AWS Startups Blog

Zoona CMO Lelemba Phiri on the Challenges of Being a Businesswoman in Africa

Building a successful business as a woman in Africa is doubly challenging. Not only do women face the typical growth issues that are daunting for any entrepreneur, but they must also deal with a host of specific cultural issues. For one, says Lelemba Phiri, the Chief Marketing Officer for mobile payment platform Zoona, many African businesswomen prefer to simply grow their companies to a “subsistent” level, because if their businesses get too big, they are seen as “not being marriage material.” It’s also a given that women in Africa have a particular struggle with gaining access to finance.

Given this backdrop, Phiri says that change agents need to look at the problem more holistically and ask themselves, “What is the additional support that we can provide African women”? For Phiri, one of the answers is supporting female-only accelerator programs, like the Cape Town-based 88 Business Collective. Run by Antoinette Prophy, the organization helps women in business feel less isolated and realize there are other women that they can consult with, tap into, and provide a sympathetic ear.

Phiri, who is also an independent angel investor in women’s businesses, says that when working with women in Africa, she also has to be very cognizant and respectful of navigating the cultural elements of the business world. She wants to ensure that when people say a certain business opportunity is open to everyone, it is actually open to everyone.

“I think naturally, as African women, we’re very resourceful, right? Because we hold families and communities together, we share naturally,” says Phiri. “That’s something that we can export to the rest of the world. Just this ability to come together, and really share openly and naturally, everything from information to resources.”

One of the most important parts of her work, says Phiri, is that as organizations work with women entrepreneurs, this directly influences their daughters. “We can say as much as we want about being empowered, but our children always learn more from how we’re behaving ourselves,” says Phiri. “And so, if we work to empower a lot of mothers, our hope is that their children grow up seeing this [as being] very natural… I believe that Africa is the next superpower, and it will take women entrepreneurs to actually make that happen.”

Michelle Kung

Michelle Kung

Michelle Kung currently works in startup content at AWS and was previously the head of content at Index Ventures. Prior to joining the corporate world, Michelle was a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, the founding Business Editor at the Huffington Post, a correspondent for The Boston Globe, a columnist for Publisher’s Weekly and a writer at Entertainment Weekly.