While the coronavirus pandemic may have severely disrupted our world, decimating economies and taking away so many lives, it has also brought many opportunities to the fore. Like every recession, depression, or financial shock experienced in the past, this deadly virus is reshaping world economies, providing entrepreneurs with unprecedented opportunities to contribute to ending the pandemic by providing health-related goods and services at scale.

From video conferencing apps to e-commerce platforms, many entrepreneurs have taken advantage of the situation to create meaningful and life-impacting solutions. Similarly, too, various businesses providing face masks, PPEs, hand sanitisers, and many more goods and services have thrived – even amidst strict lockdown rules across the world.

Indeed, the pandemic is a true leveller on many fronts; it does not respect geographical boundaries, spatial distribution, political affiliation, ethnicity, or gender; everyone is affected. Just as it has put all humans on the same pedestal, it has also levelled the playing field, opening doors to all and sundry who can think creatively by providing the essential goods and services required to keep local, regional, and global economies running as best as possible.

Barring access to appropriate funding, all that seems to be required is imagination. Irrespective of gender, and other disparities that are hitherto known to shut out key demographics from participating in business activities, technology has now effectively democratised the health industry.

Can women take advantage of this moment?

The 2020 pandemic will be contained if efforts by global and regional governments are anything to go by. Would we find more women entrepreneurs rising from these ashes before the coronavirus pandemic finally gets arrested and dumped into the dustbin of history?

The answer is an emphatic, yes!

From local tailors producing face masks in their millions to distributors delivering hand sanitisers to homes and business centres in cities, there has been a surge in the economy – and women are taking the lead. However, we may only be certain of the positive impact – business-wise – when the dust finally settles and proper studies are conducted to ascertain how many women-led businesses were born (or expanded) to provide the many essential services that kept the world running during the crisis.

While we await such reports, it is important to emphasise that these feats have been achieved even in the face of severe barriers in terms of financial inclusion, enlightenment, empowerment, and the right public policies.

So far, women entrepreneurs and local business owners have been ingenious; they would have done more if supported with the right tools, policies, and interventions.

In other words, the impact of women will be more significant if female-led businesses in the SADC region can leverage existing technology, local and international networks and partnerships, as well as gender-friendly policies to contribute in solving the many health challenges afflicting millions of people in the region.

According to The Conversation, women contribute a whopping $3 trillion annually to the global health sector, considering that they are the majority providers and recipients of healthcare in homes and communities.

With technology on their side, practicable gender-friendly policies, access to adequate funding, and the right partnership, women can contribute way more to the industry – especially in the SADC region where the majority of households lack access to quality healthcare services.  

What are the challenges women face in the health sector?

Despite the vital frontline role women play in the workforce as doctors, midwives, nurses, and community health workers, they still have to battle keenly with their male counterparts to attain their respective profession’s senior cadre positions.

Therefore, it is important to highlight the minimal opportunities available to women in the health industry in the SADC region. This inequality is mainly attributed to a lack of awareness in terms of how women can fully participate in key aspects in the sector apart from the traditional caregiver role they are accustomed to.

This disparity can be clearly seen in the numbers of CEOs of listed healthcare companies on the JSE and other such exchanges in the region, an anomaly is mostly attributed to a gross lack of requisite academic qualification, necessary administrative and technical skills, as well as the crucial experience needed to succeed in the health sector.

Furthermore, there is a wide gap in terms of networking among women in the sector. Such networks and partnerships would have served well to help them discover and harness a shared voice to create the needed awareness that could begin to turn things around.

A lack of access to business financing is another significant impediment women contend with in a bid to set up businesses that focus on health products and services because of the considerable capital and regulatory implications involved.

While many have succeeded at a rudimentary level, attempting to set up advanced automated factories to manufacture products like hand sanitizers and PPEs, etc., without the necessary funding can a bit daunting. The same brick walls would be met in the marketing, distribution, and other aspects of the supply chain.

Similarly, many women have been consistently left out of the opportunities other business owners enjoy by clinching lucrative government tenders to supply healthcare products or engage in building infrastructure to support the sector. This lack of access to government contracts can be attributed to the requirements for the award of such contracts, many of which women-led businesses are not able to satisfy. The endemic corruption bedevilling the public service is also a major stumbling block.  

It must be said, however, that most women-owned businesses are rather reactive than proactive, thus limiting them from positioning themselves for opportunities – like the ones provided by the pandemic.

*What are the opportunities available to women in the health sector?

Many opportunities abound in the health industry. 

From manufacturing medical-grade hospital equipment to supplying pharmaceuticals, biomedical products, and medical health insurance, there seems to be an endless stream of avenues women can engage in, considering that millions of people residing in the SADC region are yet to access such goods and services. 

While one woman or small business may not be able to provide such critical and highly-regulated products, such individuals or small businesses can collaborate with others to grow quicker, sharing the risks and burdens along the way.

Collaborating with the right set of individuals, especially savvy businesswomen who possess the requisite administrative and technical skills, as well as years of experience and the right network, can change the story of an emerging entrepreneur.

While thinking local, it is vital for women to take advantage of the WHO’s five-year strategic plan tagged the ‘triple billion targets’ on the journey to 2023. As the WHO aims to provide access to one billion more people to enjoy universal health coverage, one billion more people to become better protected from health emergencies, and one billion more people enjoying better health and well-being, women in the SADC region can bank on these initiatives to catapult their health-related business farther.  

In other words, there will be rapid growth for entrepreneurs if the WHO’s ambitious target is to be met, opening up an equally unprecedented potential for economic and equity impacts on a large scale. As the WHO  implements its gender-transformative agendas for the social and health workforce in the race to achieve the SDG3 by 2030, women must be educated and encouraged to take advantage of the opportunities.

*The way forward for women in the SADC

Nature and society have combined to make the life of a woman more challenging than a man.  Women must learn to balance their roles as caregivers, wife, mother, career-person, and an employee or entrepreneur to make any meaningful impact as expected by society. Considering the required commitment and balance expected to accomplish each task, the female folk are thriving – they only require a little more support, a little more push!

Since the first step to achieving overall business success points toward possessing the right business skills, domain knowledge, and experience, women in the SADC region must be ready to unlearn old ideas, learn new things, and re-energise knowhow that is working. Women must update their knowledge to keep up with emerging social trends, new technology, and business innovations.

Since they are the majority in the healthcare sector and expected to take the lead, they need to believe in themselves and take bold steps to erase cultural stereotypes that impede their advancement – businesswise.

In other words, granting women access to finance without cultural or gender biases will help them grow businesses that will compete favourably in the local and global markets.

Furthermore, removing regulatory restrictions such as having a male partner to act as the face of the business (or negotiator) has to be eliminated. Before women can be adequately represented in the healthcare industry, issues ranging from institutional barriers that promote biases, structural discrimination in hiring and promotion practices, and a non-inclusive work environment must be addressed to close the gender gap.

In summary, Affirmative Action should not just be loud-sounding rhetoric; we must see it in action at every level of government and the private sector.

Women have to learn to leverage relevant networks and support systems to serve as essential guides, guarantors to access critical funding, etc. Such partnerships will help them scale up their businesses to international standards, thereby meeting the regulatory requirements the health industry demands.

Such collaboration can aggregate into formidable lobby groups that can influence respective parliaments to change the oppressive laws barring women from reaching their full potential. Strong networks cutting across countries in the region will also be loud enough to attract the attention of venture capitalists and angel investors who might provide the necessary funding to give women entrepreneurs in the sector the much-needed boost.

What’s more, in the post-Covid-19 era, women can harness emerging technology (Artificial Intelligence, Data Science, Virtual Reality, 3D Printing, Robotics, etc.) to achieve success in the healthcare sector.

In other words, women can leapfrog the queue and begin producing high-tech products as well as relying on technology to provide critical health services, thereby cornering the space waiting to be taking. By deploying available (and emerging) technology, women-led businesses in the sector can offer products and services that can be accessed by more people irrespective of their location. 

*Conclusion

Indeed, many women are generally attracted to the health sector because of their innate natural empathy. While this is noble, they should also be encouraged to enjoy the economic benefits of such contributions – not at a basic level, but as a means of livelihood that can impact positively on the lives of members of their family and society at large.

As such, government and the private sector must explore all efforts to encourage them to apply these inbred skills to bring about real changes that can be felt in the health sector and other related industries of the economy.

To compete favourably, invariably, women have to develop innovative business ideas, possess a strong business sense, and be passionate, considering the competitive nature of the health industry.

With the many sub-sectors in the health industry such as telemedicine, biomedical engineering, laboratory science, operations, pharmacology, and the broader supply chain increasingly relying on advanced tech, it becomes even more crucial to get young girls into STEM-related academic programmes.

It is high time the investment in women’s education becomes a high priority for both government and private institutions in the quest to increase gender equality, promote women empowerment, and allow them to gain all-around sufficiency.

Even though the menfolk are encouraged to support women in growing into leadership positions, women have to be ready to take on leadership roles at a moment’s notice by acquiring the necessary skills, education, and experience.

In a nutshell, the health sector can change the broader women narrative by promoting gender equity and economic inclusion at the same time.

*Being outcome of a webinar, Business Opportunities in the Health Sector, organised by SADC-WIB on October 27 2020

Lead discussants included:

Dr Anna MokgokongChancellor, NWU, Afrocentric Health Group, and SADC-WIB Patron

Dr Precious Moloi-MotsepeChancellor, UCT, SA Entrepreneur and Philanthropist

Dr Nomonde MabuyaChairman, Health Squared, Founder/CEO, Ntombi Zomonde Healthcare Solutions

Mr Josue WaffoCo-founder & Group CEO, Insurafrica

Ms Shiphra Chisa, President – SADC-WIB

Ms Inutu ZaloumisChapter Head, SADC-WIB, Zambia

 

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