The majority of the world’s population growth will take place in Africa, with the continent projected to comprise more than half of the world by 2100.

It is well known that Africa’s largest development challenge is to create enough quality jobs and decent work to absorb this population growth, in particular for the youth demographic.

The already sizeable jobs gap will continue to grow if proper policy action is not taken, as mass unemployment, a dominant informal economy, and inadequate service provision characterize the current context. This has major implications for human welfare and well-being, as well as the associated migration and militarization concerns of Western policymakers.

Image: The Economist

There have been many strategies advocated to harness the potential of the demographic dividend of the world’s fastest growing labor force, from building suitable infrastructure to supporting globally competitive and labor-intensive sectors to skills training. What has been absent from the debate is how best to incorporate women, over half of the growing African population, in a way that goes beyond the quotas and targets that often fail to address the structural drivers of gender inequality.

The current constraints women face, from the private sphere of the household to the public sphere of politics, are a major detriment to the continent’s economic development and inclusive growth process, and women’s empowerment in this sense goes far beyond income generation.

A powerful economic force

African women have been called “a powerful untapped economic force” and will be absolutely integral in addressing the development challenges Africa faces. Structural and systems change are a key component to the aim of a more gender inclusive private sector development, for the gender mainstreaming efforts of the international community, though well-intentioned, are all too often focused on surface level changes while the architecture of inequalities and patriarchal neoliberalism remains intact.

Women face gender biases in legal and macroeconomic frameworks, as well as more limited human, social, and financial assets than men. Currently, African women constitute the majority of workers in the informal economy, and only about a third of women across the continent participate in formal economic activity.

Cultural and social norms are often not supportive of women’s involvement in business, and many aspiring female entrepreneurs lack access to supportive networks and mentors as well as negotiating power within their households and local communities. The unpaid nature of care work results in women’s time poverty and their double burden of labor as compared to men.

The small business boost

Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are the main engines of job creation throughout Africa, estimated to account for over 90% of all firms outside of the agricultural sector in the region. Women’s formal ownership of SMEs currently stands at around a third of all registered SMEs in Africa, and women-owned SMEs are more likely to have lower sales and annual turnover, less employees, and smaller size than those enterprises owned by men.

Government facilitation of women-owned SMEs is of particular importance due to the gender gaps characterizing the SME sector and the constraints women face in starting, operating, and scaling enterprises. Such challenges can only be met in the large-scale through the deliberate efforts of government programs and implemented policies. As in other systems of power relations, patriarchal institutions and norms are not reformed without conscious efforts to mainstream gender concerns, meaning that the large-scale change of power hierarchies can only be realized by the deliberate actions of government actors to make gender equality a top priority.

Striking the right balance in policy

Many African governments already have substantial SME facilitation programs in place, but are too often characterized by policies that are gender blind, in which the status quo is maintained, or, in worse cases, gender negative, in which gender inequalities are reinforced. The Small and Medium Enterprise Division of the Uganda Investment Authority provides a strong example of support available to SMEs, through offered programs including entrepreneurship training, business incubation and SME workspaces, mentorship networks, technical skills training for value addition, and advocacy on behalf of SMEs, in addition to other programs.

These important programs have so far been limited in their impact and reach due to their gender-blind nature, in which women are not mentioned or prioritized in planning. There are many ways this issue could be addressed, from setting targets for women’s participation in youth entrepreneurship programs, to collecting and incorporating sex-disaggregated data for SME databases, to working with women’s membership organizations, such as Uganda Women’s Entrepreneurs Association Limited (UWEAL), to better communicating information about these programs to women throughout Uganda.

Beyond a numbers game

Harnessing Africa’s demographic dividend is very much dependent on the full inclusion of women across the overlapping political, social, and economic spheres, and these deeper level changes are messy, political, and revolve around the deliberate reforming of entrenched power structures.

Such systems-level transformation goes far deeper than the quotas, percentages, and targets characterizing the international development industry and is instead found in the less easily quantifiable struggles for increased agency, voice, and power throughout the private and political realms.

Gender inclusive government facilitation of SME growth will be integral to these processes, as the potentials of a demographic dividend in Africa can only be harnessed if women are promoted as full economic citizens in the inclusive growth process.