South Africa, which emerged as a hub for international business at the end of apartheid in 1994, and increasingly is becoming a hotspot for small business and entrepreneurship, follows other emerging markets including New Delhi, India and Rio de Janeiro, in hosting the annual Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network Summit (DWEN).
Cape Town was chosen to host its 7th summit for female entrepreneurs from around the world to come together to tackle common issues in their businesses, but the summit also highlights the local entrepreneurial scene.
Cape Town was chosen due to [the] high percentage of female entrepreneurs that are present in South Africa and the continent as a whole. More females start up businesses in Africa as a percentage (of population) and proactively contribute to society and the community at large,” said Doug Woolley, Dell’s general manager in South Africa.
Entrepreneurs from countries including Australia, Germany, Brazil, and the U.S. were in attendance, as well as several Canadian delegates including Female Funders founder Katherine Hague, Future Design School founder Sarah Prevette, and Diana Goodwin, founder of on-demand swimming lesson company AquaMobile.
Goodwin says she didn’t know a lot about South Africa’s entrepreneurial culture before the conference, but learned about the landscape through speakers including Lindiwe Zulu, Minister of Small Business Development for South Africa, and some of the country’s entrepreneurs, such as Sarah Collins, the founder of Wonderbag, a portable non-electric slow cooker that has sold more than a million units.
At Christel House, a school that provides free education to girls from low-income families, DWEN attendees were paired with students and local Cape Town entrepreneurs to tackle their business challenges. Goodwin was paired with mobile delivery company Medi-Fetch, which delivers medication to elders in the local townships.
“I really got a sense that…entrepreneurship is the foundation of growth in emerging countries and it’s extremely important because a lot of individuals depend on their livelihood from entrepreneurial endeavors,” Goodwin said.
In some ways, South Africa’s entrepreneurship scene is thriving, especially for female entrepreneurs. The Small Enterprise Development Agency reports that women own 72 per cent of micro-businesses and 40 per cent of small businesses. The country also has a government department devoted solely to helping grow small businesses.
“I think being an entrepreneur is part of South African DNA,” Dell’s Woolley said. “Especially where women are concerned, women have generally started businesses to support their families or assist the community. The National Government has also contributed to this with legislation that encourages large business to procure services from female-owned companies. Creating the Ministry for Small Business has also created a focused approach from government to assist entrepreneurs and especially female entrepreneurs.”
In other ways though, it’s struggling. A 2015 SiMODiSA Association survey identified the Top 5 challenges for small businesses in South Africa, and they included access to capital, funding and angel investors, a skills deficit, and the country’s remote location. Woolley identified access to capital and access to customers and markets as the two biggest challenges.
Because of those challenges, South Africa isn’t always recognized globally for its entrepreneurial potential. In June, Dell released its ranking of the Top 25 cities around the world for fostering high-potential female entrepreneurs as part of its 2016 Women Entrepreneur Cities Index, and Johannesburg was the only South African city on the list at #23. At the top were New York and the Bay Area in California. Toronto, the only Canadian city on the list, ranked 6th.
Goodwin contends Toronto’s advantage is its network of startup accelerators, investors, and groups that help foster the community.
“In the past five to 10 years in Toronto, there’s been a lot more resources that have come online. There’s a lot more formal and informal groups that get together to help each other out,” Goodwin said.
“I think what’s happening in some of the emerging markets, South Africa in particular, those types of resources are just starting, so those incubators that have been popular in Canada and the U.S. are just starting to come online now.”
One incubator to take notice is Techstars, which launched in partnership with Barclays bank in Cape Town this spring. The Barclays Accelerator brought together 10 financial tech companies from nine African countries for a 13-week program that culminated with a Demo Day on June 30. Companies in the program included Asoriba, a management and donation platform for churches, and WizzPass, a parking platform.
The theme of this year’s DWEN conference was “innovate for a future-ready world,” and if Techstars and DWEN are any indication, South Africa will be one of the emerging markets to watch in the next few years.
“I have been thinking about international expansion,” Goodwin said. “Coming to this conference has made me think about all the value and potential in emerging markets that a lot of people ignore.”
Erin Bury is managing director at 88 Creative, a digital marketing and design agency in Toronto.