When Bolaji Sofoluwe was 16, she attended her first UNIFEM conference, the precursor to what is now known as UN Women. The event was a captivating forum, with conversations focused on the pivotal topic of gender equality in all spheres. Fast-forward to 2024, Sofoluwe steps into the role of a delegate at the UN Women’s International Women’s Day event. Despite the passage of time, she anticipates that the discussions will echo those from years past. “It is a little frustrating,” she says. Sofoluwe is the co-founder and managing director of business advisory firm ETK Group

Africa has made progress in addressing issues of gender disparity. For instance, in 2022, Rwanda became the world leader in gender equality in politics, with women holding over 60 percent of parliamentary seats. This is a remarkable achievement, considering the global average for women’s representation in parliament is 26.4 percent. In the economic sphere, Nigeria stands out as women own 40 percent of small businesses, highlighting the crucial role of women in driving the nation’s economic growth and job creation. Although, challenges around gender equality persist, “The irony sits in how Africa has taken great strides in solving some of these problems,” comments Sofoluwe, whose leadership at ETK Group, has empowered numerous businesses, particularly those led by women.

Bolaji Sofoluwe

Sofoluwe’s foray into entrepreneurship was motivated by a common desire among women for flexibility in balancing professional and personal life. Yet, her drive was equally fueled by a fervent passion. “Sometimes you’re driven by the thing that keeps you up at night. For me, it was the accessibility to the African market for business,” she says. As a renowned market entry strategist and a leading figure in international trade, she imparts knowledge as a growth specialist at the University of Oxford’s Business School and contributes to the startup ecosystem as an angel investor and non-executive director. “My ambition is to change the prevailing narrative and support businesses in their journey into Africa,” she notes. Sofoluwe has been instrumental in driving expansion across diverse sectors including agribusiness, aviation, hospitality, and technology. Her leadership is marked by a commitment to creating a nurturing and equitable space for women founders, entrepreneurs, and C-suite leaders within these industries.

Yet, Sofoluwe concurs that a significant hurdle within Africa’s entrepreneurial environment is the inadequate funding available for businesses led by women. According to the United Nations, there is an annual deficit of $360 billion in funding or resources dedicated to implementing measures aimed at achieving gender equality by 2030. This shortfall implies inadequate support for the necessary investments, policies, programs, and initiatives crucial for promoting gender equality, thereby impeding progress towards gender parity and equal opportunities for all genders.

Ventures Africa sat with Sofoluwe, to talk about the urgent need to invest in women-led businesses, the practical steps necessary for overcoming challenges faced by women in African markets, and why this year’s IWD theme, Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress, has become important now more than ever.

Ventures Africa (VA): We’ve talked about the alarming annual deficit of $360 billion in funding or resources dedicated to implementing measures aimed at achieving gender equality by 2030. Do you think this is solely a financial issue?

Bolaji Sofoluwe (BS): The short answer is, no. The issue extends beyond just finances. It is deeply rooted in long-standing perceptions. Over the years, biases have formed regarding funding women-led initiatives, investing in women, and even acquiring services from them. If your team lacks certain individuals, it may deter potential collaborators. It’s not solely a perception problem; it’s also about the skills gap and, on a subtler level, a matter of confidence.
Consider the biases; a woman enters a pitch room and immediately, there are assumptions about her age, potential motherhood, and how that might impact her business’s growth. This is incredibly disheartening for the many talented women who are well-prepared with business continuity plans, yet face prejudgment before they even speak. These issues might seem elementary, but they are at the heart of the challenges faced by women seeking to progress in business.
The skills gap is another significant barrier. Until recently, some communities refrained from educating girls because they did not think there was any long-term economic value in doing so. This mindset irks me. I was raised in a family with three girls and a boy, all of whom attained at least a master’s degree level of education. More importantly, we were brought up by a father who had immense confidence in us and encouraged us to assert ourselves in any setting. His attitude was far from typical and it highlights the need for greater recognition of women’s capabilities and the importance of gender equity and equality, especially in more traditional societies. Addressing this fundamental issue is crucial for progress.

VA: What would you say are the implications of this shortfall?

BS: It is often stated that a financially independent woman is likely to reinvest her income multiple times within her community. This investment goes beyond business; it extends to her household, her children’s education, and healthcare. Such contributions can significantly benefit society. And so I think societies are missing a trick by not investing in women because ultimately the return on investment in a woman can effectively quadruple. It’s crucial that this understanding becomes a core aspect of policy formulation. When it comes to investments, addressing certain persistent issues is essential for seeing any increase. Some people would even want to call them wicked problems due to their complex, solution-resistant nature. Yet, how do you eradicate centuries-old traditions that affect women’s perception and treatment? It is a daunting task, one that requires education and heightened awareness.

It is going to be difficult to bridge that funding gap. But I think that one of the main things that needs to happen is for women to invest in other women. Many women have already broken through barriers to become fund managers, investors, and successful entrepreneurs. As one of these women, we are responsible for opening doors for others. I’ve been fortunate to be in the company of women who are not only willing to invest financially but also to advocate for change. For instance, there was a recent proposal in the UK to raise the income threshold for angel investors to £170,000, along with assets of nearly £600,000. This move was met with strong opposition from women, who petitioned the government to revert to the more accessible thresholds of a £100,000 investment and £250,000 in assets. And we all signed the petition. I signed the petition. All my angel investor friends in the industry signed the petition because we recognize the importance of maintaining opportunities for women to become angel investors. Thankfully, our collective advocacy was effective, and the government decided against implementing the proposed change. Without such advocacy, the law would have likely passed, further narrowing the opportunities for women in investment.

VA: Let’s narrow this down to the work you do. Through your leadership at ETK group, you have empowered numerous businesses, particularly those led by women to navigate markets globally. How do you measure the impact of your work on the economic growth and development in Africa?

BS: That’s a very good question. We employ various methods to measure our impact. We track the number of jobs created, with a particular focus on employment for women. We monitor the amount of capital invested, especially when a client is establishing a presence in Africa or acquiring a minority stake in an African business. This allows us to measure the growth achieved by these companies.

For example, we collaborated with a cosmetics brand to expand across Africa. We observed growth in the brand and an increase in employee numbers as they entered new markets. This expansion not only creates more resilient businesses but also positions them to attract further investment. We also assess intangible outcomes such as the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Often, when introducing an international partner—from Morocco to Nigeria or Nigeria to Kenya, for instance—there are valuable lessons in best practices and operational methods. This exchange enhances skill development, knowledge, and talent throughout the continent. These businesses are then poised to become global entities, capable of engaging at any level of executive discussion due to their international exposure. This is how we’ve gauged our impact across the continent thus far.

VA: What are some of the skills essential for women to succeed in the field of international trade in Africa?

BS: I always emphasize three key skills. First, strategic planning is crucial. It’s not just for women but all entrepreneurs. You must develop strategic plans, conduct thorough market analysis, and understand your total addressable market and serviceable obtainable market. It’s important to have concrete numbers and not make assumptions about the market’s readiness for your product or service.

Next is people skills and an understanding of cultural nuances. Recognizing that not everyone shares your perspective is important. I usually have this conversation with my Nigerian brothers and sisters. We are known for our confidence and assertiveness. And that’s because, we are great people, we are very innovative and very intelligent. But sometimes that comes across as intimidating. So if you’re going into a new market, a market like Kenya where people are very subtle and soft-spoken, be aware of those cultural nuances because that’s what will help you win in business.
The last one is to be very risk-aware. Create a risk register. Ensure that you have clearly articulated some of the issues, challenges, and barriers that you might experience, and ways that you can mitigate those risks. That includes foreign exchange risk, which is one of the most talked about right now in West Africa, whether that’s Ghana, Nigeria, and even in the east, in Kenya, and South Africa. So consider your currency risk thoroughly and how you can mitigate against it. Generally, keep your eyes open, and ears to the ground, interpret macroeconomic conditions and ensure you are strategically positioned.

VA: What emerging trends or developments do you see influencing women’s participation in the entrepreneurial ecosystem?

BS: Women are becoming increasingly emboldened. As more women secure funding, attain executive roles, and thrive within their organizations, it inspires others to take action. They start to try, they start to get out there, they start to create business plans, and they start to be venture capital leaders. I am seeing a lot more of this. I have seen more female-led VCs emerging across Africa. I have seen more female-led boards emerging across the continent, more female founders, and more female innovators. They are crafting business plans, and stepping into venture capital leadership, and I’ve observed a rise in female-led venture capital firms across Africa. There’s also been an increase in female-led boards, founders, and innovators.

These are the trends that we are seeing at the moment.Another trend we have noticed is one or two female exits, which bring me so much joy. It’s particularly heartening to witness female entrepreneurs successfully exit their businesses. Such exits are rare and can take various forms, not limited to investments. It could involve a founder transferring management responsibilities, signifying business maturity. These developments are encouraging and we are seeing more of them across the continent.

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