It takes an entire eco-system to empower a woman

By Daniel Ohonde, CEO

Over the past decade, Africa has made significant progress on gender equality and women’s empowerment in certain areas. According to the2015 Millennium Development Goal report, sub-Saharan Africa registered good progress in women’s access to paid employment, with the proportion of paid workers outside of the agricultural sector that are women increasing from 24% to 34% between 1990 and 2015. However, the region still lags behind the global average of 40%, let alone the average for developed countries, where 48% of paid workers in non-agricultural employment are women. While notable progress has been made to reduce gender inequality and improve women’s empowerment in the African region, gender inequalities still persist across the spectrum, especially in the agricultural sector.

Agriculture in Africa remains one of the most important economic sectors, accounting for around 25% of the continent’s GDP. Despite this, in 2015, 41% of people in sub-Saharan Africa – where the majority of the population depends on agricultural activity for their livelihoods – were living on less than €1.10 per day. For African agriculture to achieve its potential, smallholder farming must be a central investment focus – and considering that nearly 60% of smallholder farmers in Africa are women, investment programmes must approach agriculture through a gendered lens. If women are given the same access to productive resources as men, they will be able to increase theyields on their farms by 20-30% and reduce hunger by 12-17%.

Engaging the public and private sectors

The efforts of governments, international agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) aimed at engendering economic participation have often focused on labour rights, leaving issues such as entrepreneurship, access to capital and markets, financial inclusion, property rights, and job training unaddressed. Government policies affect economies through regulation, targeted investment, and influence on central banks. When a systemic change is required, especially across the full spectrum of industries, no significant impact occurs unless businesses are engaged.

As much as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an ecosystem to empower a woman. All institutions – both public and private – must invest in and support the task, as no one can pull it off alone. We all must learn to work together, valuing the contributions each institution brings, while balancing the goals specific to each sector.

The African Enterprise Challenge Fund (AECF) shares the global vision of empowering women in agriculture and is committed to investing in a way that sustainably advances gender equality. Our commitment goes beyond headline-grabbing numbers and seeks to reorient the investment process to find, nurture and grow businesses that are providing innovative solutions to increase gender equality in rural communities at the household, business and market levels. AECF’s ‘Gender Lens Investing Strategy’ seeks to integratea gender analysis throughout the investment process; to design and host inclusive investment mechanisms that allow equal access to finance for female entrepreneurs and businesses working for and with women; and to share insights from these experiences. Our aim is to level the playing field for all in order to support the equal economic participation of women and men.

By ensuring the full participation of women as producers, consumers, business owners and key decision-makers, we hope to create a potent force for change.

Recognising women’s role in agricultural transformation

As a leading development finance institution in Africa, AECF’s commitment to gender equality is not only about redressing an imbalance, but also about shifting the financial systems and markets where possible, so that they signal and influence how women and men are valued. This stems from a desire to never overlook the role that women and men play, as both contributors and innovators, in the development of a prosperous and enterprising rural Africa. Our approach to financial development acknowledges that there has been a market failure to equally recognise the participation and leadership of women and men in fueling that transformation, and seeks to reverse the practices that devalue the lives of women.

To address the gap in the financial market’s provisions for women, AECF launched its flagship initiative on gender, ‘Investing in Women’, a US$50 million (€44 million) fund which aims to increase economic opportunities for women in Africa’s agricultural and renewable energy value chains. The pilot of US$5.9 million (€5.2 million), which was launched in September 2018 and funded by the UK, will apply AECF’s experience in gender lens investing, initially targeting Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone. The fund will also include a monetary gender mainstreaming prize as a new tool to encourage gender engagement by private sector companies, with an initial focus on companies in AECF’s investment portfolio.