Women-led family businesses — Lionesses of Africa

by Tsitsi Mutendi

We have been following the journey of Transport Businessman for a few weeks now, and by so doing, we have scraped the surface of the SME, MME, and the Family Business in Africa from one of its players. These characters and their situations, although fictional, are putting in place a bird’s eye view of some of the intricacies that affect Family Businesses. Laying down a foundation by introducing you to these characters will help to establish context when we go in-depth and unpack more problems and solutions for Family Businesses.

So, before we go deeper into Family Business best practices, let’s meet another player in the space, Ms. Olivia Simbajena. Ms. Simbajena is one of the powerhouses in the SME and MME sector. Ms. Simbajena is a Trader who managed to eventually open a store, which then became a chain of stores and diversified into manufacturing. According to research done by the UN and World Bank, women play a crucial role in trade in Africa and will be essential to Africa’s success in exploiting its trade potential. Daily, millions of women in Africa are engaged in one form of trade or another, either within their countries or across national borders. They buy and sell everything, from agricultural produce to manufactured products. It is mostly women who conduct cross-border trade, delivering goods and services, reports the World Bank. They also run the majority of agricultural small landholdings. Indeed, women traders’ contribution to national economies has become essential in boosting trade in Africa. It is well known that most women in Africa start a business out of necessity, and that necessity is to feed their family. Women business owners are the majority of many Family Business Owners. The biggest obstacle is that they do not see their business as a business that can become bigger than just feeding their family, even though they contribute to the ecosystem of many economies in a considerable way.

Let’s get to know Olivia Simbajena a bit better. Ms. Simbajena is a woman who builds her business from the sweat off her back. Having grown up in a situation where she was seen just as a “girl-child,” no effort was made in her upbringing to empower her as much as was for her brothers. By the time she reached ‘O’ Level, Ms. Simbajena had failed at school, and she had fallen pregnant to the shame of her family. Being a young girl in her community, she was not encouraged to value education as much as she did later on in life. The situation of having a child in her teens caused her much emotional stress. She found herself uneducated, with a child, and with no source of income. The father of the child was nowhere in the picture, and her own family could barely take care of their individual financial needs, never mind hers.

After many months of frustration and being downtrodden and verbally abused at home for not contributing nor finding a job, Ms. Simbajena was close to suicide. She started looking for any work she could find so she could help sustain herself and her daughter. It proved to be a difficult task as she could only get live-in domestic maid positions that could barely cover her transport to and from seeing her daughter. She eventually decided to stop going home over the weekend and only go home once a month. She entrusted her daughter to her mother’s care and hoped for the best.

The first few months at this new job were hard for Ms. Simbajena, but after six months, she managed to save a little of her income. It was barely enough to do much, but at least she could send her child clothes and a few groceries. During this period, her family was hit by a tragedy. Her father passed on. He was the sole breadwinner of the family. Her older brothers would sit at home and do nothing. Her mother had retired to their rural homestead and taken Ms. Simbajena’s daughter with her. At this point, Ms. Simbajena’s brothers decided to rent out rooms within the family home for money and gave Ms. Simbajena notice as she did not live at the house. Ms. Simbajena got distressed at this and rented a small room at the back of her father’s house from her brothers so that she could keep her personal effects. To cover this rental, she took some of her savings and started a small “Musika” – market stall – at the corner of her street. With this money, she could make a little bit extra and send some money to her mother. After a few months, she decided to leave her job and focus on her newfound “Musika.” She started learning about the value-chain process and how to grow her business. While attending church on one of her off days, she struck up a conversation with some older women at church who were traveling across the border to buy and sell goods. She decided to try this venture under the tutorship of the one of the ladies that she knew from the group.

Within four years, Ms. Simbajena was now a vibrant cross border trader who had a staff complement of 10 other women she was teaching the ropes. She had moved her mother and daughter back to town and managed to move from her one-room rental and built herself a beautiful five bedroomed house in an upmarket neighborhood. Business was booming. During the first year of cross border trading, she had sent herself back to school to learn more business skills. She had progressed from door-to-door sales to open two stores in locations in town. These two stores had become five stores, and she was very proud of her accomplishments.

As she had grown her business, she had set up a company where she had put her mother and her brothers as directors. She wanted to put her daughter as a director eventually, but she was in a hurry to get paperwork. She just registered the business as a private company with various interests, so she could get a “deal” to supply a big company.

Once again, we see the issue of Business Structure and Ownership coming through. Ms. Simbajena rushes forward to secure a” deal” that probably needed the formal registration documents for a company. Without much thought, our business owner puts onto the legal paperwork “family” members because there is an element of trust between family. At that moment, previous conflicts and unresolved issues take the back burner. The trust that was used is the bond of blood with no thought of prior experience or parameters.

In business, it is essential to understand the underlying laws that govern structure.

When we put individuals as directors, what does this mean for the company if the situation arises that the founder, the one who established the company, is available?

Are the directors’ individuals who can work together for the best interests of the company? What are the governance rules? How much power does each director have?

What does the decision-making process involve and bind us to? Do the directors have shares, how are the shares distributed? How are the shares then redistributed when the time comes? Can the directors sell shares without consulting?

Also, not that as much as other companies want to see the company papers, they want to see who the directors are on that paperwork. Depending on the size of the deal, they may run background checks on your directors. Your brother, mother, spouse, or friend may have a very murky past that may cost you a contract.  Be deliberate when putting together your company paperwork. Don’t leave it until too late and be clear on who you are giving what of giving voice to over issues in your company.

Governance is about doing what is ethically and morally correct for the stakeholders of the company, and that includes (but is not limited to) customers, community, suppliers, family owners and yourself the founder. Ms. Simbajena will learn this lesson further along her journey.

Tsitsi Mutendi is a Succession and Estate Planning Expert specializing in SME, MME, and Family Business Services. She writes in her Personal and Professional Capacity. Comments and views: tsitsi@tsitsimutendi.com or hello@nhakalegacy.com

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