Women are itching to get involved in Africa’s multibillion-dollar infrastructure industry.
It is no easy task. The sector is historically dominated by men, financial institutions turn up their noses at women attempting to access money and established companies are favored for big deals.
But Leading Women of Africa (LWA) is determined to help women not only get their foot in the door, but become the ones formulating the plans and signing deals. LWA is a network of 18,000 contacts, mostly in Africa, which links women in different countries. “If you are not on the table, you are on the menu,” says LWA president Madelein Mkunu.
LWA launched Women in Infrastructure Development in Africa (Wida) at the third Corporate G20-Africa Investment Conference in London in July. The initiative is starting to create a space for women to engage with infrastructure stakeholders in the public and private sector. “We want to support a mechanism that will increase the number of women-owned companies that are in the infrastructure sector. Also at a policy level and at a legal framework level… because that is where everything needs to start; where women need to be recognized.”
Wida aims to ensure that women’s agendas are taken seriously by institutions and by the Program for Infrastructure Development in Africa (Pida).
Pida was set up to accelerate the delivery of Africa’s current and future regional and continental infrastructure projects in transport, energy, information and telecommunications technologies, as well as trans-boundary waterways. It promotes regional economic integration by bridging Africa’s infrastructure gap. The con-tinent is the least integrated physically and economically, with intra-regional trade and global trade at 10% and 3%, respectively.
Pida, which will run until 2040, is supported by the African Union (AU) Commission, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), the African Development Bank (AfDB), the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the Regional Economic Communities.
African governments are increasingly focusing on infrastructure development to grow their economies. It is estimated that poor infrastructure alone saps the continent of 2% economic growth every year.
Earlier this year, the AfDB launched a $500 million development fund to sponsor feasibility studies of large infrastructure projects across sub-
Saharan Africa. Mkunu says the LWA is in talks with the AU, Nepad and AfDB, and that Wida has been well
received all round.
“At the G20 summit… there was a strong push by the LWA, Pida department and Nepad Business Council for more women representation in infrastructure development.
“We did not expect for them to be so receptive, because we know that the issue of women and infrastructure is a new issue we are bringing up. You know, nobody really ever thought that women would be interested in this sector. We were kind of amazed about how they were willing to listen to us.”
For the LWA, it makes business sense to focus on infrastructure. The industry is growing at a rapid pace, and if Africa is serious about development, much still needs to be done.
According to Pida, only 30% of people on the continent have access to electricity, while 34% have access to roads. Internet penetration in Africa stands at just 6% and only 4% of available water resources are developed. The total cost of implementing all the projects that Pida has identified to address projected infrastructure needs by 2040 will amount to $360 billion.
“For us at LWA, yes, we do agree that the economic empowerment of women needs to start at the bottom. Women have to put food on the table and send their children to school. However, when we look at the sustainability of women’s economic empowerment, it actually involves women getting access to real projects.
“Let’s just look at the next 30 years and Pida’s goals for 2040: we don’t want to be left behind. We want to get in there while they are planning. We don’t want, by the year 2040, that they realize, ‘oh women again have been left behind’,” says Mkunu.
One woman who is grabbing the bull by the horns is South African property developer Belinda Moleko. Moleko has gone where no African has gone before. She is spearheading a $500 million project to design and build a small town near Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
Last year Moleko approached the Tanzanian government for a piece of land to develop. The government agreed and gave her land near Kilimanjaro, to take advantage of the high number of tourists who flock to Africa’s highest mountain, and therefore attract international investors.
“Through LWA, I presented myself to say: ‘I can do this type of thing. You offer me the land, you offer me payment guarantees, I will offer you performance guarantees’,” she says confidently.
“I was very lucky with Tanzania. They said: ‘Belinda, I will give you the MOU (memorandum of understanding) to develop 20,000 houses. We want you to create a whole new (town), like they do in South Africa.’”
The first phase of the project will see the local municipality moving its employees on site. Currently they have to travel daily from Arusha, which is about 100 kilometers away. A total of 1,400 houses with sanitation, electri-city and running water are due to be built by March next year. The town will eventually have all the amenities of a modern urban space, including schools, a library, hotels and parks.
“I’m going to leave a legacy that a woman came in and changed the face of Africa forever,” Moleko says intently.
But her dream has not been without obstacles.
“I could see there is a problem of housing, there is a problem with sanitation and that somebody needs to go in there and change it. But with this huge project on this table… I’m still finding it difficult, I cannot do it alone. I find that all the people I’m interviewing,
99 percent of them are men, and cannot believe that a black woman from South Africa has landed this project. They look at you as if to say: ‘you must have done something to deserve this’.”
One of Moleko’s major headaches has been access to finance, a common problem for women in the construction industry as well as in other sectors.
Commercial banks and even development finance institutions believe that women are more of a risk than their male counterparts. And that is even though Moleko has 20 years’ experience in the industry and her company, Bella Casa, built the first housing cluster in a South African township, Tembisa, near Pretoria.
“Take this project in Tanzania now. I have contacted banks here, and the first thing is: ‘what sureties do you have?’ I don’t have sureties, but I have a project that can give me sureties. I’m yet to see a bank that supports women without those conditions.
“I have seen ladies getting a small tender of about R100,000 ($10,000)… She gets that tender, knocks at the bank (door) to say government has given me a tender to supply them A, B, C, D. That tender even expires. That is why you see a tendency of people selling tenders to sell that project because it’s either you settle for a R1,000 ($100) or you lose.
There is no bank that wants to listen to you. They just aren’t friendly from the reception up.”
Moleko says another concern is that many women do not know how to put together a business plan, but banks and development finance institutions refuse to help them.
Although the AfDB has launched its development fund for infrastructure, Mkunu says the LWA will eventually set up its own fund to help women in infrastructure.
Moleko credits South Africa’s Trade and Industry Department for enabling her to move on the Tanzanian project. She approached the department’s gender desk to fund a $1.7 million feasibility study. After nearly five months of thorough checking, the department agreed.
But as Moleko says, governments cannot support infrastructure development on their own. Public-private partnerships, a buzzword gaining traction on the continent, are essential.
Although they look good on paper, in practice these partnerships leave much to be desired. Often projects are not completed because of logistics, non-payment by government, or even because companies run off with the cash. There are also very few systems in place to monitor what is being done, and unfinished projects are common across the continent.
Although Moleko is facing her biggest challenge so far, she believes her town will not be another half-baked project, and that once she has proved her mettle, the world is her oyster.
“We hope that from this project, all the other projects I have identified in Rwanda and Kenya, they will open themselves up.”
As a woman, Moleko’s journey has not been easy.
“In our industry, you have to be strong. It forces you to change yourself, your culture, your mannerisms, your ‘womaness’, and beat the man at his own game.”
She offers unequivocal advice for women wanting to enter the industry or those wanting to further their careers. “I always tell ladies wherever I speak: ‘Take off that apron! Don’t knock, kick (down) the door!’ Gone are the days of wanting to play housewife, cleaning. Create jobs by getting a helper to do it. Get out of your cocoon and go out there.”
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