Investing in women’s employment essential for economic growth

August - November 2019

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Investing in women’s employment essential for economic growth

Jocelyne Sambira
From Africa Renewal: 
Awurabena Okrah, CEO and founder of Winglow, a textile and fashion business in Accra, Ghana. Many women are venturing into business. Photo: Panos/Nyani Quarmyne
Awurabena Okrah, CEO and founder of Winglow, a textile and fashion business in Accra, Ghana. Many women are venturing into business. Photo: Panos/Nyani Quarmyne

Magette Wade was in her San Francisco apartment getting ready for the day when she had her “light bulb” moment. Although her beauty cabinet was full of organic and natural products, Ms. Wade says she still reached for the plant-based creams made by herbalists in her native Senegal.  In that moment, Tiossano, a luxury skin care company, was born. 

It wasn’t Ms. Wade’s first attempt at introducing indigenous products to the US market. Before switching hats, she was the chief executive officer of Adina World Beat Beverages, a multi-million dollar company that makes drinks from traditional recipes. The idea for the start-up came from the popular red juice called “bissap”, squeezed from the hibiscus plant.  

The two companies, although based in the US, have provided work for African women and have shown that products “made in Africa” could also break into global markets. Presently, Ms. Wade is making plans to move production of her skin care merchandise to Senegal.

Billionaire and oil tycoon Folorunsho Alakija is another woman who has broken several glass ceilings in Nigeria and abroad and made it to the 2015 Forbes’ list of world billionaires. She is the manager of Famfa Oil Ltd, a company she founded in 1991 that has the rights to explore oil and gas on the lucrative Abgami oilfield in Nigeria. 

Like Ms. Wade, Ms. Alakija’s first big break came when she won over the fashion industry with her couture label, Supreme Stiches, using local Nigerian fabrics. In her rise to the top, Ms. Alakija inspired and mentored a new generation of designers from her homeland.

But  despite evidence that women’s employment is vital to driving economic growth and development, gaps still exist with nearly half of women’s productive potential globally under-utilized or unutilized, says the World Bank.  In the words of Bank President Jim Yong Kim, “Investing in women’s employment is not only the right thing to do – it’s essential for business.”

A UN-sponsored study called the Millennium Project estimates that two-thirds of self-employed entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia are women. According to the World Bank, the private sector, which accounts for 9 out of 10 jobs in developing countries, plays a critical role in creating better employment opportunities for women.  

Occitane en Provence, a global, natural and organic ingredient-based cosmetic firm, has been hiring female shea butter nut pickers and processors in Burkina Faso for over 30 years. The UN Development Programme hails the company as an “exemplary business” for its inclusive business model. The agency states that the economic impact in the West African country has been significant, generating revenue for 15,000 rural women and their cooperatives.

The International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, also runs programmes across Africa to help women gain a foothold in the private sector. For example, the IFC has helped place women in jobs traditionally held by men such as the mining sector in South Africa and Ghana. It is also spearheading the ‘She works’ initiative to create job opportunities for more than 300,000 women.

Ten participating companies have pledged to implement measures such as mentoring, flexible work arrangements and leadership training to increase diversity in management.

The private sector can also develop workplace gender-sensitive policies, and create safe and inclusive environments, argues the UN Global Compact, which has developed a framework for businesses together with UN Women on how to empower women in the workplace, marketplace and in the community.

According to the director-general of the International Labour Organization, Juan Somavia, increasing evidence shows that gender inequality is bad economics. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund estimates that having as many women in the labour force as men could boost economic growth by as much as 5% in the US and up to 34% in countries like Egypt. 

In addition, better jobs for women leads to better development outcomes, says IFC, because women will spend what they earn on children’s health, education and nutrition. 

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