Innovation: Embracing equity to pave the way for women empowerment
Innovations and technologies keep transforming how we live, work, communicate, and conduct business. Fintechs, as well as remote communication, networking, and conferencing applications, are particularly massive in this respect. Several are transformative, as they are enabling the digital economy to thrive and expand.
Notably, more businesses are expanding their digital attributes. Others are going fully digital. The digital space itself is also fomenting the emergence of new enterprises. This is the direction the world is heading.
Therefore, it is of concern that about 51 per cent of Africa’s population is struggling to gain a good footing in this globally expanding digital economy. They are women, and the big reason is that a good proportion of them lack access to the Internet – the foundation of the digital sector.
Last November, Mactar Seck, the economic affairs officer at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) brought this out quite succinctly when he spoke during the Women’s Summit at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Addis Ababa. He said that only 20 per cent of women in Africa had access to the Internet. The reasons for this disadvantage, according to UNECA, include a lack of skills, affordability, and social and cultural norms.
Given that the digital economy is expanding worldwide, the need to close Africa’s gender gap in Internet access cannot be gainsaid. The pursuit of gender equality, in general, may not have much impact without paving the way for more women to participate in the ICT sector. Granting women increased access to digital technologies will open up more economic opportunities for them, and lead to higher levels of entrepreneurship and innovation among them.
Modern technologies have the potential to transform the economic landscape for women by providing them with the tools and resources they need to succeed. This calls for skills, financial, and digitisation support. Deliberate efforts are necessary.
The good news is that some practical initiatives are in place, and more budding women entrepreneurs need to take advantage of them. Maybe not so many are aware of the Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa (AFAWA), for example.
Roundly, this initiative of the African Development Bank Group (AfDB) is designed to stimulate inclusive economic transformation for women in Africa by applying a multi-dimensional approach to remove the various constraints women entrepreneurs face in Africa, as already highlighted.
It unlocks financing for women entrepreneurs by leveraging AfDB’s traditional financial instruments — lines of credit, trade finance, and equity funds — and secondly by de-risking women entrepreneurs and enhancing the appetite of financial institutions to lend to women-owned SMEs.
These financial mechanisms are supported by technical assistance to ensure that adequate products and services are developed to address women’s financial needs.
Given the importance of a strong enabling environment to strengthen women-owned SMEs’ ability to access financing, the goals of the AFAWA initiative cannot be achieved without inclusive regulatory policies in place. Equally important is the presence of enablers with sustainable programmes to assist women entrepreneurs in their growth.
AFAWA is already making inroads in some parts of the continent. For instance, with the support of the initiative, women farmers in Cote d’Ivoire will be able to access markets more easily for their farm produce through a digital e-commerce platform called BuyFromWomen. This platform was launched by UN Women, and it is funded through the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative.
BuyFromWomen will connect women farmers to buyers across the agricultural value chain. It will also offer women access to information to elevate their expertise and improve the quality of their farm produce.
Another example funded through Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative is the affirmative action in procurement policies in Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire, to enhance opportunities for women-led businesses in these countries.
To enable this, the project has had to train more than 300 government officials to implement affirmative procurement provisions. It has also advocated for the private sector to adopt gender-responsive supply chain practices. On the other side of the coin, the project has strengthened the capacity of 1,360 women-owned businesses in the region to qualify for procurement opportunities.
Another effort that women entrepreneurs in East Africa, in particular, need to pay attention to, is the Women Entrepreneurship Enablers initiative (WEE), which targets women business accelerators, incubators, and civil society organisations demonstrating innovative approaches to building a supportive ecosystem for businesswomen.
These institutions are supporting women entrepreneurs through digitisation and capacity building to boost their investment readiness.
Through these efforts, and possibly more, Africa is gradually facilitating women’s economic empowerment and reducing gender inequalities. This is good for inclusive growth, and such stories need to be told.
The author is the Principal Officer for Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa at the African Development Bank Group.