Digital economy unlocks doors for women entrepreneurs in Africa
SawaSawa means ‘fine and dandy’ in Swahili and the women-led custom software-solutions provider bearing that name is doing ever-increasing business, thanks in large part to electronic commerce and the development of digital tools.
What began in 1998 as a two-woman enterprise has evolved into a 12-strong team with clients around the world, thanks to the technology boom that has brought a wave of investment in Kenyan IT companies.
‘When we got into e-commerce it really helped us grow our company,’ said Sarah Murugi, chief executive of Nairobi-based SawaSawa, which offers custom software development and infrastructure. ‘We were able to expand our clients’ geographical reach and our client base. With the international digital tools of e-commerce, our business operations are all digitized and 90% are automated.’
That means higher sales and income because operational costs have dropped and the company has added customers in Europe, the Americas, Asia and Oceania. International business has grown well over 60%, Murugi said, particularly for services that generate recurring revenue.
‘When it comes to e-commerce, you don’t have to be physically hired in an office,’ she explained. ‘As long as you have a skill set you just have to make yourself visible online, provide a proper platform to engage clients wherever they are and voila, you create a job for yourself.’DIGITAL BOOM
SawaSawa’s domain-name registration activities illustrate the importance of e-commerce. Initially, the company had registered about 100 domain names, which translates into customers. But once the digital boom took hold, its domain name base shot up to 2,000 over two years.
Technology companies have benefited as public and private-sector actors invest in developing the right infrastructure, access and space for the digital economy to emerge in Kenya, dubbed Africa’s ‘Silicon Savannah.’ SawaSawa is one of the 33 beneficiary companies supported by the International Trade Centre (ITC) Netherlands Trust Fund III, a series of projects funded by the Dutch Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (CBI). In Kenya, the project seeks to enhance the export competitiveness of Kenyan information, technology and information technology enabled services companies. The direct private-sector partner is Kenya Information Technology & Outsourcing Society (KITOS), of which SawaSawa is a member. ITC also works with the Kenya ICT Authority at government level.
ITC is setting up an exporter directory with an e-commerce function, which will enhance the visibility of SawaSawa and other participating companies. Potential customers will find useful details online about Kenyan small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and can ask for an electronic quotation. This platform will be hosted on the KITOS website.
Digitizing the e-commerce structure has helped break down barriers confronting women entrepreneurs, Murugi said.
‘We operate in a patriarchal society where men are dominant and there are still stereotypes that women don’t understand technology,’ she said. ‘Digitizing means clients never have to know your gender. It’s leveled the playing field and reduced patriarchy in business. We’re now able to operate in areas where there is less discrimination towards women.’
E-commerce has also brought challenges. These include protecting goods, services and trademarks; sharing knowledge about how payments are made; reassuring clients about security; and proving expertise to foreign markets. Murugi says the key is to continually reinvent ways to overcome e-commerce cross-trade barriers, such as forming favourable partnerships, improving networking and brand-exposure strategies, and participating in dialogues that concern SMEs and e-commerce trade.
‘Once you open up your products and services, you face the challenge of proving your expertise to foreign markets,’ she said. ‘Competition is stiff - you always have to be on top of your game, make sure your systems are working flawlessly and that they’re easy to use. A great deal of work goes into maintaining an e-commerce business.’