There is no debating it, technological innovation such as Robotics, Artificial intelligence, and Machine Learning are significantly impacting society as they aggressively become an essential part of everyday life.
With smartphones becoming rife and the cost of accessing the internet getting lower, banks and related financial institutions are turning to agile solutions to provide cutting edge services that are as swift as they are secured.
Surprisingly, technology adoption in sub-Saharan Africa – and the SADC region in particular – has not been encouraging. It gets even worse when women in business are considered. From the thousands of Spazas and home-based shops serving communities to SMMEs (small, micro, and medium enterprises) run by women all over the region, the evidence suggests women are extensively unbanked and lack access to credit to expand their businesses.
How can this gap be closed; could a rapid adoption of technology help stymie the drift; or would women in the SADC region continue to remain perpetually excluded from accessing financing even though they contribute in no small measure to the growing GDP of respective countries in the region?
A sneak peek into the problem
Perhaps one of the most debilitating factors contributing to the widening prosperity gap between men and women in Africa is the patriarchal nature the continent has been used to, for centuries.
But Africa is not alone.
Until the early ’70s, most American women were stay-at-home moms, and as recent as 2012, according to a Pew Research Centre study, 36% of Asian women were stay-at-home moms. The figure is 36% for Hispanic women. While these statistics show remarkable improvements when compared to the trend, less than three decades ago, it is still a significant source of concern.
It gets even gloomier in Africa.
According to a World Bank report in 2017, only 37% of women in sub-Saharan Africa possess a bank account, as against 48% for men in the same region – even though the women own a majority of small businesses. The figure is worse in North Africa, given that as many as two in three women are unbanked and lack access to financing.
In summary, the problem is not entirely African in nature, nor is it recent for that matter; it is merely a part of the broader disparity between the male folk and the womenfolk, historically (and consciously) engraved in local, national and regional cultures.
What are the limitations of digitisation for women in the SADC region?
The age-old patriarchal norm that has become the foundation of many systems and processes around the world has ensured that women are relegated to household chores, or at best, small businesses. It is little wonder, then, that there are (still) very few girls interested in the sciences and technology-related fields of study.
It is not their fault; they have been subconsciously made to believe that they are not capable enough to compete and succeed at such complicated and highly demanding domains. Such unconscious beliefs – ingrained in them from a young age – is carried through to adulthood and then informs the kinds of decisions they make in business or other spheres of life. Unfortunately, such beliefs are then passed down to their daughters – and then the cycle repeats itself unabated.
In effect, until there is a shift in mindset, much may not be achieved in terms of women accessing and unlocking the power of technology to improve their lot and take their rightful place in society.
This is the first challenge to surmount!
A study conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that women do not get adequately represented in the ICT profession. At the lower end of the spectrum, women are most likely without smartphones – the 21st century’s most important tool to enable unfettered access to the internet and the incredible retinue of technology that could better their lives and improve their businesses.
Women’s access to technology has also continued to slow down due to a reduced interest in educational disciplines that drive technology such as Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).
The incentive to do so is either not there at all or not encouraging enough!
Despite the litany of innovation hubs, incubation hubs, and ICT fairs specifically targeting women in several African countries, nothing meaningful comes out of the engagements as these often end up as white elephant projects.
More importantly, the access and use of digital technologies are majorly affected by regulations, government policies, and the private sector’s investment dynamics. Put together, this plays out in the abysmally insufficient distribution and installation of cell phone towers and broadband infrastructure in rural areas where a large chunk of women business owners operate.
Why should women get access to technology?
Since the population in the SADC region – like much of Africa – is split fairly evenly in the middle, not empowering women will mean only one thing: half of the population will remain a burden to society, instead of contributing meaningfully to boosting the economy.
Empowering women with technology, especially in developing nations, helps them get connected and in tune with happenings in their locality and other parts of the world. This self-realisation is key to shedding age-old patriarchal norms that relegate women to the background.
Beyond using technological tools to create content and sharing them via digital channels in a bid to gain access to more opportunities to help them grow professionally and economically, the endless possibilities to network with like-minded women can be as eye-opening as it is rewarding.
Connecting with other women in their age range who look like them, speak the same language as they do, and share similar stories as theirs have been proven to greatly boost the confidence of rural businesswomen which, in turn, helps their business grow.
When women take the lead role (or at least given level-playing access) in multi-gender groups and digital literacy training sessions, the narrative changes drastically, as they are now not being spoon-fed jargons they do not understand but are transformed into active participants that can contribute ideas, inventions, and innovations, thus becoming more impactful.
Access to such digital literacy sessions immensely helps expose women to appreciating and utilising digital platforms through which they can market their products to customers, network with financiers and colleagues, and communicate seamlessly with suppliers, thus enabling them to compete favourably in the rapidly expanding digital market.
Such networking opportunities that technological tools provide also mean that women will enjoy more flexibility with work schedules, thereby providing them more time to interact with mentors and other women in their business line.
In effect, the gradual adoption of mobile phones, electronic payments, and digital platforms will offer additional opportunities in all sectors of the economy. This will, in turn, help narrow knowledge gaps, create employment, and increase income considerably.
The implication of all these is clear: adopting technology to solve business challenges means that more women entrepreneurs will reach the peak of their potential. This outcome has a significant ripple effect on society on many levels, including employment generation, contribution to GDP, inspiring the next generation of businesswomen, and many more.
Leveraging social media technology to empower SADC women
Since innovations in technology must be gender-neutral to ensure it benefits everyone, all stakeholders must focus on bridging the gender gap in areas where women are currently seen as insignificant players in business and society at large.
One of the most critical aspects of bridging this gap is promoting girl child education – particularly in STEM. Relatedly, business women should also get such inclusive and deliberate interventions, whether they reside in the rural area or not. These educational materials can be easily accessible via SMS, mobile apps, automated phone calls, and short videos at little or no cost.
Combining such education with digital financial platforms will considerably help strengthen women economically.
Furthermore, networking through social media channels has been proven to work in empowering women.
Just like FIN, a Facebook page boasting over two million members dedicated to women in Nigeria to discuss social issues, there are many business-only pages with large numbers on Instagram, WhatsApp, etc., where women collaborate, advertise their wares, and connect with customers in real-time.
Other than the investment in internet data to connect online, these adverts and networking opportunities are free to utilise.
Such platforms are as much support systems as they are business networking channels. A study conducted by the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women shows that women who have mentoring groups possess a support system to rely on, gain more business skills and experience, and bolster their confidence at the same time.
In summary, having access to micro-level digital platforms can connect women to local and international markets, matching buyers with sellers, and thus expanding their businesses and improving their economic power.
SADC women in business: FinTech to the rescue
Another major area where women can benefit optimally through access to technology is financial services. This is highly critical, given that most business women desire simplicity, privacy, reliability, convenience, and security.
The introduction and adoption of mobile money across the SADC region have helped many rural small business owners to enjoy these services – and many more are joining the trend daily.
From M-Pesa to Mama Money, MTN Money and a myriad of others, mobile money adoption has positively transformed the small business landscape in the SADC region – and Africa as a whole. So far, economic watchers are generally in agreement that the introduction and adoption of such technologies have had positive impacts on women in the continent.
However, challenges such as limited phone usage among rural women limit them from maximising the opportunities these technologies offer. To encourage more women participation, financial institutions, FinTech startups and telecommunication companies should design and provide financial apps that are specifically focused on women’s business needs.
Such applications should be as simple as possible and as well functional on a 2G phone since many of these businesswomen do not possess high-end smartphones. In other words, they should be easy to set up and have an interface that everyone can use irrespective of their level of education.
The eCOBba Platform launched in conjunction with the SADC Women in Business Initiative will help fill part of this gap by helping people in the grassroots to improve their businesses as they make use of digital financial services available at the tap of a button.
The SADC WIB initiative believes that when women are financially integrated and connected via technological tools, the possibilities will be endless. That assertion explains its partnership with eCOBba “…to support all kinds of savings and investment groups” in the region.
Since most financial institutions will only provide credit to business owners with a record of financial performance, these FinTech-driven apps become highly crucial to the success of local women hitherto unbanked. The apps also bring these women into the cashless economy, integrating them into the broader banking and e-commerce system and ensuring that they can receive payments from whomever, wherever, and whenever.
What does this all mean for women in the SADC region?
Exposing more women to technology will allow them to harness the wide range of opportunities available in the ‘gig economy,’ considering that most apps and tools are cloud-based. Such exposure will ensure that business owners can expand their trade to service customers locally or globally from the comfort of their home, while still caring for their family at the same time.
In a broad sense, digital platforms have effectively enabled women to contribute their quota efficiently in ‘traditional’ male-dominated disciplines, forever dismantling long-held patriarchal notions that have tied women down for centuries.
Closing or reducing the digital gender gap, improving access to, and adoption of digital technologies to boost women participation by making women-friendly policies will open up the massive potential and positive impact the other half of the human race can offer.
To achieve this, policymakers and decision-makers must proactively eliminate the digital gender divide by making and implementing policies that will have a significant impact in the grand scheme of things.
The government should implement policies to remove hurdles that are a barrier to achieving these goals, including but not limited to a lack of access to proper education, lack of access to tools of technology, affordability, technical know-how, and socio-cultural restrictions.
Since emerging technologies keep changing the way we lead our lives, work for a living, perform our day-to-day tasks, and as well determine our level of productivity, there is evidently an urgent need to promote gender equality with respect to financial inclusion. Such inclusion will help to promote sustainable and inclusive growth.
Creating a constant awareness of digital tools that will be beneficial to women in business, especially at the grassroots level, will undoubtedly help address and alleviate the stereotypes that exclude women from the gains of technology.
As such, we will be building an inclusive digital world that will reduce gender inequality, benefit women and their families, and promote economic growth at a more rapid rate. The end-result of empowering women through access to technology will be evident in a significant reduction of poverty – especially in rural areas.
For women to penetrate and make meaningful impacts in male-dominated industries and sectors, they should begin to aggressively harness as many digital tools as possible that will help them break barriers and make a difference.
Our governments at all levels must be ready to invest in Data Analytics, Cloud Computing, Artificial intelligence, Financial Technology and related mobile technologies to help drive this vision and make it accessible to all, irrespective of their level of education or place of doing business/residence. Such a task is too critical to human capital development to be left squarely in the hands of the private sector.
In furtherance to the above, for the adoption of technology to be effective in rural areas, there must be increased investment in communication towers to boost fast broadband connection, thus enabling women to set up their businesses with an online presence.
Said otherwise, empowering women with technology will promote more comprehensive skill-set searches and matches, exposure to a broader range of projects and customers, and use of advanced technologies to help develop and expand their businesses (amongst other possibilities) without hindering them from fulfilling their domestic roles in any way.
It’s a win-win for everyone!