A cold afternoon in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capitol. Traffic is flowing smoothly along Wilkinson Road before we pull over in front of a gate. A sign says: “The Beauty Bar.” We drive in.
Two young women usher us into a compound for women-led enterprises consisting of three different ventures: a beauty salon, a lounge, and a concept store for African content; The Beauty Bar, The Members Room, and Talabi Studio respectively. The visit is part of a media tour of Freetown’s newly thriving women-owned businesses, organized by local advocates for women’s rights.
CEO Nadia Kamara says the businesses have been thriving, adding 18 employees - 10 women and eight men - in the past two years, and even disrupting the market in the process. But raising capital was difficult.
“We did our market research and came up with business plans, but access to finance as women was not easy,” she says.
These entrepreneurs have high hopes for a new law allowing women access to bank loans. They are part of a growing segment of business women who are changing Sierra Leone’s business culture and economy through their tenacity and resilience in an environment dominated by men.
We visit the businesses one day before Sierra Leone’s president signs a new law ensuring women access to bank loans. Before meeting entrepreneurs, we interviewed top officials at UN Women and the president of the largest women’s organization in the country, Women’s Forum Sierra Leone, to understand what this new law means to the west African nation.
Informal actors in economic growth
First thing that morning, we left the Swiss Hotel heading to the UN Women offices on 7C Mudge Farm. A female security guard opens the gate for us. On the first floor we are welcomed by Setcheme Jeronime Mongbo, the head of the Sierra Leone UN Women office. She leads us to a boardroom where we find UN Women program specialist Baindu Patricia Massaquoi and two other specialists on gender affairs.
“This country has gone through a lot in the past 20 years. Women have played a key role as peace enablers. We are in a part of west Africa where women are daily fighters,” Mongbo starts off.
However, women have been informal actors in the growth of the country’s economy, never invited to national decision making processes. Women make up 13% of the Sierra Leone parliament, 13% of the cabinet, and 19% of local government, according to Massaquoi. Plus, Mongbo says, early pregnancy affects 28% of adolescent girls aged 15–19 years.
“The challenge is the implementation of and the gaps in the policies. We have the three gender-related laws of 2007: the Customary, the Marriage, and Divorce Acts, but implementation and awareness have been a challenge,” says Massaquoi.
The low level of resources affects advocacy for women rights in Sierra Leone, according to Mongbo, and lack of financial resources to adequately spread awareness represents a threat to the implementation of any law.
“South-south learnings must be promoted within Africa to take advantage of cultural similarities in advancing gender equality and the empowerment of women. This will also increase the motivation of implementation the GEWE Law, as the blue-print cliché will be avoided” Mongbo says.
“Without financing, adjusted education and customized learning from each other, the results will rightly be mitigated. It is a long-term investment which is required because change takes time.”
Donor fatigue has crippled advocacy for women rights in Sierra Leone, according to Mongbo, and lack of financial resources to spread awareness continues to pose a threat to the implementation of any law. But Sierra Leone must learn from Ghana, Benin, and Mali that have implemented gender laws from within rural communities.
“Africa must learn from Africa because gender is a culture. We cannot do gender outside our culture, and we cannot just pick something from elsewhere and paste it,” Mongbo says. “It will not work. It takes financing, education and learning from each other. We need resources besides the words because change takes time.”
Where it all started
To understand where all this began, we drive to Dundas Street. On the first floor of a building where inner walls are branded with numerous messages against the abuse of women’s rights, we are led to the office of Sally Ndimawa Adams, the president of Women’s Forum Sierra Leone.
We learn from her that the 1991-2002 Sierra Leone civil war made the gender situation worse, with mass violation of human rights against women, further relegating them to the status of second-class citizens.
“The rebels burned our schools, raped, and impregnated our women and girls. They destroyed us,” Adams says, and you can feel from her intonation that women have for long been silenced here. They didn’t even have the right to own land.
Accessing capital as women entrepreneurs
Their words still ring in our ears as we pull up to The Beauty Bar at the women entrepreneur compound. The salon is owned by four women entrepreneurs, Nadia Kamara, Zulaikha Sesay, Yalamba Koroma, and Sissel Bangura, who have come together to ignite Sierra Leone’s female-led startup ecosystem. The Members Room café is co-owned by Kamara and Sesay. Kamara owns the film studio, Talabi Studio.
“It all started as a WhatsApp group of four friends during the covid pandemic. We didn’t have high level indigenous spas at the time,” Kamara says.
When they couldn’t raise start-up money, they funded their dreams out of their own pockets, initially raising $20,000.
That was nowhere near enough, but continued bootstrapping and support from family boosted the amount to $150,000, which could cover rent and import all materials needed for the business. “At least 95% of what we use has to be imported,” says Sesay, who acts as the chief operating officer.
They had to deal with supply chain challenges and the devaluation of the leone against the dollar. Finding competent beauty therapists was also not easy because most women have not been empowered to acquire the skills needed for an upmarket business. “We had to hire professionals from abroad. Women here have not had access to education as men,” says Sesay.
But to lower operational costs, they would soon train and hire local female therapists, and “teach them how to think logically, how to prioritize.”
How the new law can financially empower women
The Gender Equality and Women Empowerment Act (pdf) could change all that. There was singing and dancing when President Julius Maada Bio signed the bill ensuring women could not be denied bank loans because of their gender.
The law also ensures equal pay for the same work as men and equal training and scholarship opportunities. “A male and a female shall have equal access and rights to credit and financial services, transactions and products,” the law states. It has also increased women’s maternity leave period from 12 to 14 weeks.
This law represents a new dawn for millions of women in Sierra Leone who previously had to ask their husbands to sign for business loans or micro-credit, and fresh opportunities for single women who had been largely blocked from accessing financing.
“Women in the private sector struggle to make money or impact. This is now a law, and companies must employ at least 30% women. We will have more educated women getting jobs that will afford them to come to a place like us,” Kamara says. “It is a positive step on everything about including women. It is nice to feel like you are being supported under such a law. Access to finance will be exciting.”
Women entrepreneurs give back
We drive along Rasmusson Street and turn right to find Memuna Janneh baking cakes. She is the founder of Cassava Bistro, a catering startup that runs Lunch Box, a food program for school children that during the Ebola epidemic in 2015.
Since she started Lunch Box, she tells Quartz, school absenteeism has become history. “Attendance went up by 300% in two weeks. Education is an enabler in advancing women’s rights.” She started feeding 200 children, but now she feeds 700 each day in four primary schools.
The 46-year-old does most of her catering work for corporate clients and makes enough money to pay her 30 employees and run Lunch Box. “It’s about giving back,” Janneh says. She now plans to expand the project to the rural north.
One element of the new law she hopes will positively impact her business is access to financing. “Because I work closely with smallholder, women farmers and traders for the supply of cassava and orange-flesh potatoes. At that level they struggle with finance, and it is exciting to see how it can improve their strengths,” Janneh says
Women are constantly fighting sexual advances
She plans to set up a new bakery so she can work with women with disabilities who have long been excluded from business. “They will be the primary source of market penetration,” Janneh says.
She hopes the new law will help the women access funds to sign franchise deals with her. “It emboldens us to play to the tune and come up with innovations. We buy into it as business women,” Janneh says.
In Sierra Leone, she says, women get labeled and “it is like we are supposed to stay in that box.” She says women in Freetown constantly fight sexual advances from men in the corporate sector. “Women need to be respected as they do business.”
An estimated 62% of women aged between 15 and 49 report having experienced physical or sexual violence from men. This is despite the existence of the National Male Involvement Strategy policy under the Gender ministry for the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence in Sierra Leone.
“Nobody takes you serious as a woman”
We now follow Spur Road and turn right just after SpurMart to join Scan Drive to meet Maryann Kaikai, who has been the creative director and CEO of fashion design firm Madam Wokie since 2009.
She welcomes us to her concept studio. In the past two years she started inspiring a generation of women who had interest in fashion.
Kaikai says she partnered with the education ministry and the World Bank to train 180 women for the fashion workforce. University graduates without jobs were equipped with skills in IT and given startup kits. Those with less education were trained in tie-dye, beauty, and sewing for a year.
But it has been a rough environment running a business as a woman in Sierra Leone. “Nobody takes you serious as a woman in business, especially if the people working under you are of the opposite sex. They’ll be like ‘I can come to work whenever I want’,” says Kaikai.
When she started off, access to financing was a huge stumbling block to her. “There were no online platforms to find out where to get a loan,” she recalls. The electricity blackouts back then made running a business expensive.
But for the law to result in true inclusivity in the country, Kaikai says, more representation in parliament, cabinet and the private sector will be key to erasing the narrative of a men-led economy.
“When we have more women fighting for women, we’ll have more access to information about where to find funding,” she says. “But we don’t have this information because we have men fighting for the same things as us, yet women have more responsibilities.”
The country has a long way to go
Sierra Leoneans live in a patriarchal society that has made it difficult for women to break barriers, but a new generation of educated young women is rising to counter male chauvinism.
“They don’t allow men to bully them. They are not afraid of shouting down a man. It is a big problem to reverse these stereotypes but we are getting there,” 39-year-old Kaikai says.
It will take time for Sierra Leone to reach the gender parity levels of Rwanda, Ghana, and Kenya, where women have been empowered to serve in senior corporate and public offices without prejudice from men.
The tour has taken us the whole day, and as we drive back to the hotel, images of how the war ravaged the nation for over a decade are visible everywhere. Freetown looks much more like an ancient city that used to flourish than a rising modern African city. Old paint peels off the outer walls of most of the buildings, hopefully reflecting a slow erasure of the old repulsive mindsets against women.
There is optimism everywhere you go in this city. Old buildings are being bulldozed and new ones erected, signaling an economy that is bouncing back from its dark past, and more importantly, now attempting to involve women in critical decisions.