The digital economy: a challenge and an opportunity for women entrepreneurs

Senior Programmes and MEL Officer Dermot Nicholas gives his key takeaways from the panel discussion 'Development of Women-Led MSMEs for the Digital Economy', part of our Women Entrepreneurs Mean Business Summit.

Last November, as part of our Women Entrepreneurs Mean Business Summit, we held a panel session called “Driving Equal Access to Finance for Young Women Entrepreneurs”. The discussion centred around the challenges and opportunities facing women entrepreneurs in using technology to fulfil their business potential.

The session, moderated by BBC journalist and presenter Geeta Guru-Murthy, welcomed highly experienced contributors including Angela Baker, Senior Director of Corporate Responsibility at Qualcomm Inc, Henriette Kolb, Head of the Gender and Economic Inclusion Group at IFC (International Finance Corporation), Fadé Ogunro, Founder and CEO at Bookings Africa, and Cherie Blair Foundation for Women Global Campaign Board Chair (Africa) and finally Claire Sibthorpe, Head of Digital Inclusion at Mobile for Development Team, GSMA.

Geeta opened by discussing the pros and cons of digital technology for women-led businesses. Unfortunately, there are substantial barriers preventing women entrepreneurs from making use of technology in their businesses, such as lack of inclusion and pervading stereotypes. However, digital opportunities can also be a gateway allowing women entrepreneurs to bypass some of the traditional cultural and economic barriers to their business growth.

All the speakers noted that lack of access to the internet underpinned the barriers women entrepreneurs face in the digital economy. Fundamental to the lack of access, Claire observed, is that statistically, women are much less likely to have access to the internet or own their own phones or devices, which means that there is a gender gap in digital learning.

Women are much less likely to have access to the internet or own their own phones or devices, which means that there is a gender gap in digital learning.

Claire Sibthorpe, Head of Digital Inclusion, Mobile for Development Team, GSMA

This follows Fadé’s experience across Africa, as she mentioned that, for many women, accessing a smartphone or acquiring data is a big problem. Angela agreed and offered a solution – explaining that Qualcomm Wireless Technology are working to leverage the power of 5G to help women-led MSMEs overcome access problems, particularly those made more prevalent by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fadé noted that when it comes to her own digital platform Bookings Africa, a Pan African market place for the entertainment, media and lifestyle industries, of the 80,000 users around 70% are women. According to her, the platform allows women to set aside social norms in a way that would not be possible in face-to-face meetings, make their own decisions and showcase their talent. To be able to fully utilise opportunities like this platform, however, women entrepreneurs need at least basic digital literacy training, such as that offered by our HerVenture business skills app.

Henriette and Claire then discussed the work that needs to be done to close the digital gender divide so that women can fully access opportunities to promote their businesses online. Claire suggested that handsets and data need to be more affordable, so that more women from low-income backgrounds can afford to get themselves online. Henriette also described the IFC’s work to close the economic gender gap, from supporting women to own family assets such as land, and providing training, to their advocacy work developing an inclusive financial ecosystem that works for women entrepreneurs.

Overall, my key takeaway from the discussion was the double-sided nature of the digital economy: it can both reinforce the barriers that women entrepreneurs face but also provides some innovative ways to overcome them. If the digital gender divide can be overcome, women entrepreneurs stand to benefit greatly through the ability to reach new markets, learn new digital skills and more easily access finance for their businesses.