Recent estimates state that women provide approximately 70 per cent of agricultural labour and produce about 90 per cent of all food in Africa. At the same time, women and girls reinvest an average of 90 percent of their income in their families, compared to 30 to 40 percent for men. It is clear that women represent a huge opportunity for Africa, but the majority are still employed in the informal sector or occupy low-skilled jobs. What’s preventing them from progressing, and how should businesses help?
Gender inequality is pervasive across Africa, in terms of women’s labour burdens, skills and access to markets and infrastructure. One prominent study found that women spent more than 700 hours a year fetching water in Ghana, 500 in Tanzania and 200 in Zambia. Women do not share the same social securities to men, such as entitlement to family inheritance or land. Social norms on marriage or parental decision-making prevent women from pursuing further education or entering the labour market, and also prevent development mechanisms from translating into practice. For example, although women may have the right to obtain a bank loan in theory, customs still prevent females from having equal access to credit in the reality that makes up much of rural Africa.
This leads to three important questions that businesses wishing to invest in Africa should ask: Who primarily benefits? Who has access to decision-making? And who shoulders the risk? In all cases, I argue that women should be front of mind.
Scaling women’s empowerment fundamentally means tackling three issues: time, money and access. Studying women’s contribution to the informal sector would allow businesses to understand how to adapt their strategies and implement context-sensitive conditions to help women formalise their economic role. The complexity of gender development places foremost importance on women’s voices, and the role of collaboration and partnerships in fostering a sustainable model of growth. This should be complemented with a clear baseline and theory of change in order to track meaningful impact. This ensures that the nexus between business and development is built with an ethic of care and inclusivity.
As a starting point, businesses are shaping the development of women in Africa by engaging in several important sectors:
- Finance. Alternative investment solutions such as micro-lending or patient capital enable the reduction of risk while empowering women through access to finance to scale up their own business. This issue is particularly relevant for banking companies, who have realised the logic of developing financial literacy in women. Great examples include Standard Chartered Bank’s ‘Goal programme’, and Credit Suisse’s ‘Microfinance capacity building initiative’.
- ICT for Development. ‘ICT4D’ is disrupting markets all over Africa. The use of mobile technology and other devices such as tablets and radio are an effective way to disseminate information up and down the value chain, enhance product/service distribution models and provide much needed extension services for women. By tapping into the women’s market, the mobile industry faces an estimated $13 billion revenue opportunity. The GSMA Connected Women platform seeks to accelerate women’s access to the digital economy and is helping many companies connect to a female audience.
- Agriculture. By conducting robust research into the role of female producers in the supply base and working with suppliers to deliver capacity building, companies can unlock higher productivity, increase the security of food supply chains and improve the livelihood of marginalised female producers. As an example, one of SAB Miller’sfive shared imperatives seeks to accelerate growth and social development through its value chain, focussing on local female entrepreneurs in South Africa.
- Base of pyramid (BOP) markets. Poorer people have alternative income and consumption structures to those with higher incomes. The “base of the pyramid” currently represents a $5 trillion global consumer market. Companies looking to access some of this value can do so in a number of ways, such as developing inclusive business models or ‘micro’ products to serve a market facing different needs. Living Goods is one company operating successfully within this space in Kenya, creating networks of franchised micro-entrepreneurs – most of whom are women – to sell affordable health products to the ‘last mile’ consumer.
There are many more great examples of companies identifying a development need and using market solutions to serve it. Beyond these specific sectors, however, businesses can (and should) also play key roles in developing the wider enabling environment for women:
Tackling gender empowerment issues means taking markets developed by and with women, and using corporate resources to scale them. Surely businesses can only understand how to meet women’s needs by building strategy through a woman’s lens! Such strategies should cover pivotal issues such as family duties, illiteracy, working conditions, routes to market, skill-set and role types to help alleviate women’s extremely burdened time. Nike’s Girl Declaration is a fantastic example of a company approaching business in a female-centric way.
Weak governance structures
Addressing governance issues is central to operating in Africa in a responsible and integral way, where many countries struggle to overcome corruption and breakdown of transparency. Global frameworks such as the Ruggie Principles place a spotlight on companies who overlook violations of basic human rights. Providing social and legal security, such as formal contracts, employment protection schemes, access to finance, land rights, and localised job opportunities, is a way to augment this process. Where possible, companies should advocate for such rights at central, regional and local scales.
Reproductive rights and health care
Businesses can help with family planning and the socio-economic pressures arising from child rearing through health awareness campaigns and education on reproductive rights for employees and communities. By helping women to share family responsibilities and free up time to benefit from market opportunities, businesses can unlock a direct benefit to themselves as well as society.
A win-win story is emerging around the opportunity for business in contributing to Africa’s development, with many companies helping to find market solutions to development challenges. To continue successfully, however, businesses need to work with women right from the very start and keep them at the centre all the way through.
Only then will companies ensure that the balance of benefits, decision-making and risk burdens are correctly distributed – and that a license to operate is dutifully obtained.