NHBRC/GIBS EDA Women Empowerment Programme

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Female entrepreneurs in construction are a hugely underutilised force for growth and innovation

It was one year into the Covid-19 pandemic and things looked grim in the construction sector. Mampho Sotshongaye, owner of an SMME for road maintenance and vegetation management, says she might have given up – had it not been for the women’s empowerment programme by the National Home Builders Regulatory Council (NHBRC). ‘Without it, I might have said it’s all just too much,’ she says. ‘It came at a time, just out of the Covid lockdown, when my business was hanging by a thread. Entrepreneurship is a lonely journey, and the programme gave me the support structures and business skills that I needed to bounce back.’

Sotshongaye’s construction business, called Golden Rewards, currently employs 56 people full time, and double that number when needed on a project basis. She credits the NBHRC programme – implemented in partnership with the Entrepreneurship Development Academy (EDA) at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) – with providing the technical and marketing skills as well as the mentorship and networks needed to revive her business after the pandemic decimated the construction sector.

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, Sotshongaye talks about standing tall amidst discrimination and unfair treatment and having to work twice as hard as her male counterparts to prove her worth. ‘I’ve had to stop seeking validation from men and instead let my work speak for itself,’ she says. That shouldn’t be difficult, seeing her entrepreneurial awards includes first prize in Eskom’s 2020 Business Investment Competition and placement in Africa’s Business Heroes Top 20 for 2021. ‘I have the experience; now I want to be given the opportunities,’ says the Western Cape-based entrepreneur, who would like to expand her business to other provinces. She already empowers unskilled workers from local communities, especially women, through training and employment in her construction projects.

Standing her ground

And this is one of many reasons why supporting female entrepreneurs is good for socio-economic development: research has shown that when women run their own businesses, they employ more women. This has positive spin-offs, because when more women enter the workforce, the economy becomes more productive and diverse. On top of this, the World Bank reports that economies with higher numbers of female entrepreneurs are more resilient to financial crises and experience less frequent economic slowdowns.

Sadly, South Africa remains a society in which gender inequality persists. ‘Although women make up more than half of the population, they comprise less than half of the employed and experienced two-thirds of the net job losses between February and April 2021,’ says Miranda Hosking, GIBS Managing Executive for Social Education. ‘With fewer employment options post pandemic, it’s likely there will be an increase in necessity-driven entrepreneurship and that women, being most vulnerable, will be especially impacted by the need to develop skills to generate an income.’

Therefore, promoting women in male-dominated sectors such as construction (with only 11% female representation) is important, as it facilitates access to opportunity and growth sectors and helps change the ecosystem. ‘It’s a chance for women to have a voice, claim space, and become role models for younger women,’ says Hosking. ‘As more women enter these sectors it helps to change the behaviours and attitudes of banks and other lenders toward women-owned businesses to improve access to finance, and to eliminate policies that restrict women’s participation in business.’

Making women visible

Dr Michele Ruiters, a GIBS senior lecturer on diversity, inclusion, and equity, explains why women continue to lag in fields perceived as ‘masculine’. ‘We perpetuate ideas that women are carers, relational and concerned about “soft issues’’,’ she says. ‘Although women work in historically male-dominated fields, they are not recognised unless there’s a hashtag initiative celebrating them. We are in those spaces but culture sometimes makes those women invisible.’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, men outnumber women approximately four to one when it comes to appearing in the South African news as experts and sources, according to the founders of Quote this Woman+. There are plenty of competent women in business, academics and politics around, and the free database was launched to shine the light on them.

Making ‘invisible’ women visible has a role model effect (along the lines of ‘you can be what you see’). Being exposed to female construction bosses or women running their own engineering firm, opens career perspectives for other women and girls, particularly if the role models have diverse cultural and racial backgrounds. 

From hustler to entrepreneur

Meanwhile, government is boosting female empowerment through regulations. In 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa set aside 40% of public procurement projects for black women-owned businesses. A recent study revealed that currently between only 1% and 6% of state contracts are awarded to women, despite female-owned enterprises accounting for up to 31% of all businesses. The study suggests additional measures, such as using gender as a tie-breaker between equally qualified bidders or requiring subcontracts to be offered to women-owned businesses.

In construction, 48% of businesses registered with the Construction Industry Development Board are owned by women. Unfortunately, it’s not as impressive as it may seem, as the majority are small: 95% fall within grades 1 to 3, and only four women-owned enterprises are grade 8. The grades are based on the construction track record of a company and its available capital; so a higher grading translates to bigger government tenders.

Mirriam Mashego, GIBS Programme Manager, explains that 70% of the women in the NHBRC programme are ‘entrepreneurs by default’. ‘They started their business from the tendering side, usually because someone wanted to partner with them, but without really knowing the business side of construction in terms of managing their operations and labour or marketing their business,’ she says. ‘Our programme helps them to change their mindset – from hustlers to entrepreneurs, who create jobs and grow their businesses sustainably.’

The participants work in various construction-related areas, from home building; road construction and maintenance; to training and development; refurbishing; manufacturing; as well as engineering, amongst others. All have to be NHBRC-registered.

Current participant Dimakatso Kanyane entered the construction industry via an HR job but soon found going on-site more exciting than office work. She now runs her own company, Inhlosoyakhe (‘Determination’), with six full-time employees and is involved in RDP housing in Mpumalanga. ‘Building houses for people to live in is a beautiful experience,’ says Kanyane, who wants to add steelworks, specifically the manufacture of window frames, to her business. ‘As women, we are not interested in competing with men. We are here to complement and bring a diversity to the conversation that is necessary for a holistic approach,’ she says. 

Ultimately, South Africa should be beyond asking for the business case of including women in male-dominated industries, and rather look at what we are losing by underutilising the diverse perspectives and innovative potential of female entrepreneurs. It goes deeper than financial profitability and could be the key to a more sustainable future.

Funded by the NHBRC, the Women Empowerment Programme is an immersive tailor-made programme to assist women entrepreneurs in the construction sector to develop their entrepreneurial, business and leadership skills to help them operate and sustain profitable businesses. It entails 12 months of business and management training, followed by 12 months of support services such as mentorship, coaching, networking events, and facilitating access to finance and new markets. The programme has been rolled out nationally in six provinces to 110 women. The NHBRC has previously supported 200 women entrepreneurs through this programme with spectacular results. Many of the women have formed consortia and networks to take their businesses to the next level.

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