BREAKING THE BIAS

Africa Needs A Women-led Approach To Fast-track Women’s Digital Inclusion

By  |  March 21, 2023

The growth of Africa’s digital landscape is fast-paced, brimming with the potential needed to drive economic growth, development, and transformation throughout the continent. Despite this rapid rise, gender equality remains one of the sector’s critical challenges, as women’s participation in the ecosystem is below the minimum.

McKinsey found that only 33 percent of the people in the senior management roles of the continent’s telecoms, media, and technology biome are women. In the space, just 16 percent of them have board seats. 

Sub-Saharan Africa ranks the lowest in the world for gender equality. The participation of women in leadership positions is yet minimal. In the first place, they face challenges in accessing education and work opportunities.

On the plus side, women in Sub-Saharan Africa are more likely to be entrepreneurs than women in any other region globally. Women make up over 40 percent of entrepreneurs in the region, compared to just 20 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean and 19 percent in Europe and Central Asia.

To upend this trend, examining the situation through a woman’s lens is pertinent, especially when it comes to education. In a market where more women are joining the mainstream, initiatives led by said women can help close the digital divide much faster. 

Leading Ladies Africa is a women-focused organization working to advance gender equality for African women and girls by championing inclusion and empowerment in leadership, business, and career. Founded in 2018, the platform has, through a Girls in Leadership program, impacted 1000 young girls from underrepresented backgrounds and underserved communities

In an exclusive interview with WeeTracker, Francesca Uriri, a social entrepreneur who founded Leading Ladies Africa, sheds light on the need for women-targeted digital inclusion and education initiatives to be championed by women. 

You have helped create one of Africa’s women-focused organizations. How did the journey start?

Francesca: As a young impressionable girl, I was always on the lookout for role models. I would leaf through some of my mother’s magazines during my spare time but could not [really] find any woman with a career that I could connect with. 

Constantly searching to no avail, I took cognizance of the lack and quickly understood how it affected other young women. Looking to solve this challenge, I created a platform for women’s breakthrough and success stories, primarily for the inspiration of others—myself included. 

Leading Ladies Africa started purely as an editorial. I vividly remember searching and connecting with women in business, interviewing them, and putting out their stories. People would write to me from all parts of the world, telling me about how the content resonated with them. 

After a couple of years, we had people asking about programs and events, and ways to interact more with the platform and possibly showcase the work they were doing. Having seen that issues African women face are beyond mentorship, we started developing digital-forward initiatives equipping them to solve the continent’s pressing challenges. 

African women and girls need to be included not only in day-to-day conversations but also in the business sector, politics, and the workplace. However, certain socio-cultural barriers get in the way; they need to be trained on how to navigate the meanders. This has formed the centerpiece of what we have set out to do. 

Women need to be at the forefront of the gender inclusion march. What are your thoughts on this? Can this apply in the digital space?

Francesca: A lot of women-led organizations focus solely on adult women. But what about the young girls? Who is investing in making sure they are given quality education? Who is tracking the way they interact or trying to positively shape the way they think? 

Young African women are missing out on many opportunities because they have naturally been sidelined. This is more prevalent in rural, underserved communities where girls-focused education and empowerment programs are scarcer. These girls need to be gathered to build their capacities and connect them to mentors. 

Who better to do this than the women themselves? Those who have beaten the system ought to be at the forefront of the movement. When I was younger, I did not like the things most girls liked, yet I was normal and turned out great. People like me need to help the young ones of today understand there is nothing wrong with being different. 

This is the reason we need women. I believe it is important for them to lead. It is equally important to let women know that technology and innovation are not only meant for males. 

Meanwhile, men can make great allies in the cause. Their involvement can bring added perspective, support, and credibility. Men have a unique ability to influence other men. Men can challenge and educate other men about the importance of gender equality and the benefits it brings to society as a whole. 

By advocating for the empowerment of African girls and women, men can encourage other men to join the cause and become allies themselves.

What are some of the factors contributing to women’s digital exclusion and how can they be checkmated?

Francesca: Within the African context, there are lots of cultural barriers. To date, there are people who [still] believe girls do not need to finish secondary school. As a result, the most brilliant of them may drop out to sustain their parents or get married. 

Cultural problems are tough to navigate, even nowadays. One of the main cultural challenges in Africa is the persistence of traditional gender roles and stereotypes. These stereotypes often lead to women being undervalued and excluded from key decision-making processes. 

This can hinder economic growth and development by limiting the potential contributions of half the population.

Another cultural challenge is the lack of educational support and resources for women. This, in turn, results in a lack of female role models and mentors, as well as limited access to funding and networking opportunities. 

Traditional gender roles may prioritize men’s education and career opportunities over women’s, leading to unequal access to education and employment.

Many digital education programs are designed with a male-dominated workforce in mind, which can make them less relevant and accessible to women. If men help women access life-changing opportunities in the ecosystem, it will be easier for them to escape cultural trap nets.  

Frankly, providing women-specific education is a tough sport. Can innovation help?

Francesca: Sometimes when we talk about innovation, we believe it has to be tied to technology. Not necessarily. It is about doing things in newer and more effective ways. With that in mind, it is important to meet the people where they are. 

Africa has a very unique market. The consumers here do not have the same preferences as their counterparts elsewhere in the world. 

For example, not many women would be obliged to read emails or even respond to them. However, a good number of them interact well on WhatsApp. To meet them halfway, we need to be willing to communicate with them via the platforms they are familiar with. Because the problem requires a women-friendly approach, compromise is key. 

When you meet people where they are, it is easier for you to lead them to where they need to be. But if you neglect the obvious and try to inculcate habits, it could be much harder. The West believes it’s enough to put iPads and laptops in the hands of Africans; it is not. You need to understand the concerns of the people at the bottom of the pyramid. 

What about awareness conferences that help people understand the process? Distributing digital tools might be inevitable in the present dispensation but we need to help women with non-physical resources to learn skills and develop themselves. It is critical to be aware of social circumstances before innovating.

Partnering with community organizations can equally help to provide women with access to educational resources and opportunities. For example, community centers, NGOs, and women’s groups can be involved in providing educational resources and support.

What kind of skills should initiatives be looking to transfer and grow in the young women they encounter? 

Francesca: At the top of the list is digital literacy. Right now, living in a world without using the internet is quite difficult because the world is becoming more digitized. Though digital knowledge may sound fancy, it is not always about coding. 

After digital literacy, leadership skills follow. If a young girl has not been taught how to take up leading roles, it is unlikely they would have a penchant for solving problems. When she goes back home, what is she seeing? What messages is she incubating? What does she think of our world?

Enterprise skills are also vital. For example, a lot of women in business do not [actually] have the technical capabilities requisite to run ventures. I’m talking about basics like having a separate bank account, filing tax returns, attending to audits, and doing accounting. While some women do well in businesses, most of them lack these skills. 

Lastly, initiatives must prioritize financial literacy skills, including budgeting, saving, and investing. They are essential for young African women to achieve financial independence and to build their [own] businesses or pursue further education.

There must be plans to take Leading Ladies Africa to the next level. Could you share some of them? 

Francesca: Our enterprise and Leadership Program, which is all about capacity building and training for female entrepreneurs, has an attached funding element. We provide micro grants to female entrepreneurs to cover whatever they need to do to move their businesses forward. 

Over the last couple of years, we have been able to impact over 4000 female entrepreneurs across Nigeria.In the next few, we are looking to transplant these initiatives to other parts of the continent, such as Ghana, Rwanda, and South Africa. 

In the long term, I’d like to see an LLA Leadership Institute for Women and Girls, in at least three countries on the African continent. Because I’m a firm believer in Africa and [that[ Africans are capable of solving African problems, I want to create women-focused leadership institutes in major hubs across the region. 

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