A woman and two men standing near a poster for charcoal and holding bags of charcoal (BrightGreen Renewable Energy)
Chebet Lesan, center, formed BrightGreen Renewable Energy, a social enterprise that saves trees by using agricultural and paper waste to make charcoal. (BrightGreen Renewable Energy)

After budding Kenyan entrepreneur Chebet Lesan quit a lucrative job as an industrial designer to concoct eco-friendly charcoal briquettes in her parents’ Nairobi backyard, she overheard them mutter more than once, “What is she doing out there?”

“It’s dirty work. It’s not like you’re mixing lavender and oils to make a fancy perfume. Everybody was freaking out,” says the founder of BrightGreen Renewable Energy.

Eventually her parents came around and invested in her social enterprise, which now has a production facility and has sold 500 tons of briquettes since its March 2016 launch.

Lesan exemplifies a new generation of African women entrepreneurs venturing into male-dominated fields.

Instead of selling clothes, crafts or cosmetics, they are starting technology enterprises as Charlotte Horore Bebga has done in Douala, Cameroon, or helping run a waste recycling business as Nomuntu Ndhlovu is doing in a rural South African municipality.

Like Lesan, they are opening doors for other women and, in some instances, giving them a chance to earn their own livelihoods for the first time.

Eighty percent of BrightGreen’s 50 distributors are female. Lesan was inspired to start the enterprise after attending a Massachusetts Institute of Technology design conference in Tanzania on renewable energy.

Man placing charcoal briquettes on display (BrightGreen Renewable Energy
BrightGreen’s charcoal, made from organic waste, produces less smoke. (BrightGreen Renewable Energy)

The men on her own team “from the start believed in me.” Still, she faced others who told her selling charcoal “is a man’s job. I’m less than 5 feet tall and can’t even lift one of our 50-kilogram bags of charcoal.”

Training new tech entrepreneurs

Begba, after earning a degree in IT management, opened an e-business selling clothes but soon decided she could put her advanced computer skills to better use helping other women with e-commerce start-ups. She created Likalo 2.0, a digital marketing agency, and launched the nonprofit African Women in Tech Startups to provide training.

Last year an Ivory Coast woman she trained emerged a prize-winner in a Radio France International Challenge to develop mobile applications to improve girls’ education.

People standing in a recycling plant (Courtesy Nomuntu Ndlovu)
Nomuntu Ndlovu joined Siyabuddy Recycling and Waste Management founder Siyabonga Tshabalala (r.), in putting village women to work around Steenbok, South Africa. (Courtesy N. Ndlovu)

“A lot of women and girls get passionate about becoming tech savvy and building their own businesses,” says Begba. “The most important thing to have at the beginning is a viable business [plan]. Then you just have to start and do it.”

‘Keep pushing the limits’

Ndhlovu is managing director and part owner of SiyaBuddy Recycling and Waste Management in Steenbok Village in Nkomazi Municipality. SiyaBuddy has eight employees and 10 contract workers and pays more than 500 people – mostly women – to collect recyclable waste in 52 villages.

“In a month we recycle 50 tons,” says the former management consultant turned social entrepreneur. “These collectors were previously employed. Now they make 400 rands a week — not a lot, but it’s a start.”

“It’s been quite difficult to be taken seriously as a female in the recycling business,” she says. Her advice to other women: “Be strong and be prepared to face those challenges. Keep pushing. Once you break that glass barrier, the sky’s the limit.”