Technology is Changing Gender Equality across Africa
In a Cassava field just outside Kabunjwiri, a small village in the Gisagara district in rural Rwanda, Claudine is finishing the last stages of harvesting before the rainy season begins in April. She works 8-10 hours a day in the field, and spends another 4-6 hours cooking and doing house chores. Across sub-Saharan Africa, women produce up to 80% of foods for household consumption and sale in local markets, according to a report by the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Women sow the seeds, do the weeding, cultivate and harvest the crops, while they also tend to the aftermath of farming as they sell surpluses in local markets. But despite their indisputable contribution to agriculture in the continent, the gender gap is very noticeable in the sector. Women own less than 1 percent of lands. In the Ethiopian coffee market, for example, women provide 75 percent of the labor but earn only 34 percent of total income generated.
Agriculture is only one example of the ever present gender inequality that is extremely dominant across Africa. According to the African Development Bank and the UN, the continent’s Gender Equality Index ranges from 24.0% to 79.7%, averaging at 48.6%, while the rest of the world stands at 68.6%.
At work, at home, and in school, inequality is all around
When looking at the labour force, Africa scores ahead of other regions and continents on women’s labour-force participation, but 89.7 percent of employed women work in low-paid jobs in the informal sector, leaving them little hope for advancement, higher wages, or promotions. And while the continent has the highest female representation on company boards of any region, standing at 25 percent (the global average is 17 percent), the share of women in middle management has regressed by 1 percent a year since 2015. Only 15% of formal-sector firms have a woman as the managing director, while 32% have some degree of female ownership. Women account for more than 50 percent of Africa’s combined population, but in 2018 generated only 33 percent of the continent’s collective GDP.
Unpaid care work, including child and elderely care, house chores and more, continues to fall disproportionately on women’s shoulders, as they bear the burden of Africa’s infrastructure deficit. The lack of access to the most basic services, especially power and water, is the main problem, as women and girls spend up to 20 hours a week collecting firewood and water, which over the course of a year, can represent up to two months of labour.
In terms of education, finance, and technology women are left far behind, with financial inclusion steadily declining since 2017. In terms of education, there is progress in primary level parity between girls and boys, but it is non-existent at the secondary level, as most of the girls are still pulled out of school to help with house chores and labour. Women are 34 percent less likely than men to have a smartphone, hindering potential adoption of digital solutions.
In the Ethiopian coffee market, for example, women provide 75 percent of the labor but earn only 34 percent of total income generated.
In general, Women and girls carry most of the care and domestic burden, are not likely to be employed in the formal sector or earn high wages, do not have access to financial services, and lack proper education levels that could change this predicament.
Despite the vast inequality, women are very active as economic agents, performing the majority of agricultural activities, owning a third of all businesses, and determining the welfare of their families and the life prospects of their children. According to McKinsey, Africa could add $316 billion or 10 percent to GDP in the period to 2025 if each country makes advances in women’s equality to match the country in the region that has achieved the most progress towards parity. However, at the current rate of progress, Africa could take more than 140 years to achieve gender parity.
The only way forward
As with many other issues and sectors regarding Africa’s needed development, technological advancements could lead entire communities to leapfrog the current gloom situation, and reach a more equal reality. Various solutions are already out there, and many more are currently under development, with COVID19 accelerating innovation in multiple remote fields.
Solar energy and off-grid solutions are the perfect fit for hundreds of millions who are living without infrastructure in their villages and homes, and are already saving women and girls vast amounts of time that was previously spent on house chores, including the procurement of combustible fuels, cooking on an open fire, and more. The light is also helping girls spend more time doing school work, as they are finally able to study after dark. As solar energy becomes more accessible across the continent, millions of women are expected to enjoy power in coming years, and, according to a recent report by IRENA, sub-Saharan Africa could meet up to 67 percent of its energy needs by 2030, which could prove to be extremely meaningful for gender equality in the region.
Education is getting an added boost from multiple remote services and edtech companies that reach girls everywhere, allowing them to receive global education and gain important skills. In recent years, mobile money providers across the region began offering educational content and made big advancements in the field. According to Markets and Research, the e-learning market is expected to reach $1.8 billion USD by 2024, and COVID19-related lockdowns have established an even greater cause for speeding up development.
Fintech solutions are abundant across Africa, with mobile money in the lead, and other crypto-based, and digital services taking the continent by storm, presenting women with financial inclusion for the first time ever. Digital solutions not only create new opportunities for women to open bank accounts, which were previously limited by cultural and regulatory difficulties, but also allow traveling long distances without the worry of carrying cash, providing more opportunities to get out of rural areas. A study done in Kenya that reviewed the long-term effects of mobile money found that approximately 185,000 country women moved from agriculture to small-scale retail as a result, leading to higher income and better opportunities for advancement.
Internet connectivity plays a major role in allowing access to these important advancements, and inventive technologies such as TV White Space and satellite broadband are providing millions with access, while new ventures that partner with the largest companies in the world, including Facebook and Microsoft, are working to reach millions more.
Despite the vast inequality, women are very active as economic agents, performing the majority of agricultural activities, owning a third of all businesses, and determining the welfare of their families and the life prospects of their children.
It has long been recognized that investing in women and girls is one of the most effective ways to promote development. Educated women are far more likely to have fewer children, and greater means to provide for them, and the resulting improvement has multiplier effects that expand with each generation. Studies have also found that each year of additional schooling for girls reduces infant mortality by 5-10%, and the children of mothers with five years of primary education are 43% less likely to be malnourished. This is meaningful everywhere, and particularly for a continent expected to double its population in the coming decade. Hopefully, innovative thinkers will continue to pave the path to an equal, fair future for all.
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