Will the real businesswomen please stand!

By Rejoice Ngwenya,

Sunday, 28 November 2021 Ruwa, Zimbabwe

Let me put it this way, chances are that 60 to 70% of Zimbabwean readers who browse through this my treatise today – just like I – grew up next to a rural business outpost, euphemistically referred to as a ‘township’ or in my native isiNdebele language – emagrosa. There is not a single rural area in Zimbabwe I know – and I have been to a chunk oh so many – without a cluster of grocery shops, sprinkled with butcheries, bottle stores and maize grinding mills. This is where ‘trendy’ young men and women spend time during weekends and especially at Christmas, passing time waiting their next call to labour on nearby maize fields and pastures. More often than not, these ‘centres of rural excellence’ are not exactly what one would define as serenely peaceful. Most shops in these dusty outposts puncture the atmosphere with loud music of varying genre, usually local Zimbabwean Sungura music, occasionally ZimDanceHall, Reggae or Mbaqanga – depending of course on which part of Zimbabwe one hails. Moreover, these rural outposts add colour to an otherwise uninspiring semi-arid environment reeking of poverty, hopelessness and despair. The colonialists made good work of tossing us black Zimbabweans to hostile and generally inhabitable parts of the country. They then appointed delusional submissive chiefs and headman – now drunken with undeserved self-entitlement – to give them superficial control over tribal groups. Luckily, we made the best of that sordid environment we will forever call home. My take is had it not been for our underperforming economy led by mediocre national leadership, by now Zimbabwe’s rural areas would be boasting proper modern rural malls with all business conveniences found in metropolitan areas. Villagers would not need to catch buses to shop in distant cities. I have seen such developments in Botswana and South Africa, where it is usually difficult to separate ‘rural’ from ‘urban’ life. Zimbabwe’s new urban-to-rural migration norm is symbolic of an economy in an advanced state of decay – an economy that can no longer sustain simple basic urban lifestyles due to prevalent and rampant unemployment. Our government must bury its head in shame!But that is a story for another Sunday. You should know me by now, with my spasms and bouts of uncontrolled literary anger. Today I have a serious interest in women in business. The only reason why I evoke these rural memories is that I always saw most shop fronts boldly inscribed ‘So and So Business and Sons Private Limited’.Up until I became a fully -fledged gender activist, it never occurred to me that woman entrepreneurship has been suppressed for almost a century. ‘So and So Business and Sons Private Limited’ says nothing of the spouse or female partner in the business. Neither is it interested in the daughters of that family. It’s nothing but a bold statement that in that scheme of things, wives, mothers and daughters count for nothing in family businesses. For many years, the term ‘businesswoman’ was not part and parcel of everyday lingua. Today, Zimbabwe and the rest of the world are in the middle of 16 Days of Activism. Other than GBV, these ‘businessmen’ things are some of the stereotypes we should remember to reverse. The world has moved on from the ‘So and So Business and Sons Private Limited’ mantra. Mind you, I am just the right person to talk about this subject, for the reasons clearly outlined below.Just under ten years ago, I received a call from a woman. She was no ordinary woman I met at a Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce conference I had helped organise. Being an ardent woman business activist herself, she probably figured out I would have a few ideas on how to reverse or eliminate altogether the primeval So and So Business and Sons Private Limited narrative. The call took us to a tea and cake meeting at a classy restaurant a few blocks from my Avondale office, and an hour or two later, the WECA concept was enroute to real life. For the past ten years excluding the two pandemic years, the Women in Enterprise Conference and Awards (WECA) has become one of, if not the largest and most glamorous showcase of Zimbabwe’s woman in business. My encounter with ‘that woman’ got me conscripted into the all-woman business desk committee tasked by the chamber of commerce to drive the agenda of women in business. For many years, women have worked twice as hard as their male counterparts only to be recognised as entrepreneurial achievers, but WECA wanted to go beyond mere recognition. There needed to be acceptance, involvement, reward, participation, consultation and inclusion of women. Through WECA, the ‘So and So Business and Sons Private Limited’ thingy was and is destined for permanent interment.It has not been easy, but year after year, I have sat in that ‘woman committee’ with a team of creative, self-less and dedicated women – to create programs that unleash potential in women enterprise. When you take time listening to women relate their business experiences, you realise that there are things that we men and our macho institutions take so much for granted. The barriers to business woman progress are immense, the obstacles palpable and the attitudes uncompromising. Nonetheless, WECA has not been all sailor and sail on smooth ocean waters. A decade of committee work has revealed one uncomfortable aspect about women in business.WECA is a game of numbers. It does not always mean every woman is supportive or excited about a ‘woman own brand’ thing. For such an event to be successful, we usually require two ‘classes’ of women – conference participants with generally an interest in business and two, nominees who are slated to win accolades. The committee and its parent chamber pull out all the stops to publicise the event, but it takes blood sweat and tears for women to nominate each other for recognition and accolades. If women themselves cannot emerge from the shadows to showcase their capacity and fight their battles, the battle of woman emancipation will take longer. It is now time for business women to stand up for their rights. Yes, we may have statutes and statutory instruments: we may have WECA and 16 Days of Activism, but at the end of the day, the real women in business must stand up for their own brand. I am saying this only because mina, I am a man of truth.

Rejoice Ngwenya is a social and political commentator