(ARISE magazine, issue 14) Exactly one week after the announcement that the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize would go to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman, three other inspiring women sat in the picturesque town of Deauville in France nervously waiting to hear if they, too, would be winners. The trio were the Sub-Saharan Africa finalists of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, an annual competition giving much-deserved recognition to socially responsible women entrepreneurs from six world regions – including this year, for the first time, the Middle East and North Africa.
The 2011 winner of the Sub-Saharan Africa category was Lorna Rutto from Kenya, who left her banking job to tackle the mounting problem of plastic waste in Nairobi (“They call the plastic bags our national flowers!”) by turning the discarded material into plastic fence posts. Rutto’s company, EcoPost, now employs 15 permanent staff, while also drawing on the services of some 300 other workers – including marginalised local women, who buy plastic from street ‘scavengers’ to sell to EcoPost. As well as removing unsightly plastic waste from the landscape – so far, more than 600 metric tonnes – the posts reduce deforestation. “For every 25 posts we make, we save a fully matured cedar tree,” says Rutto. The economic benefits of buying EcoPost’s new product have not gone unnoticed, either. “Customers love them because they don’t rot,” Rutto explains. “They are resistant to termites; easy to work with, just like timber; and environmentally friendly.”
As one of this year’s six Women’s Initiative Awards winners or ‘Laureates’, Rutto will receive vital publicity, $US20,000 in funding and ongoing business coaching from Cartier and its partners INSEAD and McKinsey & Company. Already, she has been able to refine her business plan, which could see the scheme rolled out across Kenya.
Bikes, Bananas And Business Plans
One of the two runners-up in the Sub-Saharan Africa award category, Lauren Thomas also hails from a banking background – Wall Street to be exact. After moving to Mozambique from the US four years ago, Thomas (together with Rui Mesquita) founded Mozambikes, which sells high-quality, affordable bikes to low-income communities and NGOs in rural Mozambique.
Key to the bikes’ price tag is advertising. By branding the bicycles advertisers can reach low-income consumers in rural communities, while also allowing Mozambikes to sell the bikes at up to six times less than the market value. “The opportunities [the bicycles provide] for income generation and for minimising issues such as absenteeism in schools are huge,” says Thomas.
The Chinese-made bikes, carefully selected to suit Mozambique’s terrain and their intended use, are assembled and customised by Thomas’s experienced staff of six – which includes a member of the Mozambican national cycling team. There are also plans to partner up with a local basket-weaving organisation to make bicycle baskets, and an enterprising Mozambican has approached Thomas with a prototype for a bicycle trailer.
The Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards is a joint project with the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, an annual conference attracting women from business, media, finance and beyond. Many of its key speeches and debates are filmed, giving those unable to attend an opportunity to discover new information and ideas.
This method of sharing knowledge via web-based videos is vital to the second runner-up, Zimbabwean Linda Ravenhill, a former intensive care nurse based in South Africa who founded the ground-breaking VideoLive. The company provides free web-based videos and information to healthcare professionals across sub-Saharan Africa.
Uniquely, its technology can be used on very low bandwidth, with videos designed to play for 20 to 30 minutes without buffering. Web TV and mobile applications are also offered. Besides filming medical conferences, speeches and the latest surgical techniques, VideoLive provides basic healthcare information. “This
is a very rewarding business to be in,” says Ravenhill. “It’s not just about the technology, it’s what you do with it.”