The World Economic Forum is hosting its annual Africa meeting in Kigali this week, under the theme, ‘Connecting Africa’s Resources Through Digital Transformation’. I will be there to champion what I believe is Africa’s greatest resource–its women entrepreneurs.
Women entrepreneurs possess enormous power to drive economic growth across the continent. Africa has the highest rate of female entrepreneurship in the world, with women launching vibrant and valuable enterprises across a broad range of sectors. My Foundation supports women entrepreneurs in over 90 developing and emerging economies, including over 30 countries in Africa. During my travels to visit our projects I have met women running enterprises in health, fashion, engineering, recycling and education – to name just a few.
These women are succeeding, often against huge odds. Their businesses are driving innovation and creating jobs for others in their communities. Their success is proof that Africa’s women have the capacity to transform not just their own lives, but the economic future of their countries.
However, this huge potential is being squandered. Despite enjoying soaring rates of female entrepreneurship, African countries rank in the bottom half of countries globally for fostering high-potential women-owned businesses, according to the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute. All too often, women’s enterprises struggle to get beyond the micro level, operating largely in informal sectors and under poorly paid, unsafe conditions. Women also shoulder a double burden, performing the bulk of unpaid care work. And more than 125 million women across Africa still lack access to the most basic of financial products: a bank account.
This makes it difficult for them to safely store and use their money, or access other vital services, such as insurance and loans.
If ever there was a time for the digital revolution to drive equality and development, it is now.
Technology holds enormous promise for women’s empowerment in Africa. One of my Foundation’s projects, Skilling for Change, is using mobile technology to help close the gender gap in financial inclusion in Rwanda.
Working in partnership with Accenture and CARE International, we have provided training to boost the business management and financial literacy skills of over 16,000 women in the districts of Rulindo and Gicumbi. We are also working with the Kenya Commercial Bank in Rwanda to develop a range of mobile products which will enable women to access savings and credit at much lower interest rates than are currently available through savings cooperatives and microfinance institutions – 19.75% compared to 24-36%.
Mobile technology has also opened up space for agency banking, another important channel for reaching huge swathes of Africa’s unbanked population. Working in partnership with Visa and the Youth for Technology Foundation in Nigeria, my Foundation has trained 2,500 women as mobile banking agents for First Bank Nigeria.
As well as earning extra income for themselves, these women agents are also extending financial services to thousands of Nigerians, enabling them to register accounts, make deposits and pay bills via a simple mobile handset.
Women in Africa need the digital revolution. But the digital revolution also needs women. After all, the jobs of the future will be concentrated in the fields of science and technology – fields traditionally dominated by men. The World Bank estimates that Africa is lagging behind in these sectors, with just 22% of African university graduates emerging with STEM degrees, compared to 40% in China. Africa urgently needs to recruit more women into these disciplines to create a labour force with the skills to remain competitive in the global market and benefit from the opportunities afforded by the so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’.
This revolution has the potential to catalyse development on an unprecedented scale. But we must remain wary.
Technology is not a panacea. In other words, it’s not enough simply to put a mobile phone in a woman’s hand, or connect her to the internet. In order to unleash the full potential of Africa’s women entrepreneurs, we also need to build their skills as managers, leaders, problem-solvers and pioneers. This will require investment in training, mentoring and capacity building –what the World Bank calls the ‘analogue’ complements to the ongoing digitisation of our society. The technological revolution must retain a human touch.
Africa’s most precious resource is its women entrepreneurs. Let’s use the digital revolution to make them equal partners in our societies and economies.
Cherie Blair, Founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women