In 2014, Grace Gitau was struck by how unfair it was that so few Kenyan shops sold toys that families on low and middle incomes could afford. She started Gracepak Ventures-Toys Planet – an online store based in Nairobi – to try and fill the gap, selling toys by big brands like Disney, Mattel and Chicco at affordable prices. She used social media to spread the word, and steadily built the business into a household name in Kenya.

But like many small businesses, Covid-19 hit Gracepak hard. When the country went into lockdown last year, sales dipped significantly for about two months, it became harder to get products shipped to Kenya. Grace responded to the adversity by doubling down online – using personalized ads on Facebook and Instagram to reach parents looking for ways to entertain and educate their children during the long lockdown days. It paid off – the extra sales helped Gracepak bounce back.

Grace is far from the only small business owner who faced adversity during the pandèmic. Sadly, not all managed to weather the storm. When Facebook surveyed hundreds of Kenyan businesses in July and August this year, a quarter said they were closed, more than half said they’d cut jobs during the lockdown period, and more than 60% of those still operating said sales were lower than a year ago.

Covid-19 has been especially hard for businesses run by women. Our surveys have consistently found that female-owned businesses are more likely to have closed than male-owned ones. This is a pattern we’ve seen all over the world, but it’s especially stark in Kenya where 68% of female-run businesses told us they were currently operating, compared to 80% run by men. They are also more likely to have seen sales drop, and significantly more likely to run businesses concentrated in the sectors most affected by restrictions.

The silver lining is that many businesses like Grace’s have survived and even thrived by focusing their efforts online. 52% of the Kenyan businesses we surveyed said they now make more than a quarter of their sales digitally – higher than the global average of 46%. And a recent study by Genesis Analysis in eight African countries found that most female-owned businesses use Facebook’s apps, and that social media platforms helped accelerate economic growth and opportunities in Africa.

Even before Covid-19, more and more people were spending their time and money online, and businesses were increasingly going digital to reach them. What had been a gradual trend accelerated dramatically last year when having a digital storefront, taking online orders, and reaching customers remotely became essential for businesses everywhere.

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The good news is all these things are much easier than they were just a few years ago – and that’s especially good for women and communities who have historically had fewer opportunities to succeed. Here are three things every business can do to achieve success online:

  • Establish your digital presence. For many this is the biggest leap. Yes, setting up a website can be complicated and expensive. But, in just a few clicks, anyone can set up a Facebook Page or an Instagram Business Profile for free. There are even free tools available to make it easy to take orders and sell online.
  • Learn the basics of digital advertising. Some small business owners think advertising is something only big companies can afford – and that used to be true. But with personalized ads they can reach people they think will be interested in their products for just a few hundred shillings. Learning the basics is easy – it’s quick to learn how to create effective ads, identify audiences to show them to, and measure results.
  • Know where to get help. There is support out there if businesses need it. They can find user-friendly resources and training at Facebook’s Boost with Facebook Africa hub and there’s more support available at our Business Resource Hub.

Small and medium-sized businesses are the backbone of economies in Africa. Their success will be crucial to the continent’s economic recovery. I’m optimistic because the ongoing digital transformation is making it easier and more accessible for more businesses to reach people and sell their products and services – not just locally but across Africa and beyond.

And that’s especially positive for women and others that have often had barriers placed in their way. In 2021, you don’t need anyone’s permission to turn a good idea into a successful business.


Sheryl Sandberg is chief operating officer at Meta, overseeing the firm’s business operations. She also serves on the boards of Meta, Women for Women International, ONE, and SurveyMonkey. Sheryl is the co-author of Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy with Wharton professor and bestselling author Adam Grant. She is also the author of the bestsellers Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead and Lean In for Graduates.

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