Many women around the world find themselves stuck in low-wage jobs or barred from the job market entirely because of maternal obligations. But on the African continent there are strong signs that this trend is turning around. Today, Africa leads the world with the number of female entrepreneurs who are disrupting everything from education to food systems. Joachim Christensen from Sustainia explains why this is great for sustainability as the world marks International Women’s Day this week.
Jamila Abass was in her mid-twenties when she founded her own company, MFarm, in Kenya. She was sick and tired of watching greedy and powerful middlemen taking advantage of smallholder farmers who had no information on market prices and therefore no bargaining power. She created the MFarm platform, to give local farmers the chance to sell their food directly to buyers for a fair price. “We wanted to close that information gap between the farmers and the market” Jamila told Wired.co.uk. Further south, Karissa Samuel’s Ntshulisa Foundation helps South African companies invest with impact, especially in projects that fight youth unemployment. Karissa believes companies have an obligation to “think of a social return on investments” and not only the bottom line, as she told The Global Opportunity Network in a recent interview.
Jamila and Karissa represent a new wave of African female entrepreneurs who are taking challenges into their own hands. Injustice, inequality and poverty exist in many shapes and forms across Africa, and increasingly women are taking on the task of fighting it. “I want to be part of the solution,” Karissa Samuel says pointing out the need to disrupt business-as-usual.
Generally, female entrepreneurs are flourishing on the African continent. In Ghana, Nigeria and Zambia women already outnumber men when it comes to starting new businesses and, in fact, Africa is the continent with the highest number of female entrepreneurs in the world.
But not everybody will have the same opportunities as Karissa and Jamila have had. A study from the World Bank shows that balancing work life and family life is perceived as the number one obstacle among Ghanaian women in business, which emphasizes how old gender roles persist in even in the most progressive of African countries. Additionally, many African women work in agriculture doing physically hard labor that leave them unable to pursue any kind of education.
This should change. We must back women’s solutions for sustainability, because these are solutions that lift entire communities and economies. In a recent report on employment trends, the International Labor Organization concludes that high female labor force participation corresponds to increasing economic growth, anywhere in the world. The report also focuses on the importance of creating policies that allow women fair wages, maternity and parental leave and affordable childcare facilities. Especially establishing a minimum wage will “tackle the over-representation of women in low-wage jobs”, as the report states. These recommendations may feel like a tall order for African countries with high inequality, but the rise of female entrepreneurs across Africa proves that women are not prepared to wait any longer for access to opportunity.
There will be more strong entrepreneurial leaders such as Jamila and Karissa in the years to come, helping define the new models and systems we need for a sustainable future. Gender equality is the foundation for sustainable development, and time and again the solutions which come from Africa show us just how deep that connection goes.
Sustainia is shining a spotlight on inspiring women in sustainability this week to mark International Women’s Day. Find out more on @Sustainia and by following #100solutions #GenderEquality or visit www.sustainia.me