Women entrepreneurs in township economies – invisible yet formidable

“There are women in our townships who have ambitions that nobody really knows about,” remarks Ishara Maharaj. After polite greetings and a tiny sip of water, she has launched into a passionate conversation about women entrepreneurs: a subject that has preoccupied her for the last seven years and is the subject of her PhD. 

This article first appeared in the Mail and Guardian here.

“Like their parents before them, they see entrepreneurship in the informal economy as the only viable pathway out of poverty.”

The female entrepreneur in the township is the white whale of the economy…little is known about them, even while many are formidable figures within their community.

Ishara Maharaj has been training and supporting business women since 2015, some of whom are residents of Philippi, Khayelitsha and Imizamo Yethu. Like them, she grew up in a township. She has intimate experience with the challenges, strengths and advantages of their position.

A significant challenge is education. Many women entrepreneurs in the informal economy have not finished high school. They do not have financial literacy or understanding of even basic business concepts. There is an explosion of business support programmes in the Western Cape and in the whole of South Africa. But what is the impact of these programmes for black women? SMME support does not take cognisance of the unique and additional obstacles that black women running businesses in townships face. Their colour and gender frequently puts these business owners at a double disadvantage, meaning they are often the last to benefit from existing small business support programmes.

The obstacles that these township entrepreneurs face, as women, and without skills, education and SMME support can lead to significant emotional and psycho-social difficulties. Theirs is a path fraught with all the vulnerabilities faced by both business owners and black women in township life, including poverty, crime, fragile to no support system, hunger and social distress. Added to this is the challenge of xenophobia for those who are not originally from South Africa or are stateless.

But the women township entrepreneurs whose lives Ishara is exploring for her PhD in Women’s Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town, are not beaten. Through her research, she aims to give voice to millions of women from low-income communities.

“I am constantly amazed how women can hold multiple ventures at once, and adapt them in times of crisis. They are always seeking opportunities to grow their income and diversify their skills.” Ishara observes.

And while they are doing that they are also uplifting their entire community and using their income to support and educate their children. During the COVID lockdown of 2020, one woman, who had been running a tour guiding business in the township, found her business falling flat. Nobody would take township tours, and all her “Airbnb Experiences” fell by the wayside. The tour guiding business was not her only venture. She had first established a youth development programme which she focused on when the pandemic hit South Africa. She also managed to get a COVID grant for tourism businesses and used that funding to train youth from her development programme as tour guides.

To overcome the lockdown, another woman built the online aspect of her business. She is a masseuse and produces organically made soy candles from her shack. Today she continues to export her candles to Kuwait and Germany. “The entrepreneurial drive keeps going and finds new ways to make money,” Ishara observes.


“They don’t just involve themselves in their own business; they are hiring unemployed youth,” Ishara adds. “One woman was selling clothes from her house, but she also trained to be a coffee barista. During lockdown she opened a coffee shop and hired and trained youth to run it with her.”

These women’s paths mirror the path that Ishara took. Like many of the women she trains, Ishara’s parent’s role modelled entrepreneurship.

After Ishara graduated with an Honours Degree in Industrial Psychology, she struggled for years with unemployment and multiple miscarriages. Eventually, she gave birth to a daughter.

“It was a crisis moment that made me ask myself what do I want to do?” Ishara recalls.

She decided to start her own business, developing a business concept that would allow her to match-make unemployed youth to companies, based on the company culture and the youths’ strengths.

In going out to raise funds for her start up, Ishara found herself confronting biases about the fact that she was a single woman of colour. “The discrimination triggered me…is this what other women experience?” Research into entrepreneurship internationally, revealed the same trend: male investors might consider funding female founders if they are partnered with a male, but not on their own. They have a conscious or unconscious bias against lone female founders. She was forced to abandon her business.

Instead, she took a different direction – training and supporting black women in SA townships to run their own businesses. She’s on a mission to make a more supportive policy and programme environment for them. But as so many other African scholars experience, the voices of African researchers in the field of business and entrepreneurship are all too often neither heard nor heeded. At a recent international conference on entrepreneurship, Ishara was the sole African scholar.

“There are a lot of assumptions about Africa – that everyone is necessity driven. There is questioning, is entrepreneurship really good for these women? We can’t be that binary – it’s both necessity and opportunity-driven, and it’s often on a continuum.”

What we should be asking instead, is “how can we make business support more accessible for these women who have such big plans and aspirations for their community?”

This article was developed as part of the blog project “Troubling Power: Stories and ideas for a more just and open southern Africa”, which marks the 40th anniversary of the Canon Collins Educational and Legal Assistance Trust.