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In Kenya, women entrepreneurs depend on men's decisions

Monday October 2 2017

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Across the world, there seems to be a quiet paradigm shift in the development discourse on women’s rights and empowerment.

In Kenya there is an intense debate on how to accommodate women’s constitutional rights. 

Policymakers have tried to create women-centred policies for empowerment, such as the Women Enterprise Fund. Academia, too, is closely pursuing women-related human rights and empowerment. 

However, all this discourse glosses over the deep-rooted cultural alienation of women.

In this article, I will focus on the gender gap in Kenya’s entrepreneurialism. In other words, I will explore the differences between men and women with respect to the numbers involved as well as the dynamics in entrepreneurial activity. 

I will also seek to show differences in business choices, growth patterns and performance.

I was motivated to write this article out of curiosity after my observations of mentees, as well as an ongoing longitudinal observation of five mama mboga (female vegetable vendors), and five male-owned micro enterprises at City Market in Parklands, Nairobi. 

Although the study is ongoing, there is enough evidence to hypothesise that the depth of marginalisation of women is deeper than is often imagined. My preliminary findings show that women’s progress is hindered by many roadblocks that are hidden behind culture. 

The gender gap (systematic differences in the outcomes that men and women attain in entrepreneurship) keeps widening, directly contradicting the narrative of women entrepreneurship that is dominating the media today. 

Closely observing the entire supply chain of horticultural products that end up at City Market shows that men own the farms, women tend the farms, men are the wholesalers and women are the vendors at the tail end of the chain. It is women who suffer losses from the perishable goods.

A few of the men who compete directly with mama mboga quickly move up the ladder by moving into sourcing the supplies from farmers. 

Women, on the other hand, do not have the flexibility to match their male competitors. Their options are limited by the extent to which their spouses can withstand the liberties the business requires.

Lack of flexibility in a volatile market of perishables means that women fail to get competitive information, especially when supply exceeds demand. In most cases, they are not able to respond to market dynamics, leaving them with excess produce that ends up in the garbage dump. 

While men have time to undergo training, family pressures and running a business leaves women with no time for any form of training from well-wishers. More often than not, these entrepreneurs live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and have to be home early enough for fear of being raped by criminals. 

Men, on the other hand, have no such fear. They can work for long hours to the disadvantage of their female counterparts.  

Support from the family and society in general is hard to come by for women, since their spouses require that they be at home to cook for their family. Yet late evening, when people are leaving work, is the best time for their businesses.

Some of the enterprises run by women are not quite women-owned, since the decision-making process, including on finances, is often controlled by their spouses. Simple decisions, such as credit, become laborious when their spouses are averse to it.

With the advent of mobile money, lending is increasingly becoming inclusive so that lack of finance may be a thing of the past.

The problem is more about the cost of finance than access. However, women who borrow on a short-term basis to avoid conflict with their spouses pay more. 

Many work at the mercy of their spouses. Since their levels of education are often low, they cannot afford to oppose or go against their spouse’s decisions.

Although studies by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor in 2012 show that on average the differences aren’t too alarming, there is concern when the comparisons are made at the country level. 


Whilst men globally make up 52 per cent of all entrepreneurial activity, women account for 48 per cent.

Some countries, especially those with strong religious beliefs, completely outlaw women from engaging in any entrepreneurial activity.

Within the country, however, the differences range from less than 2 per cent to 48 per cent.

The 2016 Micro Small and Medium Enterprises in Kenya noted that “47.9 per cent of the licensed establishments were owned by males and 32.2 per cent were owned by females.

"In addition, females solely owned 60.7 per cent of unlicensed establishments. Establishments owned by male-female partners accounted for 16.5 and 6.4 per cent of licensed and unlicensed businesses, respectively.”  Large corporations in Kenya are virtually owned by men.

The Kenyan statistics mirror global studies from the GEM indicating that women are over-represented in the informal sector. 

This is largely driven by survival or out of necessity rather than exploiting an entrepreneurial opportunity. 

That is perhaps how we came up with the term mama mboga, which alludes to the idea of selling similar goods in a highly competitive environment that exposes their lives to perpetual poverty.


For women to advance, we need more comprehensive women-specific policies in line with socio-economic development of the country. 

Vision 2030 can never be achieved if we keep on undermining the full potential of more than half of the population. 

One may argue that we had such policies in Kenya. However, due to lack of monitoring, men who used women as fronts to secure contracts that were meant for women largely abused them. 

It is critical that such policies be properly monitored and integrated with key macroeconomic and sectoral policies as a strategy to deal with the implicit marginalisation of women.

We have played the cat-and-mouse game with women for far too long. It is perhaps why the gender gap is widening even in political participation whereas the Constitution is clear that women should occupy at least 30 per cent of the seats. 

To close this gap, we must address some practical things. The first is to develop and promote women’s entrepreneurship. We can do this by incentivising universities to provide research support that helps women identify entrepreneurial opportunities.

Second, we need to create maker spaces, incubation and acceleration facilities for women-owned enterprises. We need to regularly monitor and evaluate women-centred policy pronouncements with respect to entrepreneurship. 


Third, we must develop the entire supply-chain to include value creation of the perishables to minimise losses (for example tomatoes could be sun-dried before they go to waste). 

Fourth, we must precipitate a Cultural Revolution, targeting the abolition of some negative African value systems.

We cannot wish away the increasing gender gap in Africa. From the data, it is clear that every step we make forwards, we move back two steps. The time has come when we must deal with marginalisation of women.

The practice and orientation of entrepreneurship is a product of our socio-economic environment that is underpinned by deep-rooted norms of behaviour. 

It will require the participation of every citizen to change the superficial image that we present to the world.

Women in enterprise will be the topic for the October 14 monthly Entrepreneurial Forum session at the iHub.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito