Digital inclusion key to bridging the gender divide to ensure sustainable economic growth

This year’s International Women’s Day, marked under the United Nation’s theme “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”, was commemorated against the backdrop of disruptive technologies and trends such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, and Virtual Reality (VR) courtesy of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

The workplace is already experiencing a sea change going by the World Economic Forum’s estimate that 50% of all employees will need reskilling by 2025 due to adoption of new technology and that some two million new jobs would be created in the computer, mathematical, architecture and engineering fields. Back in 2018, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development predicted that 90% of future jobs would require ICT skills by 2020.

Mobile broadband — or using tablets, mobile phones, and other portable devices to access the Internet — represents the fastest technological uptake in human history. However, women have lesser access to smartphones, compared to men.  According to a 2018 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on Bridging the Digital Gender Divide, some 327 million fewer women than men have a smartphone and hence, lack access to the internet. The report further says women in Africa are 34 percent less likely than men to own a smartphone.

From a business financing perspective, studies by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) show that women-owned start-ups receive 23% less funding and are 30% less likely to have a positive exit compared to male-owned businesses.

As a bank and a business in the financial services sector, these numbers offer us a chance to purposefully pause and reflect on how we can empower and provide the right support to our women in the workplace and communities. This is especially in view of the fact that equity is about creating opportunities and widening access to women who need financial support to grow their businesses.

As Absa, we consider ourselves a diverse and inclusive bank with a clear female empowerment agenda that has been instrumental in ensuring we make access to finance easier, faster, and less costly. Our SHE (See Her Empowered) proposition, for example, is designed to broaden digital financial inclusion and create a positive, scalable impact on women from across the country.  The incorporation of digital finance products such as Timiza, which is a platform that goes beyond providing loans to availing savings and insurance products, is a part of that agenda. Via the SHE Business Account, women entrepreneurs have access to lending of up to KES10 million, networking opportunities as well as mentorship and coaching.

Studies have shown business incubation training seminars positively impact a nation’s economy and women entrepreneurs, in particular. A study commissioned by the World Bank Group in West Africa in 2018 showed that women who received personal initiative training that enables them to find solutions to business challenges saw their profit rise by 40% compared to 5% for those who had traditional business training.

It is against this backdrop the bank has adopted a holistic approach to empowerment of women in business beyond financing solutions. This has seen Absa train business owners on business sustainability, funding, book-keeping, and networking to ensure that their businesses are profitable. The SHE Stars Academy Program has for instance upskilled and mentored more than 1,500 women entrepreneurs with fresh perspectives, practical skills, and strategic insights to elevate their businesses in the last one year. We have done this in partnership with GIZ and Yunus Environmental Hub.

That said, we recognise that more still needs to be done to ensure greater participation of women, especially in technology and innovation as a way of narrowing the digital gender gap. This requires, among others, raising awareness and tackling gender stereotypes or biases; enabling enhanced, safer, and more affordable access to digital tools; and strengthened cooperation across stakeholders to remove barriers to girls and women’s full participation in the digital world.

From a banking lens, studies have indicated that narrowing the gender gap in technology and innovation fosters better performance of firms in the digital financial services industry, which is critical to economic growth. Coordinated policy action can spur innovation around development of digital products tailor-made for growth of women led businesses.

In a nutshell, by reducing the gender divide via the digital world, we can create new sources of global economic growth, inclusive development and better representation of both women and women in industry and leadership structures.

By Susan Situma – Head of SME Banking at Absa Bank Kenya