By Dr. Jean Cédric Kouam (Download pdf version)
Promoting Gender Equality in Tech to Boost Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Sub-Saharan Africa
The digital sector has the potential to become one of the largest creators of jobs and innovation in the world (NU CEPAL, 2021). Indeed, since the rise of COVID-19, this sector has continued to evolve and innovate in:
- The provision of technical and consulting services
- The valorization of engineering, research, and development projects
- The design and development of solutions that enable the operation of all IT tools
However, according to a study conducted by Venture Capital for Africa in 2016, only 9% of start-ups – innovative companies with high growth potential and speculative future value – in Africa are led by women for a market of over 700 million internet and mobile users.
Similarly, up to 52% of women still feel that technology is a male industry and 32% still consider gender bias to be a major barrier in the recruitment process (World Economic Forum, 2017). Gender equality in technology still has a lot to be achieved. Bridging the gender gap through digital and entrepreneurship education in this way is essential to reap the benefits of the digital revolution in sub-Saharan Africa, where only 30% of professionals are engaged in the tech industry (UNDP, 2019).
The objective of this paper is to map the strategies for improving the digital ecosystem and digital skills for women’s economic empowerment in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). This paper is structured into two main sections. Section 1 presents the factors explaining gender inequalities in the technology sector in SSA. Section 2 highlights the opportunities for women to access tech jobs in SSA.
Factors Explaining Gender Inequalities in the Tech Sector in Sub-Saharan Africa
According to Lee et al (2019) and Tam et al (2020), girls and boys have similar levels of interest and competence in digital technologies, fewer girls develop this interest as part of their studies or careers in ICT (). Unfortunately, women entrepreneurs in the tech sector in SSA face multiple challenges that greatly impede scalability and sometimes sustainability.
Globally, there are two main factors driving the gender gap in the specific area of ICT sector in sub-Saharan Africa: Low access for girls and women to quality education on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and low access to financing for women-led startups. Indeed, education can influence women’s motivation to start a business, while financing would give them the means to seize opportunities and improve their productivity (ECA, 2019).
- Low Access of Girls and Women to Quality Education in STEM Fields
According to UNESCO (2015), women are grossly under-represented in ICT careers. Only 30% of them are involved in scientific research in SSA, compared to 48.5% in Southeast Europe, 44.4% in the Caribbean, and 44.3% in Central Asia and Latin America. The main reason accounting for this is that very few of them have access to STEM studies during their secondary education and, therefore, do not easily enter the technological and digital professions. In Nigeria, for example – which is the most populous country in Africa (World Bank, 2021) – only 3% to 7% of girls in higher education actually take STEM-related courses when they get there. Specifically, 3% of girls in higher education are enrolled in ICT, compared to 8% of boys.
Similarly, 7% of girls enroll in engineering and construction courses, compared to 22% of boys enrolled in the same fields of study (UNESCO, 2015). Therefore, promoting quality education for girls in STEM fields will significantly contribute to reducing gender inequalities in the tech sector in SSA. This can be achieved by:
- Bringing STEM role models into the classroom
- Disrupting stereotypes such as, “Girls should get married instead of going to school,” or, “STEM courses are just for boys.”
- Stimulating STEM teachers’ awareness of gender issues to foster the development of girls’ skills and character traits, and to serve as role models
- Encouraging interest in STEM early on in education
- Ensuring equal access to basic education
- Improving STEM teacher training
- Low Access to Finance of Women-Led Startups
Women represent 50.1% of the total population in SSA (World Bank, 2021). However, 74% of their jobs are in the non-structural sector (UN, 2016). While it is true that SSA has the highest rate of women entrepreneurs in the world, which is estimated at 27%, it should be noted that they are still facing many difficulties in obtaining funds to develop their businesses compared to men.
Although there are more women entrepreneurs in SSA than in other regions, only 9% of start-ups are led by women and those receive less than 2% of global funding (Africa Renewal, 2018). This limited access to credit severely hampers their ability to create and develop small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and start-ups, specifically in the tech sector. Generally, the limited access to credit for women is due to lack of assets and unclear property rights that can be used as collateral.
There are other reasons for women’s low access to finance. These include:
- Limited access to information
- Lack of equal employment opportunities between men and women, seeing as most women only have ¾ of the rights of men (World Bank, 2018)
- Lack of legal protection against harassment of women in the workplace, school, and in public (World Bank, 2018)
- Poorer access to quality health care services (Habib, 2021)
- Lack of political representation, with women remaining largely under-represented in government settings (Yoon, 2004)
- Discrimination due to the fact that most women are involved in unpaid domestic work, like housework
In order to overcome this challenge faced by women-led startups in SSA, it is necessary that they receive support from specialized support structures, like trainings, mentorships, networking, and access to technology and finances. The role of a business support structure here would be to develop privileged relationships between the startup in question and financial institutions capable of taking on a certain amount of financing – investment funds, crowdfunding and banks, to name a few. And, above all, to prepare the entrepreneurs to be ready to invest by providing them with dedicated coaching and mentoring services. This can include mentoring on the business aspects of their services, on legal and financial aspects, and more. These support structures can also help investors identify the best projects by putting them in touch with the most promising incubated entrepreneurs who have already proved themselves.
Opportunities of Improving Women’s Access in Tech in Sub-Saharan Africa
According to the African Union (2020), improving women’s access to tech in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to contribute significantly to the fight against poverty, insecurity and exclusion of women in the sub-region. Given the population of women in SSA and their entrepreneurial skills, improving their access to tech jobs will significantly contribute to:
- Increasing Women Economic Opportunities in All Sectors of Activities
Women make up 60% to 80% of the agricultural labor force in SSA, and more than 80% of these jobs are vulnerable (World Bank, 2019). From 2021 to 2030, the number of women and girls living in extreme poverty in this region is expected to increase from 249 million to 283 million (UN Women, 2020). By 2030, 71% of women and girls living in extreme poverty will reside in Sub-Saharan Africa (Wietzke, 2020). Despite the role and influence of women, they continue to receive much less support than men. Increasing economic opportunities for women in all sectors will help take advantage of the ongoing digital revolution (Chardin, 2014).
- Fostering Women’s Leadership in Entrepreneurship and Innovation
The high number of women engaged in agricultural activities in sub-Saharan Africa is partly explained by the fact that they are predominantly lower skilled and/or lower paid than men. According to a report published by the UNDP (2016), these gender inequalities cost sub-Saharan Africa about $95 billion each year. They concern in particular girls’ access to quality education; women’s access to credit, information, quality health care, employment opportunities (salary levels, access to management positions, social protection).
Given the number of women in this region, promoting and facilitating their access to technology and digital technology would quickly contribute to reducing existing and persistent gender inequalities between men and women. Such an option will help foster women’s leadership in entrepreneurship and innovation while strengthening their economic empowerment.
- Creating Social and/or Environmental Impacts
In a favorable societal and economic environment that promotes women’s economic rights, digital technology appears to be a formidable accelerator of the feminization of entrepreneurship. By giving women-led businesses the means to be competitive, facilitating women’s access to technology and digital technology will stimulate female entrepreneurship and create better conditions for competitive entrepreneurship. With the support of support structures, women-led businesses will then be able to offer solutions that can bring about change in society by creating businesses to solve a specific social or environmental problem.
However, the support of women social entrepreneurs and the structuring of an ecosystem favorable to their development are more necessary than ever. It is, therefore, necessary to support the establishment of administrative, legal, and fiscal frameworks favorable to innovation and social entrepreneurship and to advocate for better access for women entrepreneurs to quality education and digital financing. This will necessarily contribute to the rapid achievement of higher and higher levels of growth in the economies of SSA.
According to World Bank projections, more than half of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa will be under the age of 25 by 2050. Given its rich diversity and its human and natural resources, the region has considerable assets to generate inclusive growth and end poverty (World Bank, 2021). Among these assets, digitalization is an excellent way to boost growth entrepreneurship and social innovation.
With women making up half of the region’s population, it is therefore imperative to promote and strengthen their access to STEM studies, employability and entrepreneurship in the technology and digital sector. In addition, innovative financing methods should be developed for start-ups created and/or run by women in SSA. By adopting reforms to promote more inclusive digital entrepreneurship, SSA countries can ensure greater economic empowerment of women, which would naturally lead to the creation of more, decent, and sustainable, jobs through social innovation and entrepreneurship.
 ONU Femmes. Le progrès des femmes dans le monde 2015-2016. Chapitre 2, p. 71.
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 Yoon, M. Y. (2004). Explaining Women’s Legislative Representation in Sub-Saharan Africa. Legislative Studies Quarterly, 29(3), 447–468. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3598562
 Exchange of funds between individuals outside of institutional financial channels to finance a project via an online platform.
 PNUD, Les disparités entre les genres coûtent à l’Afrique subsaharienne 95 milliards de dollars par an, 2016. Disponible sur : http://bit.ly/356kTPK
Jean Cedric Kouam is the Deputy Director-Economics Affairs Division and the Head of Fiscal and Monetary Policy Sub-section at the Nkafu policy Institute. He holds a doctorate in economic policy and analysis (monetary and financial macroeconomics) from the University of Dschang in Cameroon.
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