A new class of female innovators build profitable businesses that empower women and contribute to a more open and inclusive society, Development Minister Heidi Hautala and Vice-President Janamitra Devan remind on International Women's Day.
Two Kenyan women, Jamila Abbas and Susan Oguya, were struck by newspaper stories in 2010 about middlemen exploiting small farmers. So the two IT professionals launched M-Farm, a company that sends farmers real-time crop prices and market information via SMS, connecting them directly with food exporters. Less than two years later, M-Farm reaches more than 2000 farmers in Kenya, including many female smallholders, and has won several international awards.
Abbas and Oguya represent a new class of female innovators: They have built a profitable business that empowers women and that contributes to a more open and inclusive society. On the occasion of the 101st International Women’s Day on March 8, we celebrate the role of women as entrepreneurs who found companies, create jobs, and lead the charge toward gender equality in the developing world.
The world’s 3.5 billion woman and girls still face an uneven playing field in education, employment, earnings, and decision-making power, as highlighted by the World Bank’s World Development Report 2012, which focuses on gender.
The report shows that gender inequality comes with a cost – and that gender equality can bring economic opportunities. Gender equality can enhance economic efficiency and bring productivity gains. For example, if women in rural areas had the same access to land, technology, financial services, education and markets that men do, agricultural production could be increased and the number of hungry people reduced by 100 to 150 million, as estimated by the World Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
There are bright spots on the horizon. The Forbes Top 100 Women in 2011, while listing its traditional group of government officials, activists, and business leaders, included a new cadre of women in technology: venture capitalists, start-up managers, and engineers leading technological innovation.
Female entrepreneurs in developing countries face special difficulties in starting a company and expanding it into a firm in the formal economy with growth potential. The World Bank’s 2011 report on Women, Business and the Law noted that 103 out of 141 economies it analyzed still impose legal differences on the basis of gender. The fact that M-Farm launched in Kenya is no coincidence: According to the same report, Kenya leads the world with the most gender-parity reforms during the past two years.
New communication technologies help, not only as a means for doing business, but also in lowering social barriers. M-Farm was conceived in AkiraChix, a Nairobi-based organization of female entrepreneurs and technologists determined to “change Africa’s future.”
Smart development programs help as well. The Creating Sustainable Businesses program, a collaboration of the government of Finland, Nokia, and the World Bank’s technology and innovation global program infoDev, has supported AkiraChix with grants in order to strengthen what we consider to be a blueprint for other women-led business incubators and social hubs in the world.
New technologies can also provide jobs for the world’s poorest billion women. People with limited education levels can earn an income by performing micro tasks, such as simple data entry. This often requires access to a computer, but an increasing number of applications are distributing microwork on mobile phones. As 80 percent of today’s 6 billion mobile phones are in developing countries, microwork could lead to significant job creation. It holds opportunities for young people, women, and those who might be excluded from conventional jobs because of a disability.
With the world population now at 7 billion, we need women as well as men to provide answers to the defining questions of our era, including climate change, food security and sustainable livelihoods. The story of Abbas and Ogunya in Kenya is an inspiration to women around the world. On International Women’s Day, it’s vital to remember that women offer half the world’s solutions, and that technology and innovation need to be women’s business, too.
Ms. Heidi Hautala is Finland’s Minister for International Development. Mr. Janamitra Devan is the World Bank’s Vice-President for Financial and Private Sector Development.