Experience is the Best Teacher: 3 African Activists-Turned-Entrepreneurs


By Zarreen Kamalie

Sometimes it’s tricky identifying whether someone’s a social entrepreneur or a social activist. Social activists are often at the forefront of identifying and raising awareness around key social and political problems within a society. Their goal is essentially to bring about change in the way things are done. Whether that is through government policy, or through community engagement, social activists are convinced there can always be improvement. Social entrepreneurs see it this way too, though their focus is on building organizations, and specified solutions. Their paths can cross as they may work in similar spheres. Some even make the jump and use their knowledge of one field to advance the other.

Activists who turn into social entrepreneurs are the ones who address a social cause with a different approach, one that includes mobilizing resources, building organizations and applying business skills to social problems. Making the jump between the two is something worth noting because it takes a major shift in one’s comfort zone, possibly an acquisition of new skills, and even reaching out to the very institutions that you were protesting against.
The following African activists were able to make that transition, leaving behind a legacy to be proud of.

1) Wendy Luhabe
South African

Wikimedia Commons/CC/World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland
Wikimedia Commons/CC/World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland

As an economic activist for the past 20 years, Wendy Luhabe is a firm believer that once women have financial security, that they will be able to lift not only themselves up, but their communities as well.  Her latest project enables women in townships and rural areas to bake bread and earn a living. It could be life-changing, especially on the scale she envisages. She has been known to express her disregard for charity and welfare systems, as she believes they perpetuate dependency. In a political context that works toward social liberation, to be able to say ‘Nope, this is not the way to do it’ is pretty impressive.

Luhabe is the founder of Women Private Equity Fund, has been a pioneering Social Entrepreneur for the past two decades. Her passions lie in building an ecosystem for entrepreneurship in Africa and she is a recipient of 3 Honorary Doctorates and a member of the International Council of Business Women Leaders initiated by Hillary Clinton on the Economic Empowerment of Women.

Although Luhabe has indicated that she will not raise a second equity fund after the closure of the women-focused private equity fund, we can hope that her mentorship to other young entrepreneurs during her successes inspires innovation and initiative among the youth in South Africa.

2) Leymah Gbowee

Wikimedia Commons/CC/Jon Styer, Eastern Mennonite University
Wikimedia Commons/CC/Jon Styer, Eastern Mennonite University

The Women’s Rights and Peace activist was one of three female recipients to be awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, “for non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peacebuilding work.” During unstable times in Liberia, Gbowee has helped organize and lead the Liberian Mass Action for Peace, an alliance of Christian and Muslim women, in public protest. In her TEDx talk, she explained how as a social worker during the first war, she helped organize an interreligious coalition of Christian and Muslim women called the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement. If you’re well versed in Liberia’s bloody history, you’ll understand progressive implications of fostering interfaith unity after years of taught animosity.

Her organization, Women Peace and Security Network Africa, and the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa trains and empowers women in Africa to bring peace to their own countries. The foundation works towards facilitating equal access to opportunities, mainly through female empowerment into leadership roles in schools and communities. Madam Gbowee has definitely taken matters into her own hands here.

3) Mariéme Jamme

Mariéme Jamme, can be described as a kind of tech activist. She is the CEO of Spot One Global Solutions and the woman behind the Jjiguène Tech Hub based in Senegal, a tech network that supports young women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Jamme is also behind the platform, Africa Gathering, which engages social entrepreneurs and activists to pool their thoughts and provide practical solutions for Africa’s development.

Jamme continues to inspire young African thinkers and innovators. Her website www.mariemejamme.com, is dedicated to stories of activism, philanthropy, and the like, showcasing her varied interests and roots in social consciousness that has helped shape her knack for social enterprise.

All of the aforementioned individuals had been through a degree of hardship on a personal level that would later define and build their capacity to problem solve. Unlike activists alone, these social entrepreneurs were able to isolate a problem and develop a sustainable solution. While these individuals tackled massive issues that seem to have no end, like gender discrimination and financial inclusion, their drive enabled them to dig their claws into the problem and hang on until they saw fit to let go.