/ 13 April 2004

Women few and far between in Gabon business

Marie-Julie Nse Ndzime has made a success of her printing company located in Gabon’s capital, Libreville — no thanks to anyone else.

“I never received a request for bids nor was lent any money by the banks,” she says. “I only got a leg up by hard work and networking.”

Nse Ndzime received on-the-job training before she decided to launch out on her own. Her first business, Imprilux, was started with several partners — but it failed. However, Nse Ndzime’s second company has enjoyed better fortunes since it opened its doors in 1990. Appropriately, it is named Dynasty.

She adds: “There’s a wide-open market for printing — but not for women … I think the attitudes male managers have towards women are strange.”

Only 10% of Gabonese businesswomen manage companies in the country. Many face an uphill struggle in trying to get fair treatment from their male counterparts, who have tended to judge them on their physical appearance alone.

“Gabonese businesswomen are owed greater respect and confidence because of what they put up with every day. In government, women are making some gains, but there are [still] only three women ministers out of about 30,” says Victoire Lasseni Duboz, formerly an MP and now chairperson on the board of the Gabonese National Timber Company.

Marianne Mboumbou, a member of the country’s Economic and Social Council, agrees.

“With the banks, the biggest problem we face is trust … When a woman asks for a loan of 200-million CFA francs [about $384 615] for example, she is likely to only get $50-million [about $96 154].”

At present, women account for less than 5% of CEOs of companies in Gabon — and less than 1% of those who sit on the boards of directors. However, some who reach the higher echelons of business are relatively well paid.

Georgette Linda Toussaint, who heads up a car import company, says part of the problem stems from traditional notions of what constitutes a woman’s role in society.

“Africa is already a very closed continent for women because of certain customs and norms, which men try to maintain in their homes and in professional circles,” she says. “A few years ago, people only trusted women to be homemakers and their occupations were pretty much limited to child rearing and taking care of the home.”

Toussaint owns Gabon’s sole franchise for the sale of cars manufactured in Korea. Sceptics said she would only last six months when she created the company in 1999 — but she now boasts of having introduced the cheapest and one of the most durable four-wheel drive vehicles yet seen on the Gabonese market.

“I will never give up … even if flagrant inequalities exist in getting bank loans. Perseverance and rigour in the day-to-day management of business is the golden rule,” she says.

Toussaint believes that education and a desire for independence are gradually helping Gabonese women carve out a niche for themselves in the business world, a trend also noted by Marianne Mboumbou.

“By spending lots of time with NGOs, I’m happy to report that women no longer want to be helped and no longer want just to accept what’s given to them — and lap things up with their eyes closed,” she observes, adding that women are joining forces within women’s groups to develop business plans.

Mboumbou also notes that women have established a strong presence in the agricultural sector.

Says Rita Massan, a cosmetics distributor: “Africa needs women, and societies can’t develop without them.”

“Business ventures are decreasing in Gabon and we need to innovate every now and then to maintain course.” — IPS