Big Business can improve the Lives of SA Women

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South Africa’s growing poverty challenge affects black women and children more than any other group. Corporations are realising that they need to offer effective and sustainable solutions to address a problem that threatens to shrink an already stagnating economy. Velaphi Ratshefola, managing director at Coca Cola Beverages South Africa (CCBSA) shares the work he has done to earn him recognition at the 16th annual Standard Bank Top Women Awards, under the Top Gender Empowered: Male Driving Gender Empowerment category.

According to Statistics South Africa, over half of the country was living in poverty by 2015, with women and children being the hardest hit. Over 30.4 million South Africans lived in poverty in 2015, compared to 27.3 million in 2011. Half of all these people were women, while 67% of children under 17 lived in poverty.

With unemployment having jumped from 27.6% in the first quarter of 2019 to 29% in the second quarter, its highest level since 2003, poverty affects more people than ever.

The responsibility of uplifting the most vulnerable can’t be left only to Government. It is up to every organisation in the public and private sector to mobilise efforts to improving the lives of women, who are the ones often left to care for the young.

While there are no “institutional” barriers that hinder women’s progression in the workplace in South Africa, we cannot ignore the fact that there are still many obstacles blocking women from climbing up the ranks in business.

It’s no secret that a massive gender gap in the workplace persists and there continues to be underrepresentation of women in key positions, leaving most women feeling disenfranchised and disempowered. This is in part due to outdated organisational cultures, a lack of serious commitment towards diversifying our workforce and ensuring gender representation.

One of the biggest opportunities that corporations have today is in breaking down these barriers, which are often the remnants of a persistent legacy of apartheid and patriarchy.  Key players in the economy should strive to empower their people, particularly young women, to realise their full potential and achieve their career aspirations.

Companies need to not only understand the challenges faced by our country broadly and women in particular, but also work actively towards addressing these challenges in a meaningful way.

The first and easiest step is creating a conducive environment where women can truly thrive and realise their career aspirations. They need to be supported and encouraged to be the best they can be, in both their professional and private lives.

In celebration of Women’s Month last year, we launched ‘Women@CCBSA’, a women-led network at CCBSA. Through this network, women in the company connect with each other and access resources and tools, case studies and practical guides to advance their careers and have meaningful work-life balance.

These resources are geared at empowering more women within the company to achieve their full potential in the workplace, in the home as well as in the broader community.

Through this initiative, we created a virtual village-like network where women can uplift each other and their communities to develop the next generation of strong female leaders. We wanted to create a safe space for them to talk, share their experiences and learn.

I’m particularly proud of this initiative because it has exposed more female employees to better training opportunities, while giving them a chance to engage with and learn from one other female leaders and role models, who can be mentors in the workplace.

The programme also demonstrates how women can display their skills and climb the corporate ladder without losing the integrity of their leadership style or work ethic.

But looking inwards wasn’t enough and we had to seek change in the communities we operate in. We launched a R100 million supplier development fund for small black emerging suppliers including women and youth, to build their businesses. This fund will assist young, upcoming black entrepreneurs in the Coca-Cola value chain to build their businesses and access more opportunities to take their businesses to the next level.

In the last year, we went further by spending R2.35 billion supporting 567 black-owned suppliers, 265 of whom were black female owned suppliers. And it’s working – we have not only assisted in the creation of a more inclusive economy, but we have also helped to create a more stable environment where businesses can flourish, and more young women can be empowered.

It was encouraging that 57% of the employees of these beneficiaries are rural black women. This is important, not only because rural women are the most in need of help, but because women are the ones who invest in their families and communities. This, in turn, creates a beneficial ripple effect because empowered women are catalysts for socio-economic transformation.

Another integral component to our efforts has been CCBSA’s Youth Empowerment Programme, which identifies youth who display a strong entrepreneurial inclination and gives them the opportunity to create sustainable, growing businesses.

These initial steps are important, but they are only the beginning. We can never assume to have found the answer to the enormous challenges that our country faces, but we have started to create what will hopefully be a different and positive legacy for our communities and country at large. We need to continue seeking new ways of developing people’s especially women’s ability to self-actualise in whatever field they choose and for them to create livelihoods and hopefully, wealth, and chart a new way forward for future generations.

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