One of the most persistent barriers to Small and Medium Businesses in Africa is access to capital. There’s a huge funding gap on the continent created by banks and micro-finance institutions not willing to play their role in providing credit for entrepreneurs.
This is even harder for women entrepreneurs, many of whom start from a position with no support and little or no collateral security. As well as being excluded from certain sectors, women entrepreneurs have often had to contest with policies that are seemingly created to prevent them from having a business network. Often termed a “FinTech” company, Ovamba began in 2013 in Maryland, USA, and has funded more than 200 small businesses in Africa, mainly in Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire with over $25.4 million, including women-led Small and Medium Businesses, and has helped expand the middle sector in both countries.
Ventures Africa spoke with Viola Llewellyn, the co-founder and President of Ovamba Solutions who told us many things about the ‘tech’ space in Africa, creating a space for, and empowering women through Ovamba, and her advice for girls looking to create solutions to everyday problems in Africa using technology.
VA: Tell us a little about yourself and your role at Ovamba?
I am the Co-founder and President of Ovamba Solutions. I was born to Cameroonian parents in London and now live in the USA.
VA: Can you recount your first encounter with ‘tech’ in a broad sense of the word, and what led you into this sector as a career?
Yes! My dad was a psychiatric nurse and also practised community psychiatry. My mother is a retired nurse. I always had my head in a science book of one sort or another. My dad bought me a microscope when I was 10. I discovered that I had an avid interest in biology and genetic engineering and that’s what I wanted to do as a career. I ended up working for IBM, DEC and other mainframe manufacturers at a time when there were almost NO women in technology sales, let along black women under the age of 25! I absolutely LOVED the industry.
VA: What has been the highlight (victories and challenges) of your journey in the tech space so far?
Building Ovamba. Raising the capital for Ovamba both equity and debt. Vanity Fair covered me and the other women who have succeeded in this very challenging business ecosystem. Leading the team for the build of our language chatbot and all the other SaaS products we have developed for the African market. We compete in a male dominant industry which is good but challenging! The standards are high which pushes us to excellence.
VA: What is it like, working in a space largely dominated by men?
It’s great! I have had the greatest experience with my co-founder, staff, industry colleagues etc. Earlier in my career, it was not always so great. Women, especially black women, could not easily get senior roles in banking, finance or the sciences etc., Today, more men are understanding the benefits of working with women and the impact we have on efficiency, profitability, and the bottom line. What I like most about working with men is the Diversity factor. It makes learning, achieving and competing so rewarding. It also keeps the door open for other women to get to the table and succeed.
VA: Women’s economic integration and empowerment is a global issue that has a particular resonance in Africa, what has been Ovamba’s contribution to the trend? What initiatives do you have in place to promote and develop the potential of women?
I am grateful that I am a recognized business leader and advocate for women from all walks of life. Within the African context, we believe that making access to capital brings with it a unique type of confidence. Confidence can drive empowerment. Ovamba’s model is a distinct alternative to traditional finance & lending which means that we have found many creative ways to enable access to financial services for women. Economic integration for the African continent is a global issue. Women are the greatest and newest emerging market. Africa will have failed at globalization if women are not included, promoted and supported. We are aware that the informal sector where female-led businesses are the majority, the need to provide financial literacy is so important. Ovamba specifically innovates technology for this sector so that as these women begin to develop the confidence to dream and plan, they will have a clear line of sight on where the resources to grow will come from. And that will be the sustained contribution that Ovamba is making.
VA: How well are women represented in leadership/management positions at Ovamba?
Management is 40% female! Our portfolio sports a high rate of success and measured growth for female customers. Our founding partners are 50% female. The gender balance is amazing!
VA: With women not having the same opportunities as male counterparts, what policies do you think can be put in place to move organizations towards gender balance?
The very fact that women actually ‘birth’ the workforce of the human race I think we need to think very seriously about how we educate girls and provide them with both traditional and practical education. Making it easy and possible for women to return to work or academia after they give birth is really important. Supporting women with early childhood resources creates a better balanced “human being”. This carries into adulthood. Also, the metrics of success for women need to be recalibrated to include some of the other non-traditional skills, experiences and capabilities that women have and are often under-rated.
VA: Between 2008 and 2018, so much has been said about empowering women in a way to bridge the gender gap in Africa, how are you contributing to this end as a model to other women across Africa?
As mentioned above, actions speak louder than words. Speaking up and being accountable is crucial! I also ensure that my friendships with women are positive. I seek opportunities to mentor women through friendship. I try to make myself openly available to my female colleagues. Whenever the opportunity arises to advocate for women, I use my global platform to do so. Recommending and pushing other women into opportunity is also a true power-move. AND! I approach the gender gap by bringing GREAT men into the ecosystem. We cannot do this as a one-sided gender agenda!
VA: What would you say are some of the big goals Ovamba has for promoting women empowerment over the next couple of years?
Fund more women, raise capital from female VCs, innovate more technology to serve women with business training and funding. We also plan to showcase women who are succeeding. We need more of a narrative on women over the long haul. Diversity & Inclusion is not a fashion statement, it is a human right!
VA: What are your recommendations/advice to women looking to break into the tech industry?
LEARN LEARN LEARN! And then get used to failure. Lots of it. Experimentation and innovation involve finding all the reasons why something does not work which happens before you find the true solution. And then LEARN LEARN LEARN business! All the innovation in the world is USELESS if you cannot monetize, grow and be profitable. It takes a lot of risks but the rewards are great. And with the young women in the STEM disciplines, I recommend that they use all resources necessary to stay the course and be comfortable being ambitious. Aim for the top, and then STAY at the top.