Investing in our women: Unlocking Africa's economic potential through targeted empowerment, inclusion

Creating an environment that enables women to work from home is crucial, including providing essential services and decent homes. [iStockphoto]

The International Finance Corporation (IFC) recognises the private sector as a critical stakeholder and partner in economic development, providing income, jobs, goods, and services to enhance people’s lives. However, the lopsided definition of the private sector overlooks the vast army of operators in the informal sector, where most women in Africa operate, thus masking the significant contribution of women to the overall economy.

In the realm of economic informality, little knowledge exists, and the limited information available often highlights problems in the sector rather than its underlying operation, logic, and institutions. Economic informality is frequently viewed as survivalist, criminal, temporary, and old-fashioned. Additionally, available data in this sector is not disaggregated by gender, obscuring the labour participation of men and women and limiting the appreciation of women's role in generating employment and fostering economic empowerment.

Governments tend to prioritise the formal large firm sector as the primary strategy for private sector development, often sidelining informal business operators. These operators are rarely consulted in policy design and formulation or represented in government committees. Consequently, when spaces for housing small businesses are constructed, their operators are often excluded from the decision-making process.

Markets are then located outside the centers of their business activity in sites that are not negotiated, leading to mobility constraints and inefficient transport systems that increase the cost of production, ultimately affecting profit margins. Moreover, poor internet connectivity in most African countries hampers work-from-home opportunities.

Women also face challenges in accessing financing for business start-ups. They often begin with limited capital from personal savings or support from spouses and relatives. Even when banks and microfinance institutions provide funds, the high cost of finance makes women hesitant to take up loans.

Furthermore, the lack of support for women's reproductive activities presents a significant setback. Daycare facilities for children between one and five years are scarce and expensive to afford in most African countries.

Hospitals are situated far from residential areas, and nursing homes for the elderly are few, forcing women to allocate valuable business time to care for their families. To address these challenges, subsidised daycare facilities, homes for the elderly, and reduced distances to health facilities are essential.

Spatial justice in the allocation of working spaces and residential homes in African cities also needs attention. Current industrial location strategies often place industries far from where women live, constraining their participation in the industry.

Upgrading economic informality spaces into industrial parks or shopping malls and providing women with leases to working spaces can help address this issue. African governments must reconsider their industrial zoning strategies and integrate urban residential areas with workspaces.

Moreover, the legal framework significantly impacts women's participation in private sector development. The costs and time involved in complying with multiple laws and regulations hinder women from operating within the law. This pushes them to operate outside the law, making them invisible and unable to grow their businesses.

To enhance women's employment and empowerment, restoration of spatial and trade justice, increased mobility, and bottom-up approaches are paramount. Creating an environment that enables women to work from home is crucial, including providing essential services and decent homes.

Additionally, women should be supported in processing commodities before sale, creating jobs in rural settings. The role of intermediaries between women producers and markets also needs examination, ensuring that women retain ownership of their products throughout the value chain.

Women's collectives offer practical solutions to specific women's issues and empower them to influence the overall policy agenda. One such collective is the Taveta Women Group in Kenya, which exemplifies solidarity entrepreneurialism among women, offering shared resources, decision-making power, and business opportunities.

Overall, African women have historically utilised social relations to address socio-political and economic challenges, pooling resources, tapping into collective intelligence, and fostering solidarity.

To actively participate in Africa's socio-economic growth, women need to be supported through targeted policies, investment in infrastructure, and recognition of their contributions to informal economies. By addressing the structural barriers and inequalities that hinder women's economic empowerment, African nations can unlock the full potential of their economies and achieve sustainable development.
Mary Njeri Kinyanjui, PhD, is an independent scholar