, has 19 offices in 15 African countries. It specializes in experiential marketing at events and festivals, giving major international companies the on-the-ground expertise they need to tap into the African market.

“We did big campaigns for brands like Coca-Cola, Samsung, P&G and Unilever,” says Nzolantima. “But I decided I also wanted to use my skills to help local businesswomen who were launching their new products to be on the same level as these big brands.” She started a magazine, International Working Lady, to showcase success stories and case studies of African businesswomen. She also started pro bono work on packaging and branding for women starting out in business, as well as offering them mentoring sessions. “There was no coaching for women in the DRC,” she says. “Women would start a business because they were very passionate about what they were doing, but there was no help to grow.”

This work led Nzolantima to create a Women’s Economic Empowerment Hub in Kinshasa, designed to incubate and accelerate female-owned companies. “People talk a lot about empowering women,” says Nzolantima. “But how can we empower women if we don’t give them the tools and skills to grow their businesses?”

Driving change for women

Alongside the Hub, which now has 1,500 members, Nzolantima launched two successful transport businesses. The first, Ubizcabs, was a high-end taxi service which, unlike its rivals in Kinshasa, gave driving jobs to women. “If we want to reach our (U.N. sustainable development) goals in 2030, we really need to stop with this idea that there are ‘jobs for men and jobs for women’” says Nzolantima. “So I decided to take something people said was a man’s job and show that women could succeed doing it.”

Nzolantima equipped the cabs with TV screens showing information about philanthropic projects in the DRC. These include her scholarship program, Tomorrow’s Elite, and Kinshasa Rose, her citywide program to tackle breast cancer, which offers free mammograms to women and organizes an annual marathon to raise funds for medicine. Then there’s her Coding Girl initiative, which teaches teenagers how to code because, says Nzolantima, “if we really want to kill the gaps between women and men we need to push young girls into technology and we need more women in science.” Ubizcabs caught on and is now used by the World Bank as well as the biggest NGOs and five star hotels in the country.

The second transport company, Ubizjets, provides “private jets on demand” to wealthy people in the region — a particular boon to those in the DRC, a vast country with minimal transport infrastructure outside the big cities. The jets are also regularly used to fly clients to hospitals outside the country when they need urgent treatment: Nzolantima guarantees to have a jet ready and waiting within 24 hours of a request.

 

Credit where it’s due

While offering employment and business help to African women made a difference, Nzolantima could see a much bigger barrier to female empowerment on the continent: money.

“Men are often the decision-makers in the household when it comes to finances,” she says.

Without a credit history, banks are unwilling to extend credit to women or to fund their business ventures: Nzolantima had experienced this herself in her early days in business. Her response to the problem was predictably ambitious. “I wanted to think of a way to help women to be financially independent,” she says. “So, we created our own Visa prepaid card for women who aren’t ‘bankable.’ They save their own money into it and show the bank they are making progress and that it can trust them with credit.”

The next step is logical — if dauntingly extreme. “I want to open a development bank for women” says Nzolantima. “For me the next five years is about how can I work to make more women happy, to lift them, to give them funds and to make them think bigger. When a woman gets a paycheck from her own business she helps her family. She helps her village. She impacts the next generation — and if we want to reduce poverty we need to start with them. The business revolution in Africa will be driven by women, not men.”

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