DAVOS, Switzerland – It was an encounter with a young woman with serious breast cancer that made Precious Moloi-Motsepe realize that women in South Africa were starved of the information they needed to make decisions about their health and their lives.
Many years later, the philanthropist and executive decided to launch a project that would help women all over the country become better informed about their rights and the issues that could affect them and their families. She launched a “little black book” to be distributed throughout the country, containing information on everything from what to do in an emergency, how to establish land rights and how to write a resume.
In 2013, Moloi-Motsepe and her husband, mining billionaire Patrice Motsepe, pledged to donate half their fortune to the Motsepe Foundation, of which she is co-chair, to help alleviate poverty across Africa. Moloi-Motsepe is also chair of African Fashion International, which promotes African designers in global fashion markets.
On the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at Davos, News Deeply spoke to Moloi-Motsepe about women’s economic advancement in South Africa, the role of philanthropists in development, and what she has written in her little black book for women.
Women’s Advancement Deeply: What is the thinking behind the Motsepe Foundation’s little black book?
Precious Moloi-Motsepe: I’m very excited about the little black book. I’ll tell you what got me thinking about putting this together. When I was a young medical student and we were taking rounds in the hospital, we came across a young woman from a rural village. She had advanced breast cancer. I stayed behind and asked, “Why did you take so long before you sought medical help?” She said to me, “I didn’t know.”
That voice stayed in my head. [I realized] people could actually die because of lack of information. If she had had information earlier on, this could have been diagnosed early, been treated and cured.
I apply this in every sector, whether it’s in business, law, whether it’s education – information is key. People need to know where to find things and improve their lives.
Women’s Advancement Deeply: How does the little black book operate in that context?
Moloi-Motsepe: We have distributed this little black book to many women in clinics and churches, where we know women coalesce. The information is very basic, it’s very practical, and we give either telephone numbers or websites where women can get more information on any particular subject.
What we’re trying to do now is to have the book translated into different languages, in Zulu, in Sotho. We want to make sure that women can access sectors of the book on the internet. If a woman, for instance, wants to know how to apply for a loan, they should be able to look for that on their mobile phones.
Women’s Advancement Deeply: What other challenges do you and the Motsepe Foundation most often come across as you’re working toward economic equality for women?
Moloi-Motsepe: It’s bridging the gap between people in rural communities to those who are in urban communities. Young girls who come from rural communities and get very good marks at high school to get into universities, when they get into universities, they don’t do as well. Part of that is because of the social economic issues that they come with from the rural communities. We’ve been looking at ways that we can help bridge that gap for them.
For women entrepreneurs, it’s access to finance and the dual role that women have as carers at home and having to run their own businesses. We know that being an entrepreneur is a very challenging and a very lonely path, because you have to be at the right places at the right time, you have to travel, you have to meet people. For many women, that is not possible because of the caregiving role that they also have at home that still falls largely on them.
Women’s Advancement Deeply: For women entrepreneurs in Africa, what seems to be the biggest barrier? Is it access to capital?
Moloi-Motsepe: I think for entrepreneurs in general it’s access to capital. For women entrepreneurs, it’s a multiplicity of issues. The biggest hurdle that I see is the lack of confidence in financial institutions in trusting women, and therefore extending loans to women. That seems to hold a lot of women back.
Of course, access to market is another big one for them. Access to raw materials is a big issue. We’re making slow inroads.
Women’s Advancement Deeply: Is there one factor of women’s economic advancement in Africa that you feel could make the most impact right now?
Moloi-Motsepe: It’s in the private sector as well as in the public sector. We need to have more women represented in positions of power within these institutions. In government when you have more women, they make it easier to craft policies and regulations such that, those women who are trying to access institutions or financial institutions, can find it easy to do so.
If you have more women in positions of power in the private sector, I think they will do the same. They open up channels for other women coming up to be able to succeed.
Women’s Advancement Deeply: You’re well known for your promotion and support of Africa’s fashion industry and last year won the inaugural Franca Sozzani Award at the U.N. What role can fashion play in economic development for women?
Moloi-Motsepe: It think it has a very big role to play. Fashion is one of the biggest employers in the country, on the continent, because it is still very much involved with people doing things with their hands. Very creative things, whether it’s artisans, or it’s women who are designers themselves. It is a vast employer of women along the value chain.
I believe that if we can get more women in small businesses exporting their goods so that they can gain more in terms of the market they serve, that will be useful. The fashion industry has a very powerful voice. We saw recently how the designers at Dior used fashion to communicate about equality of women and men. It’s a powerful communicator.
Women’s Advancement Deeply: Do you think there is anything private philanthropy can do better than traditional investment from governments or international foundations?
Moloi-Motsepe: Issues of development are not issues that can be tackled by one group alone. We need collaborations and that’s why we work with other foundations and with governments, for instance, here in South Africa, we’re working with the department of education.
Philanthropists have the freedom to look at issues, do some research, do small tests, and bring data to the relevant government or to the private sector for them to roll out.
We have started now looking at the gender budgeting initiative in South Africa. This is a tool that is used to see how government funding benefits women and men equally. If we do our research in, for instance, education and we find that young girls are dropping out of school earlier, we gather information and data. We present that to government, and help them to channel funding in the right way. I think with private philanthropy, we’re able to tackle issues where maybe government or the private sector is not focusing on.
Women’s Advancement Deeply: What lessons about women’s economic advancement can other countries learn from South Africa?
Moloi-Motsepe: In South Africa, we have a saying: “You touch a woman, you touch a rock,” because women are very strong, they’re solid. When you give small loans to women, they’re going to use the funding for social development. Taking their children to school, making sure that the family is healthy, and take the burden away from governments spending in those big sectors.
I truly believe that when women are involved in government or in the private sector, they’re able to channel funding in a way that benefits the whole community and the whole society.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.