How women entrepreneurs can take their place in Africa’s economy

The 4th Industrial Revolution (IR 4.0) is a game changer for women. The digitalization of the services industry makes the concept of getting out of bed and commuting to an office increasingly outdated and the sector is increasingly made up of smaller companies that offer their clients agility and cost-effectiveness. In a region where women often still stay at home, IR 4.0 therefore makes entrepreneurship more accessible. Makerspaces and co-worker spaces also make it more affordable for women, offering access to either free or incredibly cheap Wi-Fi, hot-desks and mentor services in business development and management.

A look at African women game changers in innovation

More and more, major female names in technology and media are contributing to the innovation ecosystem in Africa, not only by developing solutions but by acting as role models. Kenyan-born Juliana Rotich is Co-founder and Executive Director of Ushahidi – a web-based reporting system that uses crowdsourced data, mobile phones and web reporting to formulate real-time visual maps during crises. She was named Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year in Africa by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and in 2017 she participated in the W20 summit in Berlin where she participated in a panel discussion with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, IMF Director Christine Lagarde, Ivanka Trump, Queen Maxima of the Netherlands and others. To see female African entrepreneurs on such a platform is a great source of inspiration.

The sector benefits from some extremely successful women who have founded their own firms and create jobs and wealth. Considered an icon in Egypt’s internet world, Hanan Abdel Meguid started her first technology company, Microlabs, in Cairo 20 years ago, before the internet was publicly available in the area. She is a serial entrepreneur who learned how to raise money from venture capitalists, manage multiple technology platforms and strike deals with international companies before any of this was common practice. Her economic and social contribution is clearly significant – particularly as a woman from the Arab world in North Africa.

Some of the biggest female names on the continent are vocal proponents of women entrepreneurs. The Founder of the Foundation for Community Development (FDC), Graça Machel spoke as far back as May 2016 on the importance of the 4th Industrial Revolution in Africa, saying that “It is crucial that the 4th Industrial Revolution does not leave anyone behind.” She also commented that taking an inclusive attitude towards women should not be considered ‘humanitarian’ – this is arguably a patronizing tone.

Machel says that having women entrepreneurs, “Makes business and common sense – as they make up half the population and bring different skills and perception to bear on challenges.” This is the tone of voice that all African girls of school age need to hear and that should be aggressively promoted within the educational systems of the continent.

Understanding the opportunities despite challenges ahead

We are at the threshold of a truly transformative revolution in the way things are manufactured through collaborative teams that sometimes span the globe. Wherever tomorrow’s brilliant ideas come from, whatever sectors they affect – from mining for gold to mining for data, it is very clear that the people who will make those ideas come true will have higher skills of analysis, creativity, resilience and social influence.

Societies where more of those groups are led by women, formed only of women or have substantive female members will be ahead of the curve. People working collaboratively in real and virtual groups, are building solutions to current problems and problems whose existence we have not yet realized. It is certain that women will play a critical role for all the solutions – from cleaner energy to smarter appliances.

The women entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers of tomorrow are the girls of today. The innovation industry can make a stronger effort to reach out to girls in high school, at a time when adolescents are considering alternative careers. Successful women engineers can serve as powerful role models. Angola has a hybrid innovation hub in Cazenga –  a center of hubs of activities where people get together to collaborate on designing and prototyping innovative products using technology such as 3-D printers. Somewhat on the periphery of the formal education system, such maker spaces can serve to break the mold of outdated beliefs about the capabilities of women in the field of technology. In the formal education system, universities that are successfully able to enroll and graduate more women will prove to be more successful in helping their graduates secure jobs and build a reputation for innovation.

The other side of the coin is that, even when a woman attempts to become an entrepreneur, she is less likely to be granted credit and gain access to markets, which are male dominated. These issues of patriarchy are societal and hard-grained even in developed economies, which is why African policy makers should do everything possible to leapfrog the mistakes of the past and fast-forward on issues such as equal pay and anti-discrimination legislation.

Progress over recent years has been slow – 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. 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’.

Now, more than half of all African women work informally, making it exceptionally difficult to quantify their contribution to economic growth. This is a shame because the full contribution of women in enterprise should be quantifiable and in the public domain so that aspiring entrepreneurs can see the difference and understand that they too can make it. In addition, when women bring home high salaries, men’s attitudes shift, aiding societal change. It is especially important for us to see successful women entrepreneurs placed on a pedestal and celebrated. Young girls and women entering the workforce need to be inspired – just as men are inspired by Patrice Motsepe or Aliko Dangote.

Women are proven drivers of economic growth

If we analyze other more developed markets, it becomes evident that the meteoric rise in the female labor force participation rates in advanced economies has been largely driven by the boom in manufacturing and service sectors – which is where Africa has fallen behind. This tells us that women’s contribution to economic growth can (and must) be enhanced through the growth of innovation-led enterprises. In short, African economies must diversify and mature if women are to drive economic growth and work at the forefront of innovation across traditional and emerging sectors.

There is significant progress – it can be seen all around. Expanding women’s access in innovation would not only advance economic opportunities for women, their families, and their communities, but it would also help address the shortage of skilled workers for this industry sector. As women become increasingly active users of technology, their participation in designing and developing innovations will help to enhance relevance for women as consumers, further boosting innovation and economic growth. Working together, the public and private sector should address the multiple barriers women and girls face, particularly in low- and middle-income countries whose economies stand to gain the most from greater participation of women in vital innovation. It is right – indeed crucial – to celebrate the great female successes.