Mandisa Gaba, 28, is a supplier of power generation parts and services.

Johannesburg - Young women entrepreneurs in South Africa are being stalled in their efforts to grow their businesses by male decision-makers in corporate positions because they are unwilling to relent to requests and demands for sexual favours in exchange for business deals.

This is the view of two young entrepreneurs, Mandisa Gaba, 28, who is a supplier of power generation parts and services, and Pearl Maphumulo, 30, a small business development operator who works with entrepreneurs across the continent.

Gaba and Maphumulo spoke candidly on the sidelines of the Innovative Responses to Contemporary Leadership Challenges in Africa conference, where 100 delegates - young entrepreneurs in business from 14 Southern African Development Community countries, including 40% from South Africa - met at the Midrand Conference Centre in Johannesburg, last week.

The two-day conference, which focused mainly on how young African entrepreneurs can drive lasting regional economic growth within and among the 15-member SADC countries, discussed several topics which included: how good governance facilitates the success of youth-owned businesses; and how youth can participate in policy formulation and implementation that supports their long term development - especially in the business sector.

Maphumulo, a facilitator at the conference, said it is “unfortunate” that most women were sexually harassed by men in influential positions where the decision on the awarding of contracts to small businesses lies.

The fact that she has refused to grant sexual favours in exchange for lucrative contracts was a reason her company’s growth has been derailed, said Maphumulo, adding that in her line of work she uses conferences to meet the people she wants to help grow their SMEs”, which she said necessitated the formation of partnerships with several institutions, such as big corporations. It is during the negotiations to form partnerships with the male managers and executives within these corporations that demands for sexual favours in exchange for sponsorship and other business deals- would be made. “Older men feel you are this little girl and that it is right for them to ask you for sexual favours in return for business opportunities. I have experienced that more with African males than with white males. They’re not even scared to ask you directly - and have the balls to say it. And this is the private sector.”

She said her male partners were treated differently. “People I started out with, males, even people I assisted with their pitches, when I look at where they are, and where I am, the same doors they knocked on and got through. But I got offered a meeting at night, at nine or ten o’clock. It’s disrespectful and hurtful.”

She said such behaviour by male supply chain and enterprise development department executives was a common thing. “I am pretty sure I am not the only female, hey!”

Gaba, a founder and managing director of the engineering supplies and repairs equipment business - Ntsika Uhuru - said she agreed to be a speaker at the conference “to give my true experience, a true account of what entrepreneurship looks like for me as a young black woman in the mining and engineering space”.

Gaba said in the early days of business, she struggled to win the respect of industry players in the power generation space.

“The power industry is relationship-based where people have trusted and preferred suppliers. Because I am a woman, I was not taken seriously at first. So it took a lot of knocking on doors. And when I did get through, some people just wanted other things, such as sexual favours,” said Gaba.

She said she prefers an exclusively female staff complement because “you’re not dealing with someone being sexually harassed”.

“The end goal is to build a business which I’m proud of, so going about it the sexual favours route is not within my values. For me, integrity is very important. And because I hire only females, I wouldn’t have the confidence to send out my employees into the field if I knew they knew, ‘Okay, if their boss will give sexual favours that means the employees will too’.”

Sunday Independent