01/09/2013 20:36 BST | Updated 01/11/2013 05:12 GMT

Networking Their Way to Success: Gladys, Humu and Frederica in Sierra Leone

Sitting on the rooftop of Gladys's juice bar in Freetown, I was having an informal chat with some of the women my foundation supports. This wasn't my first trip to Sierra Leone. I was there for International Women's Day in March and had spoken then to some of the women. But this time I got to have a long, in depth conversation with them about the difficulties they have faced as women entrepreneurs and what benefits they get from participating in the country's first network for women entrepreneurs, which is what the Foundation has helped to set up here.

The women I spoke with told me that the world of business is seen as a man's domain and business networks for women have not been readily accessible or encouraged. Part of the problem is the lack of infrastructure but the bigger barriers are cultural and social barriers. These hinder women from acquiring business knowledge and entrepreneurial skills that can nurture talent and economic potential. It's not surprising then that a modest 51% of women participate in the labour force or that 84% of rural and 63% of urban women operate in the informal sector. This reliance on the informal sector - which consists of businesses outside of government regulation - is particularly problematic as it offers little in the way of social-protection or opportunities for growth.


To begin to address some of these issues, my foundation for women and the African Foundation for Development Sierra Leone (AFFORD-SL) have in the last year come together to establish the OWNERS Network, a national network for women entrepreneurs, the first of its kind. In the space of a year, the Network has connected over 150 women entrepreneurs with business advice, training opportunities, peer support, networking events and access to markets.

Gladys is a member of the network and her business is fast becoming something of an institution in Freetown. You only have to sample her smoothies to see why. Gladys's business idea came from seeing perfectly good fruit and vegetables rotting on the streets, and viewing it as not only an eyesore but a terrible waste. She told me that after winning a national business plan competition and developing her start-up, she joined our network to try to diversify her income stream. Gladys has since opened up two guestrooms and refers visitors to another member of the Network when her rooms are full.

I also met Humu, who processes and sells yoghurt. She struggled to be taken seriously and needed advice on how to make her products distinct from others in the market. Since joining the network, she has been connected to Constance, an entrepreneur and local business adviser who has been supporting her through 12 months of business incubation. In the space of three months, Constance has already helped Humu to review current demand, prepare a business plan, visualise and develop unique packaging for her yoghurt and import special yoghurt containers from China. As a result, Humu has secured regular business contracts from network members and increased her sales by 10%. This has led to her hiring an additional two people. Humu's ambition doesn't to stop there. She's now exploring links with supermarkets and mini-markets that could be potential distribution outlets for her popular yoghurts.

Another entrepreneur I met, Frederica, had always dreamt of owning a fashion and design business, as sewing was her hobby. Although in 1995 she gained an economics degree, it was at the peak of the civil war and jobs were scarce in Sierra Leone. With few options available to her, she made use of her hobby to make some extra money, and despite being forced at one point - during a very tense period of the civil war - to relocate to Nigeria as a refugee, she never lost sight of her dream of owning a fashion and design business.

She worked on her sewing skills and when she was able to return to Sierra Leone, opened a dress-making shop with just two sewing machines. Wanting to expand her business, Frederica joined the network, took part in several workshops organised by AFFORD and was later given the opportunity to represent the network in a three-day leadership programme in New York. When I asked Frederica what she had gained from taking part in all these activities, she told me her clientele had increased by about 30% and her sales by about 15%. To keep up with this growing demand, Frederica is now looking to hire an additional six staff members, expanding her mini empire to 28 employees.

Initiatives like this are so important if we want to support women in developing markets to realise their entrepreneurial goals and play a full part in their societies. I applaud the approach the Sierra Leone government has taken to ensure that the aim of empowering women is embraced by all sectors of society, not just in entrepreneurship and employment, but in education initiatives, health initiatives and more. This kind of forward thinking, evident in Sierra Leone's new Poverty Reduction Strategy, is crucial not only if we want to make positive change in women's lives, but for the wealth and health of the country as a whole.