By Malado Kaba and Cheikh Oumar Seydi (Guest Writers)
Momentum is still strong following the Women Deliver Conference, which drew more than 6,000 global delegates to Kigali, Rwanda, in July this year. This gathering represented the first time the world’s largest gender equality conference was held on the continent.
Field-leading experts, from economists to activists, came together to discuss how to advance gender equality at this critical moment — and what is at stake if global and national leaders fail to accelerate progress.
The role that women play in economies was a key part of these conversations. Increasing opportunities for women and girls to fully participate in their communities and economies would not only result in profound, necessary progress on gender equality at a time when progress is so clearly needed, but also in broader, widespread benefits for everyone.
Indeed, data shows that when women have access to and have the ability to pursue a range of economic activities or the ability to control their own money (economic power), their power grows, communities are stronger, and economies are more resilient. Closing the gender gap in entrepreneurship alone could provide economic gains for the world of up to $6 trillion. Providing access to childcare expands labor force participation for women and improves human capital outcomes for children — and could potentially increase global GDP by 3–4 trillion dollars, roughly the annual GDP of India.
Despite these very real, wide-reaching benefits, progress to advance women’s economic power is not happening at the pace we need, and women continue to face a host of barriers to full economic participation.
In Africa, that is partly tied to the nature of women’s employment. According to the World Bank, eight in ten women in the labor force in Sub-Saharan Africa are self-employed, almost twice as many as the global average. Most of these women are in micro-enterprises in the informal business sector and very few are part of the formal banking system. As a result, most of them are unable to access affordable and sustainable credit to grow their businesses and break the spiral of poverty. According to the African Development Bank Group, there is a $42 billion financing gap for small and medium-sized enterprises owned by African women and this hinders economic development and improved wellbeing for all.
This is why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the African Development Bank Group are investing in women’s economic power. While this might seem like a complex topic, there are clear and actionable steps decision-makers can take to unleash women’s economic power — and supercharge broader development efforts.
The African Development Bank’s Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa (AFAWA) initiative provides one powerful example of such efforts. AFAWA seeks to close the finance gap for women entrepreneurs by facilitating access to loans, working in collaboration with more than 50 banks across the continent — and counting. The program reached a significant milestone this year; a total of $1 billion in funding has been approved for lending to date, supporting approximately 5,000 women-owned businesses across 29 African nations.
These loans act as the lifeblood for flourishing women-owned businesses and provides them with the opportunity to expand their enterprises. Improving access to finance, providing technical assistance and improving the policy and regulatory environment around credit lending, are the primary ways in which the program has supported recipients. Through these forms of support, women who participate in the AFAWA initiative have been able to innovate their product or service offerings, create new jobs within their communities, and gain financial independence.
Another example is the effort made by the private sector and governments to build affordable, high quality childcare opportunities to ensure women can re-join or enter the workforce after having children. For many women, caring for their children has hampered their economic ambitions because they lack options for affordable, safe childcare while they work. There are promising solutions being implemented today across the continent, including programs like Kidogo in Kenya. Kidogo is a social enterprise that partners with owners of informal daycare centers in low-income communities in Kenya. Kidogo enlists them in three-month training programs that covers everything from how to run a daycare as a business, to early childhood development to financial literacy. These centers become a Kidogo franchise, providing well-paid jobs to caregivers and high-quality, affordable daycare options for families who depend on childcare to work.
On the heels of a global pandemic, continued economic challenges, and strained resources, governments must make smarter investments — every dollar designed to support economic development should also put women at the center of economic and financial policy-making. If we seize this opportunity, we can accelerate progress towards the African Union Commission’s Agenda 2063 — which sets out a vision for inclusive and sustainable development for Africa. We cannot reach this goal if we leave women behind.
About the authors
Malado Kaba is Director of Gender, Women and Civil Society at the African Development Bank Group; Cheikh Oumar Seydi is Africa Director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation