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The lionesses leading the pride

by Omokolade Ajayi

As we close Global Women’s Month, the theme this year being, break the bias, it is only fitting to celebrate the incredible businesswomen from across the African continent. There are many formidable women who have built extraordinary legacies and kingdoms on the continent. Where in the past, we have Queen Nzinga from Angola, Hatshepsut from Egypt, and the various queens from West Africa who have been not only formidable but highly ambitious in their thrust to build significant wealth and profits.

Here is a snippet of some of the modern-day queens who have not only broken the bias but have pioneered male-dominated industries and carved out niches that show other young lioness cubs that it is all very possible, no matter their background.

Elisabeth Bradley

Country: South Africa

Elizabeth Bradley is the daughter of Albert Wessels, the man who made history by being the first person to bring the Toyota brand to South Africa. In 1961, Albert Wessels imported ten pickup trucks from a then little-known company called Toyota in Japan. The Japanese soon agreed that Wessels could produce the vehicle under license in South Africa. Business boomed, and the Wessels family brought its interests under the umbrella of Wesco (listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) in 1971) and Metair (listed in 1949). The trucks proved popular for their sturdiness in Africa, and by 1968, Toyota had become the most popular commercial vehicle in South Africa. The grip only loosened in 2002, when TMC took control of Toyota SA from the Wessels family, weeks before Elisabeth’s brother and Toyota SA Executive Chairman Bert Wessels, died of an aneurysm.

Elizabeth started her career in business as a managing director of Wesco Investments Limited in 1986, and in 1991, she became the non-executive chair. The three main trusts through which the Wessels family-controlled Wesco were the SA Trust & Finance Company (33 percent), Contax Investment (12 percent), and Alpha Institute (10.4 percent), with Bradley herself owning another nine percent.

When the company was sold to Toyota-Japan for a whopping sum of $320 million, Elisabeth walked away with a Sum of $150 million. Elizabeth is a shareholder at prominent blue-chip companies such as Standard Bank, Rosebank Inn, AngloGold, Hilton Hotel, agriculture and agri- processing businesses, Tongaat Hulett, and Sasol. Elizabeth Bradley is the epitome of strategic investment and resilience, garnering profits from companies in which she saw potential – despite acknowledgment of all potential financial risks.

Sharon Wapnick

Country: South Africa

Sharon Wapnick is a practicing attorney and is a founding and named partner of TWB—Tugendhaft Wapnick Banchetti and Partners. She is the daughter of billionaire Alec Wapnick, who in 1968 started City Property, a residential and commercial property management company. She has been quoted as saying that “the best man for the job is usually a woman.” Wapnick is the chairperson of two family businesses — Octodec Investments and Premium Properties. Sharon has been actively involved with Octodec Investments initially as a non-executive director since 1994 and as chairperson since her appointment in October 2011

 In September 2014, spearheaded by Ms. Wapnick, Premium Properties merged with Octodec. Octodec, including its subsidiaries, is one of the largest property owners in the Tshwane and Johannesburg areas, with a diversified portfolio that consists of 267 properties valued at R11.3 billion. Her older brother Jeffrey Wapnick is the managing director, while Sharon has maintained her position as chairperson. The two are the oldest children of real estate billionaire Alec Wapnick. Sharon Wapnick once told Business Day that it would be “unusual if there were no sibling rivalry” between herself and Jeffrey. Despite this, the two have built the empire into a formidable one.

Bridget Radebe

Country: South Africa

Bridget Radebe is the older sister of South African billionaire Patrice Tlhopane Motsepe.

Bridget’s business interest is in mining. She started her career as a miner before setting up her own mining firm called Mmakau Mining, in an industry where men own most mining firms. Bridget’s firm specializes in the exploration of gold, platinum, chrome, uranium, coal, and vanadium. Bridgette was born into an entrepreneurial family during the apartheid era when Black people were not allowed to hold a mining license – and not allowed to mine or own mining rights. Her parents had to fight oppressive rules against Black businesspeople, which created the foundation for the spirit of economic activism within Bridgette and her family. In 1976, she and her tribe, who were robbed of royalty payments for mineral rights leased to a Canadian company, marched to the mine seeking justice. They were met with teargas, police dogs, and guns.

Bridgette swore that she would become a mining lawyer, but despite being accepted at Wits University, her race prohibited her from studying there. She was banished to the University of the North – a racist Bantu education institution – where she was expelled due to striking against the Bantu education, thus ending her path towards a career in law.

This, however, did not deter her from pursuing her dream; Bridgette entered the mining industry as the first Black mining entrepreneur. Women at that time were prohibited from owning mining rights or working in mines. As a contract miner, her company produced minerals and managed shafts for the big mining firms, acquiring the relevant skills and expertise critical to building her own business.

Today Mmakau Mining has equity in platinum mines, coal, chrome and gold and shaft sinkers (a company specializing in shaft sinking, mining construction, and development worldwide). Through her presidency of the South African Mining Development Association (South Africa’s largest Mining Chamber), she has pioneered models for creating sustainable mining communities.

Irene Charnley

Country: South Africa

Irene Charnley is a former trade unionist and negotiator. She spent 13 years as a negotiator for South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers. After stepping down as negotiator for the Union, Irene became an executive director for Africa’s largest telecom company, MTN. In this space, she blossomed and is known for her role in helping to leverage and expand the reach of MTN. As the company’s executive director, she worked to secure licenses in Nigeria and Iran and was awarded stock options worth $150 million. Irene called it quits with MTN following some controversies and set up her own telecom company, Smiles Telecommunication, a low-cost telecom company in Mauritius, in 2007. At Smiles, she was the company’s CEO until 2019, when she was demoted to deputy chair. Irene Charnley’s business interest is believed to be solely invested in telecommunications. Her telecom company, Smiles, is said to be worth $58 billion.

Wendy Appelbaum

Country: South Africa

Wendy Appelbaum is the daughter of the late South African billionaire, Sir Donald Gordon, who founded the insurance and real estate firm Liberty Investors. Wendy started her career as a director at Liberty Group, a real estate company owned by her father.

Appelbaum’s first business venture was in 1994 with Wiphold, an investment company that empowered women from all walks of life. She started the company alongside ten other women. Wiphold was the first female-controlled company to list on the JSE. Reflecting on her time at Wiphold, Appelbaum says working there “was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life… We empowered women that were technically completely disadvantaged, really empowered them to understand how to invest and take a little bit of money and make it a lot. There was an incredible amount of energy in that boardroom. I’ve never been in a boardroom that good ever since.”

Appelbaum says that her privileged start in life isn’t the only reason for her success: “I really did understand how to run a business and how to make money. A lot of people say I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, which to a degree I was, but I’ve certainly not relied on that to get on with my own business and do what I wanted to do.”

Wendy owns 224 acres of wine farm called Demorgenzon wine estate, making her a big player in South Africa’s wine industry. Her first vintage wine, Chenin Blanc, is known to have won several accolades for its unique taste, and the wine company is said to sell over half a million bottles of wine every year, with 85 percent being exported to countries like France, Sweden, the UK, Canada, and the United States.

Appelbaum has said in interviews that she learned a lot from her father. However, her work ethic was something she had to develop independently: “He certainly taught me a lot about business, but being a girl and growing up in the 1970s [meant] there was not much expectation [for] me to do anything. It was my choice to do something. So, I have always worked, and I have always been busy.”

Hajia Bola Shagaya

Country: Nigeria

Despite being born into an average-income family, Hajia Bola Shagaya beat the odds to change her family’s history for good. Bola Shagaya was born on Oct. 10, 1959 in Kwara State. Her father, Emenike Moba, was a Nigerian public servant, while her mother, Adult Makur, was a Sudanese seamstress. She hails from Ilorin, Kwara State but resides and conducts her business mainly in Lagos. She attended Queens School in her hometown and has a degree from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, before proceeding to the United States where she studied Accountancy and Economics at Armstrong College in California.

Bola Shagaya started a promising career as a banker. She worked in the audit department of the Central Bank of Nigeria. In 1983, she left the corporate world and ventured into business. Hajia Bola started her business career by importing and distributing photographic materials such as roll papers, films, and chemicals under the trading name Bolmus International (Nigeria) Limited. Soon, she became the sole West African agent of the then-leading photographic company, Konica.

As a shrewd entrepreneur, she saw opportunities in the Nigerian photography industry and expanded her Konica marketing operations to photo laboratories. This later birthed Fotofair (Nigeria) Limited, a photo laboratory company, in 1997. Fotofair (Nigeria) Limited has grown into a leading photo laboratory company in Nigeria, with many branches spread across the nation.

Bola founded Practoil Limited, one of the largest importers and distributors of base oil in Nigeria today. Practoil Limited has set up a lubricating plant in Kirikiri, Lagos. Around 2005 Hajia Bola expanded her operations in the oil and gas industry by establishing another exploration company, Voyage Oil and Gas Limited, in 2011. In 2012, Voyage Oil and Gas Limited were awarded an oil exploration license by the Nigerian government. Since then, her oil and gas companies have operated as dealers and independent marketers of oil, petroleum products, and gas. They also engage in petroleum product sales, marketing, storage, and haulage.

Bola’s business empire includes considerable investments in real estate. She owns a lot of luxurious residential properties cutting across major cities in Nigeria and properties in Europe and the United States. Amongst other positions, Hajia Bola is also a board member of the National Economic Partnership for Africa Development, a Nigeria-focused business group.

Folorunso Alakija

Country: Nigeria

Folorunso Alakija was born on 15 July 1951 to an upper-middle-class family. Her father was Chief L. A. Ogbara of Ikorodu, Lagos State. Folorunso started her career in 1974 as an executive secretary at Sijuade Enterprises, Lagos, Nigeria, shortly after completing a Secretarial Course at Pitman’s Central College London. She moved to the former First National Bank of Chicago as the Executive Secretary to the managing director.

She became the new head of the Corporate Affairs Department of the International Merchant Bank of Nigeria and later became the office assistant to the Treasury Department. Shortly after her career in the banking world, which lasted for 12 years, Alakija took up a new challenge driven by her passion for Fashion to study fashion design at The American College in London and the Central School of Fashion.

After returning to Nigeria, she started her first fashion label known as Supreme Stitches, later renamed The Rose Of Sharon House of Fashion in 1996. Rose of Sharon House of Fashion became a household name within a few years. In May 1993, Alakija applied for the allocation of an oil prospecting license. The license to explore for oil on a 617,000-acre block—now referred to as OPL 216 — was granted to Alakija’s company, Famfa Limited. The block is approximately 350 kilometers (220 miles) southeast of Lagos and 110 kilometers (70 miles) offshore of Nigeria in the Agbami Field of the central Niger Delta. In September 1996, Alakija entered into a joint venture agreement with Star Deep Water Petroleum Limited and appointed the company as a technical adviser for the exploration of the license, transferring 40 percent of her 100-percent stake to Star Deep.

They succeeded in their exploration and soon became one of the largest indigenous exporters of crude oil in Nigeria. On top of this success, Folorunso dived into other interests like printing and real estate. The Rose of Sharon Group consists of The Rose of Sharon Prints & Promotions Limited, Digital Reality Prints Limited, and Famfa Oil Limited, where she is the executive vice chairman. Her real estate interests are in the DaySpring Property Development Company, where she has majority stakes. Alakija is the executive director of FAMFA Oil, which is said to be worth over $600 million.

Folorunso is a well-respected billionaire who has appeared on Forbes lists.

Njeri Rionge

Country: Kenya

Njeri Rionge is a Kenyan businesswoman who founded Wananchi Online, a company that provides internet services throughout East Africa. She is known for helping to raise close to $60 million in growth capital for Wananchi Online. Forbes has described Njeri as being a “serial entrepreneur.” Wananchi Online is arguably one of her biggest successes. Wananchi is currently worth over $150 million, and Njeri has gone ahead to start other successful businesses in Africa, which have made millions quickly.

Njeri was 20 when she founded her first company selling yoghourt. In these early days, she sold yoghurt to high school kids during break times from the back of a borrowed car. She became a hairdresser before starting a luxury goods trade shuttling between Kenya, London, and Dubai. According to a BBC interview in 2012, she tried many businesses before she touched the one ‘that turned into gold’.

Towards the end of the nineties, Rionge saw an excellent opportunity to provide internet access to the Kenyan masses. She then started Wananchi Online in 2000, and it eventually became extremely popular as an affordable and accessible internet service provider. The name, meaning ‘citizen’ in Swahili, was chosen to deliberately align the company with its objective of providing internet access to regular Kenyan citizens. After her success with Wananchi Online, Njeri went ahead to found Ignite, a management consulting firm dedicated to helping African businesses leave lasting legacies. Under her leadership, Ignite has expanded to include Ignite Lifestyle (a health care consultancy).

Soon to follow were Business Lounge, a Kenyan startup holding company that helps grow and incubate new businesses to make them as successful as possible. Insite is a digital marketing company that helps Kenyan businesses and UpCountry Africa Fund Assets Corp., a firm geared to help leverage sub-Saharan businesses with capital.

Tabitha Karanja

Country: Kenya

Tabitha Karanja is a Kenyan businesswoman and industrialist who has been in the business industry since 1997, and she is the CEO of Keroche Breweries. She was born in Naivasha, near Kijabe, in central Kenya. After attending Kenyan schools, she took up employment in the Ministry of Tourism as an Accounting Clerk. She met and married her husband, who owned a successful hardware store in Naivasha town. In 1997, the couple closed the hardware store and went into the wine-making business. The fortified blend was affordable and became popular quickly because it targeted the lower end of the market.

The government taxed wine heavily in 2007, and Karana was priced out of the Kenyan wine market. But Karanja wasn’t fazed; she started making gin drinks and vodka and then began brewing beer. Beer helped the Keroche brand take off. In 2008, she added beer to her repertoire of alcoholic beverages, starting with a brand called “Summit.” In 2013, the factory began expansion plans to increase beer production from 60,000 bottles per day to 600,000 bottles per day as its popularity soared. Keroche Breweries is the first-ever beer factory to be owned by a Kenyan. Currently, Tabitha is facing personal and professional woes. Firstly, the death of her daughter under mysterious circumstances and the shut-down of the breweries because the company is embroiled in a dispute with the Kenyan Revenue Authority. These are just stumbling blocks in the road which Tabitha is facing head-on and tackling.

Divine Ndhlukula

Country: Zimbabwe

Dr. Divine Ndhlukula is a Zimbabwean businesswoman, founder, and managing director of DDNS Security Operations (Pvt) Ltd, the holding company for SECURICO Security Services. She was born on Feb. 5, 1960 in rural Gutu, Zimbabwe, to Mary and Piniel Simbi. She grew up in Gutu and attended several schools. Dr. Divine Ndlukula was married to Stanely Ndhlukula (late). She studied for an Executive MBA at Midlands State University.

She holds another MBA from Women’s University in Africa and a Ph.D. in Business Leadership from the Women’s University, conferred in recognition of her business leadership and gender equality initiatives. Divine’s career started when she worked for Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and Old Mutual for six years as an accounting officer and then joined Intermarket Life Assurance as a marketing executive, where she worked for 16 years and left to found SECURICO. She wanted to revolutionize the industry and provide motivated employees who would protect businesses and buildings across the country. Speaking to a Zimbabwean newspaper, she said, “I thought there was a gap in the industry. Companies that were there were not living up to the needs of the clients. The industry was renowned for wild cat strikes, and guards generally were perceived as the lowly-paid in any sector. I wanted to change the perceptions and create a niche in which people could carve out a career, and I knew I needed to go in with a different approach, and that approach was going to make the difference, the people had to be key or central feature of the vision.”

Securico was the first Zimbabwean-staffed security company to be certified by the internationally acclaimed ISO9001: 2008 Quality Management System. Divine has also expanded into agribusiness and founded Zvikomborero Farms, an agricultural company involved in various farming activities. Dr. Ndhlukula was named one of the most successful women in Africa by Forbes.

As mentioned in the beginning, this is only a glimpse into the incredible lionesses of the continent and the businesses they are building. On a continent that stretches as vastly as Africa with 54 countries, there are many stories we have yet to share and uncover.

Tsitsi Mutendi is a co-founder of African Family Firms, an organization that aims to facilitate the continuity of African family businesses across generations. She is also the lead consultant at Nhaka Legacy Planning and the host of the Enterprising Families Podcast.

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