5 Lessons to learn from 5 Female Entrepreneurs in Africa

Bilikiss Adebiyi, Wecyclers.

Lagos, Nigeria faces a sobering waste crisis that will only worsen as the city’s population of 21 million people continues to soar. The overburdened municipal government collects only 40% of city garbage and a mere 13% of recyclable materials are salvaged from landfills.

People living in slum conditions without formal waste collection are subject to increased flooding, disease spread, and psychological stress from unmanaged trash heaps. At the same time, recycling firms in Lagos face a supply constraint -they cannot access adequate supply of quality materials required for processing. One of the large recycling firms in the country operates its factory at 50 to 60% below capacity.

Bilikiss Adebiyi Abiola was born in Lagos, where she went to the Supreme Education Foundation secondary school. She entered the University of Lagos, but left after one year, to complete her studies in the USA, where she graduated from Fisk University and then went to Vanderbilt University where she earned masters. She worked for IBM for five years, before deciding to study further. She was accepted to study for a Master of Business Administration (MBA) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

During her second year at MIT, where she studied Waste as major, she came up with the idea of a recycling business. Her initial idea was to increase the quantity of waste she could collect from households by offering them raffle tickets in exchange. When she discussed this in Nigeria during a vacation, she was surprised at the enthusiasm that she received for her ideas.  Bilikiss took the idea back to MIT, where she was able to gather support by entering her idea in competitions. Adebiyi’s husband had always been based in Nigeria, so there was a good reason for her to return to Lagos, after her 2012 graduation.

Today, Wecyclers uses a fleet of low-cost cargo bicycles to offer convenient household recycling service in densely populated low-income neighborhoods. It motivates families to recycle plastic bottles, plastic sachets, and aluminum cans through its SMS-based incentive program.

For every kilogram of waste that families recycle through Wecyclers, they receive redeemable Wecyclers points over their cell phones in return. Families can then redeem their points for goods of value, such as cell phone airtime, basic food items and household goods. Families receive collection reminders and rewards updates directly on their mobile phones, making the benefits of recycling immediate. After collection, Wecyclers aggregates the materials at the household level to sell to local recycling processors. Wecyclers provides a consistent supply of well-sorted, high quality recyclable materials to processors, thereby alleviating their supply constraints.

Adebiyi’s efforts have been reported in Nigeria, the UK, US and Germany. She has been awarded grants from MIT and has won a number of awards, including the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award (2013) for sub-Saharan Africa.

Tips for Success:

-Acquire some Business Management knowledge, as you will be managing people and resources, negotiating and closing deals. Online courses (some are free) may come in handy.

-Make smart people a sounding board for your ideas.


Banke Kuku, Banke Kuku Textiles

Banke’s mother had taught her to knit when she was five. She has always been more interested in fabric construction than the cuts. Kuku moved to London when she was 8, studied Fine Arts, earning a foundation Art and Design Diploma at Central Saint Martins College. Then she headed to the Chelsea College of Art and Design to study Textile Design.

Demand for Banke’s products became so overwhelming that she had to leave her job and concentrate pn the business. She has produced silk and cashmere scarves for companies in Paris, designed for other brands and written a book, The Unwoven Threads of Nigeria: The Effect of the Nigerian Textile Industry On The Country’s Cultural Identity and Economy.

There have been many challenges. The biggest challenge for Banke Kuku Textiles has been to develop a strong and tailored business model. The business is just as important as the design. She says she spends 75 percent of her time dealing with the business aspect and 25 percent designing.

Tips for Success:

-Venture into a passion-driven business.  Your passion keeps you going; not money or awards.

-Take care of the paperwork and develop a business plan and business model. Passion minus planning ruins a business


Dami Solesi, SMIDS Animation Studios

Founder Dami Solesi traces her passion for animation way back to childhood. She loved cartoons and producing them has always been her dream. SMIDS Animation Studios provides that platform and she’s grateful. A background in animation with a certificate in Autodesk 3D Max helps her work on various animation pipelines.

At SMIDS Animation Studios, she is privileged to have worked on some amazing projects where she has put her creative and organizing skills to use.  The business combines creative talent and innovative technology to create excellent entertaining computer animation.  SMIDS has a culture of excellence.

The small in-house team in Ikeja, Lagos, has both the expertise and capacity to complete projects of various scales. Their company website states “We are a team of world-class creative talents, who combine passion, experience and innovative thinking to give our clients and audience the very best. We fuse the latest technology with the knowledge and wisdom of traditional techniques to create world-class animation productions. We love what we do and these show in our work and we are constantly pushing the boundaries of technology and creativity.”

Tips for Success:

-There’s no limit to the type of business a woman can run. There are no restrictions. Women in tech are as important as the men in that field.

-Get a strong team for great support. Hire wisely.

-Always get acquainted with the latest trends in technology. It is a great enabler


Charity Wanjiku, Strauss Energy

Charity Wanjiku is contributing to making the earth cleaner by providing affordable, quality and clean energy source.

She graduated from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in 2006 with a Bachelor of Science in Architecture, later returning to the Institution for a Masters of Science in Project Management in Construction. Charity also holds an Impact Business Leadership certification from the IBL Institute, USA and is Member of Board of Registration of Architects and Quantity Surveyors (BORAQS), Architectural Association of Kenya (AAK) and Institute for the Management of Information Systems (IMIS).With these credentials in her portfolio, Charity is the Chief Operating Officer at Strauss Energy Limited, playing a vital complementary role to her brother Tony Nyaga who is the CEO.

Strauss Energy seeks to solve three major problems. First is the huge energy gap not just in Kenya but in the whole of Africa. Close to 70 % of the population lack access to electricity and the few lucky 30% contend with frequent blackouts, unpredictable and intermittent power bills.

Second is the need to improve the economic and purchasing power of the public, irrespective of their social class or financial muscle.

Third is the fact that though Africa (and Kenya, by inference) has the most Sun, but remains the most energy poor, when the sun can power the earth 3500 times. In other words, the energy produced by the sun at any given time can power 3500 earths!

Established in 2007 and officially incorporated in 2008, Strauss Energy has developed energy-producing solar cells that can be easily integrated into functional parts of a construction, such as walls, windows and roofs. Moreover, unlike traditional installations, their system comes with a special meter that can feed unused electricity back into the national grid, generating precious income for households. Strauss Energy currently develops and manufactures roofing tiles that have solar cells infused into them. This is a cost-effective alternative to conventional ly-installed solar panels. Therefore, in Kenya, rather than just paying for electricity, you can also get paid for selling your excess electricity.

In an Interview, Charity refers to earlier obstacles in her entrepreneurial journey, In an interview: “Building an effective team initially. Due to financial constraints, one ends up being a jack of all trades. It catches up with one, especially when customers come into play.”

She cites funding and cashflow as other obstacles. According to her, startup entrepreneurs may approach family, initially, to fund the enterprise to the next level.

Tips for Success:

-Bootstrap at the beginning and get ready to multitask.

-Don’t be afraid to ask family and friends for help. You are not a SuperHero


Zim Ugochukwu, Travel Noire

She understands the challenges of being an entrepreneur; how some people do not understand the sacrifices that come with being in charge, dealing with taxes,  government and other people’s problems; how working 15-hour days has left many of her fellow entrepreneur friends fighting depression, no matter their level of success. These are not something  Zim Ugochukwu, founder of Travel Noire would wish upon anybody, on a good day.

“Whenever people say they want to be an entrepreneur, I tell them that they don’t. You don’t want to be an entrepreneur. You like the idea of having something of your own, but in all reality, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do.”

Luckily for Zim, traveling is not just her business, but one of the ways she escapes the chaos that comes with her lifestyle. She also prays, nourishes her mind with inspirational books and quotes and takes advantage of the listening ears of her friends whenever she needs words of encouragement.

Growing up, Zim learned at an early age that traveling would be her way of life. She moved from Minnesota to Los Angeles and then back to Minnesota, before settling in Durham. Her strict upbringing and pursuit of excellence would lead to  Zim’s success at cloning a gene similarities to a genetic disorder (a feat achieved at age 19, as a biologist), becoming the youngest precinct judge for North Carolina’s Board of Elections and being on the executive board of an anti-tobacco organization, amongst many other achievements. Her credentials earned her a spot in the prestigious Henry Luce Scholars program, which sent her and at least 14 other post-college graduates to Asia in efforts to bridge the cultural gap between Asia and the Western world. Zim openly speaks about her time in Asia as being the catalyst to her wanting to create something that would empower people like her to share their love of travel and cultural immersion in efforts to educate those who were skeptical about traveling abroad.

Now with seven full-time staff members located all over the world, Ugochukwu has an ‘employee first’ attitude about running her business. For her employees gathered in Mexico, Kenya and Sicily, there are unlimited vacation days, two international retreats every year and no official office, so people can work wherever they feel most productive.

Ugochukwu has no problem imparting career advice to those who ask and urges young entrepreneurs to think twice, before starting out.  According to her, new businesses will fail, if startup founders think it is all about pretty pictures and not dealing with customers, taxes, licensing and payroll.

Tips for Success:

-You will fail, if you do not give attention to the important determinants of business success (employees, regulatory fundamentals, payroll, taxes)

-Look for an escape routine to ease out pressures.                   

-It is NOT easy to be an entrepreneur, get ready to work really hard.


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Chiamaka Akuba51 Posts

Chiamaka Akuba is a graduate of Mass Communication of the University of Lagos, Nigeria. She is passionate about emerging markets and entrepreneurship and is actively working with the industry. She loves her conversations challenging and can’t help laughing when you call her ‘Honourable Writer of the Federal Republic'. Chiamaka is a Staff Writer at Outrepreneurs.


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