Using WhatsApp for women-led businesses in Africa

By Robin Holzchauer and Amelia Shaw

[Southern Africa, October 2022] Women entrepreneurs in three African nations received a boost for their businesses through a workshop with a top marketing executive from social media platform WhatsApp organized by the US government.

WhatsApp Marketing Executive Ben Supple led a workshop for more than 100 women entrepreneurs across Africa at an AWE Connected event hosted by the US government.

More than 100 alumni of the US-led Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) initiative tuned in from Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Zambia to hear WhatsApp’s Global Head of Civic Engagement Ben Supple talk about how businesses can grow their customer base using WhatsApp – currently one of the most popular social media platforms in Africa.

Supple’s role at the social media giant is to build strategic partnerships with governments, NGOs and publishers and fact-checkers looking to use WhatsApp’s business products to engage with the citizens of WhatsApp’s 2.2 billion users.

According to market research firm Statista, WhatsApp has more than 40 million users in Africa and expects that number to grow to more than 66 million by 2025 – in part because the platform offers a cheap and easy way for people to connect on the continent. , says Business Insider Africa. In most African countries, calling and texting on WhatsApp is much cheaper than using the local phone service.

The workshop was part of AWE connected speaker series, a US government initiative that brings together AWE alumni around the world and connects them with dynamic American experts in business and technology to drive growth among women-led businesses. In this case, the goal was to help African women entrepreneurs adopt digital tools and technology so that they can more easily expand their business and connect with new customers.

WhatsApp’s Ben Supple (top left) and some of the participants at the AWE Connected digital marketing workshop.

Entrepreneurs peppered Supple with questions on a range of topics, from countering misinformation to staying authentic and trustworthy to staying safe as a female entrepreneur in the digital world. They also asked how WhatsApp charts customer feedback and sought advice on protecting accounts from hackers and miscreants.

The session was packed with discussion on the do’s and don’ts of business. For example, a female entrepreneur in Zimbabwe shared how after she allowed one of her followers to have admin access to her WhatsApp group, the follower hijacked the network she had built and kicked her out of the group.

An example of Tanzanian Kathryn Shembilu’s clever marketing for her company Vikapu Bomba – giving off a carefree, beachy feel.

Several women also shared their success stories. Catherine Shembilu from Tanzania, founder of Pipe baskets, discussed how using a combination of Instagram, WhatsApp and other media platforms is helping her better reach her local audience as well as expand her business into global markets. Shembilu exports her baskets and other woven goods to the United States and Europe through online craft bazaars such as The Little Market.

Bwalya Phakati, the Zambian entrepreneur behind Towani beauty creamsexplained how digital marketing has enabled her to steadily grow her beauty and personal care brand, which supports job creation in sub-sectors such as retail and distribution.

AWE graduate Bwalya Phakathi from Zambia used personal and digital marketing to successfully promote her business, creating jobs in the retail sector.

The AWE connected the session not only honed the women’s professional skills, but also strengthened the “sisterhood” many alumni feel with other AWE graduates in their countries and around the world.

“One of the most important things I gained through AWE is networking,” says Maphala Phiri, director and founder of Real hair from Lorraine in Zimbabwe. She said she was inspired to hear from such a high-ranking WhatsApp executive — and to reach out to more female entrepreneurs like her.

“I met so many inspiring women. We were able to create a sisterhood, a network of like-minded women,” Phiri said. “If I need advice, I can just tap into our network. In turn, I share my experience with other women and inspire them to own a business.”

AWE alumna Lorraine Mafala Phiri runs a hair salon in Zimbabwe and says she was inspired by WhatsApp – and the AWE network.

The Women Entrepreneur Academy is a global economic empowerment program established in 2019 by the US State Department. It provides women entrepreneurs with the knowledge, networks and access they need to launch and scale successful businesses using the online DreamBuilder program developed by Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management and the Freeport-McMoRan Foundation. Working in 100 countries around the world, AWE has empowered 7,000 women entrepreneurs in more than 20 African nations.

The Office of the US Speakers Program recruits dynamic US experts to engage international audiences on topics of strategic importance to the United States. Programs are conducted in person and through virtual engagement platforms. Key policy priorities include security such as countering disinformation and cyber security; defeating ISIS and extremist groups; economic prosperity; educational diplomacy; energy security; and open government and civil society. The office conducts approximately 650 lecture programs annually.

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