Who built men’s and women’s toilets? It’s a question that weighs on Desiree Joule-Adam’s mind whenever she attends a music festival or conference. It’s a constant reminder to her that throughout history and even today, the world was built for men and very rarely considered the needs of women, whether in building toilets or businesses, for that matter.

Questions like this spurred Desiree, Director of External Affairs at the African Women Entrepreneurship Cooperative (AWEC), to break boundaries and contribute to writing a new narrative for women entrepreneurs in Africa.

Desiree Joule-Adam spoke to Hope Ditlhakanyane on The African Pre-Seed Podcast about her passion for women-led entrepreneurship and how she views the space changing.

Through AWEC, Desiree is an advocate for innovation, emerging technologies, and a startup ecosystem that fosters collaboration and sustainable relationships among women in the tech sector. 

“I'm tempted to sing This is a Man's World because I feel like this is pretty much how the world is set up at the moment. If you think about the last festival that you went to or the last conference you attended, think about the longest line that was waiting to use the bathroom. It's usually the women's line,” she explains. “Why is that? Who designed those toilets? It's probably a man, so I always think that the world is set up with a man in focus.”

Desiree was born and raised in Cape Town to a South African mother and a Zimbabwean father. “My roots are ingrained in Africa, but there are two main experiences that have shaped my foundational view on women-led entrepreneurship,” she says. 

From buying one tomato to every single one

The first experience took place when Desiree was just 11, and she had to go out to the market to buy tomatoes. “I remember seeing this row of women all selling tomatoes, and to me, they looked the same. These women were all calling out for my attention and shouting out the reasons why their tomatoes were the best. The first time I bought from one, but the next time I came back I asked why I couldn't take one from each of them.”

The question bewildered the vendors, but it was the type of curiosity and thinking that has been a feature of Desiree’s pursuit of women’s empowerment. 

“This is just how I processed information at the time. I thought, ‘Wouldn't it be nice if we could have a cooperative of these women coming together as one company and selling these tomatoes?’” she adds.

Witnessing firsthand, at an early age, how empowering women with skills can be a liberating experience was another seminal moment in Desiree’s life. Her mother, an entrepreneur, opened a dressmaking and design school from the family home. “We had about 10 women coming to our house every week for about 4 years to learn how to sew. I remember how they looked so liberated to have been given the skills,” she says. “In that moment, I thought, can you imagine what we would do to empower more women to just be themselves and to create and to innovate?”

Every experience is a learning experience 

Desiree says every experience she had has contributed in some way, shape, or form to where she is today, and it allows her to see things from a very different perspective - and the learning continued from her very first job.

“My first job in Zimbabwe was working for Innscor Africa, which is one of the flagship sports diners in Zimbabwe. On paper, I wasn't meant to get that job. I was the only female candidate at the time, shortlisted among 12 gentlemen, all of whom had been to a prestigious hospitality training school. I had done a distance learning course because my parents couldn't afford to send me to university.

“I was nervous about getting to the place, and to the restaurant to go for this interview. So I decided to go the day before, figure the place out, find my way, and try to imagine what the interview was going to be like. I decided to go in, get a meal and do the whole customer experience thing. At the time, I didn't know what that was. I was 19, but I remember walking in, being mesmerised by the space, the sounds, the smell, the food, the everything. I got to speak to the team, and the chef, and just enjoyed the day.”

“The next day when I came back for the interview, I remember sitting in front of the panel and they were not too happy that I didn't have the typical hospitality experience. I know they wouldn't have given me the job if it wasn't for the question that the manager at the time asked. ‘Why should we hire you? I just took the story back to the day before and how I'd walked into the space and I explained everything about what I experienced. That's how I got the job,” she explains.

Desiree explains the responsibilities of women in everyday family life are another unwritten aspect of society that impacts the success of women entrepreneurs. Women in Africa are often tasked with family care duties.

Access to capital and poor infrastructure are other unique barriers to women in business that men don’t encounter.

“Each one of them has a desire to do something different with their lives or transform the communities that they're in. It's easy to brush that aside, but the truth is a lot of the time men get access to spaces that women don't necessarily get.”

The needle is not moving fast enough to deal with these issues, Desiree says, all these years later. “If I circle back to the first story that I mentioned about going out to buy tomatoes for my mom. The women are still sitting on the side of the road selling tomatoes today. There's so much more that could be done.”