• COVID-19 accelerated the need for people to be digitally networked for education, employment and other needs.
  • Communication technologies have enhanced the human experience but a digital divide remains.
  • This is true for the growing number of female entrepreneurs in Africa.
  • Below, an expert explains how these women can receive the support they need to harness digital technology for their careers and livelihoods.

In a hyper connected and increasingly digitized global landscape, human connection and interaction has been, and continues to be, transformed. Information communication technologies (ICTs) have acted as an enabler to the human experience in many ways: revolutionizing healthcare delivery through drones in remote geographic spaces, facilitating online shopping and bolstering communication. However, on the same vein, ICTs have in other ways revealed the ways in which inequalities (if unaddressed) can be precipitated by the proliferation of ICTs.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the need for people to be digitally networked. Education, employment and other activities migrated almost exclusively online overnight. Those without digital connection were left out and, as a result, livelihoods for many were lost.

With limited job opportunities in Botswana, and in Africa more generally, some people resort to grassroots entrepreneurship out of necessity for their livelihoods. The nature of their entrepreneurial activities require social interaction – some as street vendors in bustling roads and alleys. Many of these individual merchants and grassroots entrepreneurs are women. During the peak of the pandemic, particularly the lockdown periods, many grassroots entrepreneurial activities for these women were halted in the then silent streets. It is reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate adverse effect on women entrepreneurs.

a map showing africa's tech hubs
There are tech hubs all across Africa.
Image: Forbes

Africa has the world’s highest numbers of female entrepreneurs. And according to the Mastercard Index, Botswana in particular, has the second highest number of female business owners in the world, just behind Uganda. Botswana’s female business owners have shown an increase over the past years from ranking 36% in the MasterCard Index in 2019 to 38.5% in 2020.

As Africa, and Botswana specifically, gears itself to building back better post COVID-19, digital technologies provide new pathways for entrepreneurial empowerment for women. Women’s digital entrepreneurship is a key driver of socio-economic development in Botswana, Southern Africa, Africa in general and indeed the world. The female economy is said to be “the world’s largest emerging market, with the potential to add $12trillion to global GDP by 2025”.

Digital transformation offers unique opportunities for entrepreneurial women and opens them up to a digital world where access to information, innovative business ideas and employment opportunities are at their grasp. Technology and innovation play a vital role in achieving gender equality in a world inundated with gender-related economic and social biases and challenges. The opportunities provided by technology and ICTs for women entrepreneurs are in digital commerce, digital services and other novel entrepreneurial opportunities that will continue to unfold. It is therefore vital that access to ICTs are provided to women so as to ensure that digital solutions and the efficiencies they provide enable women to thrive in their micro, small and/or medium-sized entrepreneurial ventures.

Botswana’s burgeoning women entrepreneurs are important drivers and contributors of the country’s sustainable socio-economic growth. Innovative business ventures with digital solutions are important in a post-pandemic era and gender-sensitive national domestic policies that consider gender disparities will ensure the equitable inclusion of women in Botswana’s developmental strategy. The African Union’s Strategy for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment takes particular note of including women in the developmental strategy of the African continent.

How can Botswana, and Africa at large, move towards gender equality through digital entrepreneurship where pre-existing socio-economic inequalities are seeping into the digital space? This can be done through: digital literacy interventions, targeted investment programmes, gender sensitive domestic policies and digital cooperation.

Digital literacy

There is a dearth of disaggregated data to understand the extent of the current gender digital divide in Botswana. Globally, there are 433 million women who are unconnected to ICTs and 165 million less females who are owners of a mobile phone in comparison to men. There are also 250 million more men who use the internet compared to women.

A digital rights activist in Botswana, Agang Ditlhogo expressed the importance of introducing digital products at any early age, especially for women. Ditlhogo said to me: “Early child digital literacy will empower young future innovators with digital skills. And this will allow them to contribute to their communities and global tech advancements”.

She further said: “Digital literacy is generally low in Botswana. The inequalities in digital access further increase for rural or remote areas especially for women and girls”. As a co-founder of an ICT academy for children and teens, The Clicking Generation, Ditlhogo said, “Stakeholders across the [African] continent need to be intentional with programmes that address the current gaps in tech. There is a need for resourcing (computer equipment, curriculum, affordable internet access)”.

Digital literacy and access to ICTs is an avenue towards digital skilling for women and girls both in urban and rural areas; and starting this at an early age will shape their use of digital tools to support their micro, small or medium-sized enterprises.

While women entrepreneurs in Botswana and Africa continues to increase, one of the challenges they face is a lack of sufficient capital to start, sustain and scale their businesses which has resulted in lower profits in both the short and long-term as compared to their male counterparts.

Efforts such as those by the African Development Bank’s Gender Equality Trust Fund – targeted investment mechanisms – are necessary to counteract the lack of financial investment women entrepreneurs in Africa face. However, more of this targeted approach and support is necessary from private sector investors, including tech companies, to invest in female digital entrepreneurship.

Gender-sensitive and intentional policies

There are strides to bridge the gender digital divide and increase women and girls’ participation in the digital sphere. One such example is the #eSkills4Girls initiative that was established under the German G20 Presidency.

Ditlhogo, the founder of the ICTs academy for children and teens in Botswana, explained to me that generally, on a day-to-day basis, her digital academy “has more boys registering for the programs than girls”. However, in sponsored programs such as the work she had under the #eSkills4Girls initiative, sponsored by the German Government, “the donor-sponsored training insisted that at least 51% of learners trained be girls”. Such intentional efforts to digitally empower women and girls are important and should also take place at the domestic-policy level.

Digital cooperation

Geopolitical competition has in some ways contributed to digital polarisation. It is important to have digital cooperation at the international governmental level as well as at the company level. Cooperation at the governmental level is important to safeguard against international cybercrimes and for governments to dialogue on how digitalisation will impact public international law.

At the private sector level, digital cooperation should take the form of ensuring that digital solutions and innovations also cater for the low-income strata of society.

Digital cooperation between the public (governments) and private sector (companies) is also important in building partnerships for the required but lacking digital infrastructure in African countries to bridge the digital connectivity gap and have universal access.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

Women in Africa, including in Botswana in particular, are part of the world’s largest emerging market – the global female economy. As such they are an important resource who should be supported in the ways highlighted above to harness technology and digitalisation so that they chart their own digital entrepreneurial paths towards gender equality in the digital future.

This article first appeared on CNBCAfrica on 11 October 2021