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Tanzania’s female entrepreneurs are going digital

Tuesday June 01 2021
Digital pic

Lydia Charles provides training on business skills to young entrepreneurs. PHOTOS | COURTESY

By Priyanka Sippy

Under the bright lights, racks of clothing line the store of Agnes Kinyami’s shop. In the window, four mannequins are in place, showcasing colourful jackets, floral dresses, and chiffon skirts – all of which were initially found in a mitumba store.

This is Agnes’s second shop, located in Mwenge. Her first shop, she says, was considerably smaller. But after the business grew, she moved to a bigger space and has been here since 2020.

Agnes’s business did not begin with a shop. It started with the click of a camera – taking photos of her products for her Instagram page. This is where Agnes slowly built a following of nearly 30,000 followers, bringing her regular customers from across East Africa. The capital generated from her online sales meant that a few years later she could afford her own space to rent in Dar es Salaam.

Starting her enterprise in 2015, Agnes recognised that starting a business online was a good option, due to Tanzania’s growing social media presence, and the little start-up cost needed. “To open a shop can be expensive. You need enough money to pay rent, bills, and tax” she said. “So, I saw it was easier to start online as Instagram is very popular in Tanzania. I just required a good camera to take photos and then enough to do paid promotion.”

Agnes is just one of many businesswomen in Tanzania who are now launching their companies online. Digital savvy entrepreneurs have realised they do not need to be on the street to attract customers. All they need is a smartphone and a social media account.

With low initial costs and ease of access, social media is fast becoming a popular way to start a business. In Tanzania, the market is big: NapoleonCat, a statistics website, estimates there are nearly three million people using Instagram in the country. This is coupled with a significant growth in internet access. There are now 27 million internet users - the majority of which use their smartphone to get online.

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Lydia Charles, 28, the Founder and Executive of HerInitiative, an NGO supporting women to become financially independent, believes that the digital space is a key avenue for young women to be successful entrepreneurs. “Everything is shifting to digital. For you to be relevant and capture the market you want, you need to be online” she explains. “For women, it is a simpler access point because they can start a business wherever they are. You can just open your page and start selling. Once you grow, then you can get a physical space.”

But Lydia sees several hurdles for women to enter the digital sphere. One of those is around mindset: “usually in school, boys are geared towards math, science and technology. Some women have the belief that technology is difficult, but it is more straightforward than it seems.”

“Access to smartphones and internet packages can also be a challenge. It would be positive to see a more enabling environment to remove these barriers. We need to encourage young women to be creative and participate.”

She also notes that there should be more training for women to sharpen their skills on digital marketing and social media. Considering this, Lydia recently launched Panda Digital to support female entrepreneurs to access these skills. The platform is the first e-learning tool in Swahili that equips women with the abilities needed to enter the digital economy.

One of the women who has benefited from such training from HerInitiative is Anastasia Newman George, 27, who started her aromatherapy business last year via Instagram. While Anastasia’s initial idea was to have a clinic to provide mental health services and sell her products, she saw an opportunity to first grow the enterprise online. She says: “you should start with what you have. I knew that starting digitally would be easier than having a shop.”

Anastasia believes that this way of shopping brings benefits to both the business owner and the customer. Operating via Instagram has allowed her to reach many parts of the country, as well as neighbouring countries, like Kenya, which would have otherwise been difficult.

With online shopping becoming more popular in Tanzania, Anastacia imagines this could become the norm.

“Customers like to browse and purchase online – it is easier for them. You are reducing the time it takes to travel and take public transport when you go to the shops. You can buy what you need from the comfort of your home.”

E-commerce has seen a surge in the last year also due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Lydia Charles says this has pushed more businesses to operate on social media: “either we do it or the business dies. When the pandemic first hit, many people were wary of coming into contact and instead wanted to be able to sell and buy items in a safe way.”

But while it may seem easy, for the female entrepreneurs dominating the market, they say success has not come overnight. Agnes Kinyami, who has nearly 30,000 Instagram followers, says the journey has not been effortless.

“When you are online, in some ways it needs more attention than a shop. You need to be active, get followers, engage with them and be creative. It takes time to build your brand.”

Amina Haruna Ndanzi, 22, the owner of Boss Nails, agrees. While Amina has a shop, she says that most of her customers have come from Instagram, and she now uses the platform to sell cuticle oil.

She believes that while many women have social media, they need the skills to learn how to access and target the right market. She says that being online has helped her financially, increasing her income year on year. This is why Lydia Charles believes that the digital space could be crucial for women – it can help give them financial independence.

“It is important for women to have their own income. When women are dependent, they become vulnerable. But independence gives you the ability to make your own choices.” She says, “But it can be difficult to get employment, so I believe that the digital space gives women a great chance to become an entrepreneur – and create their own solution.”