Tabitha Karanja is co-founder and chief executive of Keroche Breweries and one of Kenya’s wealthiest women. Her success, she says, proves that “a woman can do better than a man”, although she says she does not blow her own trumpet.

But while Karanja may be a confident operator now, she has had to face down doubters in the past. The daughter of a driver and a small-scale farmer who read for a diploma in business administration in Nairobi, Karanja started the brewery from nothing in 1997, after working in her husband’s hardware store in the town of Naivasha.

“I found there was a gap in the liquor market, then I came up with a product that is hygienically produced to international standards but is affordable: a fortified wine using local raw materials,” she says.

A decade later, Karanja set out to break the near monopoly of East African Breweries (EABL), which today is majority-owned by Diageo, one of the world’s largest spirits makers. One of Kenya’s largest companies by market capitalisation, EABL makes the ubiquitous Tusker beer, its leading brand in the country.

Karanja recalls that Barclays bank — now known in Kenya as Absa and one of the country’s top commercial lenders — also doubted her when she applied for a loan in 2006 to move from fortified wines into beer. She says the bank thought it might be a mistake. “But then I prayed and begged them, just to give me an opportunity to prove that I will get the market that I’m looking for. They gave me six months and, luckily enough, six months down the line I had already started getting into the market. I was able to pay [back] the loans after those six months.”

Keroche remains small in market terms; according to Statista, it had a 2 per cent share of Kenya’s beer market last year, compared with EABL’s 90 per cent. However, Keroche’s beer sales jumped from Ks456m ($4.2m) in 2000 to more than Ks3.8bn ($35.2m) in 2019. Keroche and EABL have even been in a legal dispute in recent years over the use of certain types of beer bottles and crates.

Karanja is emblematic of the progress African women have made in recent decades, in education and business. The female literacy rate rose to 58.88 per cent last year, according to Unesco. On average, 43 per cent of applicants to African business schools are women (the global figure for MBA programmes is 37 per cent, according to a 2016 report by the Graduate Management Admission Council).

Kenya has also seen an increase in women enrolling in tertiary education, from less than 1 per cent of the female population in 1984 to almost 10 per cent in 2018. According to a 2019 World Bank report, women in sub-Saharan Africa are more likely to be in the labour force than in other regions, and almost 50 per cent of women in the non-agricultural labour force are entrepreneurs. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in which women are more likely than men to be entrepreneurs.

Kenya has done well in cultivating women-led businesses, partly because it has one of the most diversified economies in sub-Saharan Africa. This includes light manufacturing, tourism, banking and, most significantly, a technology ecosystem for young enterprises, known as Silicon Savannah. Two of the country’s top tech entrepreneurs are women: Njeri Rionge, co-founder of Wananchi Group Holdings, a home entertainment and internet service provider, and Dorcas Muthoni, chief executive of Openworld, a software company she founded in Nairobi.

Mary Muthoni (no relation to Dorcas) is chief executive of Women in Business Kenya, a network that promotes business opportunities, and is the first woman elected to the board of the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry. She believes aspiring female entrepreneurs in Kenya need a credible network and good mentoring if they are to succeed. “If I want to start a liquor factory today, the [go-to] person is Tabitha: she’s Kenyan, she’s local, she’s been there, has all the handles, and all that,” she says.

But women still face constraints. Male-owned companies in Africa typically have more than six times the capital investment of female-owned enterprises. And female ownership of formal companies across Africa still lags behind that in Latin America. Women’s access to formal financial services has improved, but female entrepreneurs tend to control fewer assets than men and enjoy less generous credit lines. “Expanding the opportunities for female entrepreneurs through policies that foster gender equality would have a tremendous impact on Africa’s growth,” wrote Diariétou Gaye, a Senegalese vice-president of the World Bank, in 2018. “While both male and female entrepreneurs face such constraints as a lack of capital, women are specifically impacted by a number of obstacles, such as discrimination and the dearth of collateral.”

Nevertheless, some have succeeded. Today, Keroche has 300 employees, 45 of them female — a proportion Karanja is working hard to increase. “African women, having done, maybe, what I have managed to do, make men, maybe, look bad. Make them look bad because they’ve not supported women,” says Karanja. “And [men] don’t believe in [women]. [This is] a lesson that women can do better than men.

“You are in your own world alone. You have to wake up early to make sure that you will not fail people, fail Kenyans, fail the women looking up to you.”

Mary Muthoni says Karanja’s experience is typical: “At the top, it’s very lonely,” she says. “Even getting there or pushing to get there, you’ve got to pass so many hurdles.” She says women looking for Ks100m-Ks1bn ($920,000-$9.2m) of capital “are still struggling unless they have families and friends who are really helping them”. There are, however, many enterprise funds for women that will provide Ks10m of financing, she adds.

East African politics provides a long tradition of strong female leadership, too. In Kenya, Ngina Kenyatta, known as “Mama Ngina”, is the former first lady, mother of the current president and one of the nation’s most powerful political and business figures. In March, Samia Suluhu Hassan became Tanzania’s first female president, following the death of her predecessor, John Magufuli. She has been signalling that she will break with what many see as his toxic legacy. “Countries in Africa are embracing strong female leaders in government, the corporate and civil sectors,” says Amina Mohamed, Kenya’s culture secretary. “I am proud that women everywhere are united in this cause — making it easier for women to scale up to the highest positions and break glass ceilings”.