So, if full equality is yet to be realized in the developed economies, what chance for women in Africa? And when innovation and enterprise is so central to the region’s economic growth and diversification what can be done to support African women entrepreneurs?
The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report says that the gap across health, education, economic opportunity and politics in Africa has closed by only 4% in the past ten years. It is also telling that, whilst the diversity of outcomes between men and women are typically driven by economic participation in developing economies, in Africa it is more frequently driven by education. In addition, the World Bank’s Educational Attainment sub-index states that Sub-Saharan Africa is outranked by the Middle East and North Africa.
If education is the seed of empowerment, financial inclusion is the rainwater that is needed to help ambition grow. The World Bank’s 2014 Global Findex says that women in the developing world are 20% less likely than men to have a bank account. In sub-Saharan Africa, the figure is worsened by the fact that so few adults of both genders hold bank accounts in formal institutions: 34%. Only 30% of those formal bank accounts are held by women – meaning that only 10% of the female population is ‘banked’.
Being unbanked means no credit history and no prospect of borrowing – which is a direct impediment to female African entrepreneurs. Poor capital markets and financial exclusion are major issues for both genders – but disproportionately for women. Other barriers include social and cultural attitudes, particularly in conservative and highly religious parts of the continent where traditional gender role models remain fixed. There must therefore be a clear political will across the continent to put the issue of gender equality in schools and enshrine equality in lawto open the doors of equality of opportunity to women.
Private businesses, charities, not-for-profits and philanthropists are playing an increasingly visible role in encouraging enterprise and innovation for African women. In March 2017, the World Economic Forum began its search for the top female tech innovators in Africa, inviting them to share their experiences at the Forum’s regional meeting. The contest is open to female entrepreneurs whose business is less than three years old, uses innovative technology and has at least one year of revenue generation. Interestingly, applicants must also demonstrate that their business has demonstrable social and economic potential.
For those who have yet to enter the business world, the African Innovation Foundation (AIF), which I founded in 2009,are on the hunt for innovators, scientists, academics or ordinary inventors who have created commercially viable solutions to African challenges – particularly in areas such as healthcare, agriculture and access to clean water and electricity: arguably the most pressing and widespread issues on the continent. AIF awards the annual Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) and in 2016 a scientist called Dr. Imogen Wright wonthe 2nd prize of $25,000 for her new software solution that enables healthcare workers to determine HIV positive patients; responsiveness to anti-retro-viral (ARV) treatment. The software, called Exatype, has the potential to contribute towards effectively managing HIV/AIDS in Africa and holds promise in helping to detect drug resistance for other diseases such as Tuberculosis and malaria.
The concept of ‘becoming an entrepreneur’ must continue to be talked about and promoted in Africa, particularly in schools and especially in conservative areas where women are still not expected to work in business. In June 2016 Michelle Obama attended the United States of Women Summit, where she spoke not only of the barriers to women in business but the unique benefits that women entrepreneurs bring to society. “We’ve seen time and again that when educated girls grow into successful women, they don’t just pat themselves on the back and enjoy the fruits of their success – no, as they should, they reach back and they help other women and girls along after them.”
Every successful woman entrepreneur is a shining example of what can be achieved when women are empowered, educated and offered equality of opportunity. Every female innovator leads the way for others to follow. If Africa’s economies are to realise their full potential, women must be at the forefront of innovation and enterprise with their male counterparts. Every female entrepreneur is a signpost leading the way – and we must all do what we can to make sure that the road leads to prosperity and success.
– Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais, Founder: African Innovation Foundation