Empowering Sub-Saharan Africa women pushing innovation limits
First published on March 9, 2023, in the Standard
International Women’s Day is upon us – a day to celebrate women’s remarkable milestones and achievements and, more importantly, reflect on how much more needs to be done to advance equity and equality.
In pursuit of gender equality across all frontiers, the reality is that it remains elusive. The Global Gender Gap Report 2022 by the World Economic Forum paints a grim picture – it will take another 132 years to close the global gender gap. But rather than pointing fingers and presenting disappointing stats, IWD is an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come.
Tech is one of the fastest-growing industries globally, and for it to thrive, it requires more labour supply. Women constitute almost half the workforce population. Their full incorporation into the tech and innovation industry is a crucial human resource for profitable and sustainable growth.
Digital platforms, digital financial services and the internet provide ‘leapfrog’ opportunities for everyone and can assist in bridging the gap by allowing women to access knowledge and information, earn additional income, and increase the skills needed to thrive in a digital era.
This year’s UN Women IWD theme, “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”, recognises girls and women championing the advancement of digital education and transformative technology.
In Africa, as more women continuously gain opportunities and skills, they have not only joined the tech industry in droves—in 2019, women constituted 30% of people in tech in Sub-Saharan Africa—they are increasingly creating tech services and products that impact more people.
Across Sub-Saharan Africa, many small-scale innovations are being implemented. These innovative, women-led activities can ultimately contribute to enhanced livelihoods, improved household nutrition, better agriculture productivity, and inspire change. A report by International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in 2014 highlighted that by 2050, agricultural technologies can increase global crop yield by over 67% and cut food prices by nearly half.
Small and medium enterprises play a pivotal role in a thriving ecosystem; often, they are the impetus that pushes everyone else forward. Globally, studies indicate that sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s highest rate of women entrepreneurs, at 27%. The 2017 Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs study highlighted Uganda and Botswana as having the highest percentage of women entrepreneurs globally at 34.8% and 34.6%, respectively.
Seeking to level the playing field, the AFDB-funded Nkwanzi Scaling Women SMEs (WSMEs) project builds on AECF’s (Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund) extensive experience as a WSME enabler. The Nkwanzi project is an investment readiness programme delivered through a digital platform (AECF Academy) that aims to unlock women-led enterprises’ potential through capacity building.
The project targets 400 WSMEs, from eight African countries, in tech-driven business, among other fields, for centred mentorship, coaching, and investment-readiness support. It is designed to address the needs of women in leadership to enable them to lead effectively.
The Nkwanzi project recognises that empowering WSMEs with digital technologies can help the business; reduce transaction costs by providing better and quicker access to information, integration into global markets, access to resources, especially finance, and greater access to innovation assets that will power transformation.
Overall, private sector-driven digital innovations can play a critical role in promoting women’s empowerment and advancing gender equality in Africa in the context of digitalisation. By investing in initiatives that support women’s access to and use of digital technologies, private sector actors can help to create a more inclusive and equitable society for all through increased female participation in the labour markets, financial markets and entrepreneurship.
Though African women have made significant progress in tech, there is still work to be done. The equity gaps in technology and innovation are not solely women’s responsibility to solve. We all have a stake in this; it will take collective action to make progress and bridge the digital divide. Gender equity in all spheres is a fundamental human right and a prerogative for a prosperous, sustainable economy.
We must identify and shatter restrictive belief systems that create glass ceilings for women and see to it that women and girls get to participate in today’s digital economy fully.
*Written by Victoria Sabula, CEO, AECF