Accelerating Gender-Lens Investing in Africa-5 key takeaways from the CODE Forum

Coalition for Digital Equality
5 min readFeb 2, 2021


Written by Corall Azouri

On the 20th of January we hosted the CODE Forum, an online event which brought together digital stakeholders from Ghana, Uganda, the UK and across the globe to share ideas about how the African digital gender divide can be addressed. Below we highlight some of the key insights that emerged from the ‘Accelerating gender-lens investment in Africa’ panel discussion featuring Carolyn Kirabo (M-Kyla Ventures), Kenneth Legesi (Ortus Africa), Josie Middleton (IFC) and Amma Sefa-Dedeh Lartey (Social Enterprise Ghana)

Women-led start-ups in Africa remain under-funded receiving less than 5% of venture capital. On one hand promising women entrepreneurs face cultural and systemic barriers to accessing funding. On the other, investors say they struggle to find women-led businesses that meet their criteria or that not enough women apply for their funding opportunities. So what is behind this mis-match and how can it be addressed?

This was the focus of the discussion of the gender-lens investment panel hosted as part of this year’s CODE Forum. Led by ATBN’s director and Impact Consultant, Stav Bar-Shany, the session brought together leading experts in the field of impact investment to discuss the barriers to finance for women-led businesses and share strategies to address them. This blog is a summary of the conversation and brings to light key tips for firm managers, investors, and entrepreneurs, seeking to better understand and implement gender-lens investing within the African context.

We Need More Women Investors

Our panellists all agreed that a key issue behind the gender funding gap is the fact that women are underrepresented as decision makers in the investment space. Indeed, data suggests that only 11 percent of senior investment professionals in emerging markets are women and nearly 70 percent of senior investments teams are made up of only men. Reflecting on her own extensive experience in finance, one panellist shared that she was often the only woman in the room when making key decisions on investment portfolios. This is a significant barrier for women-led businesses obtaining funding, because as research has shown, women deal partners are almost twice as likely to invest in women-led businesses. One way to encourage firms to build diverse teams and make more inclusive funding decisions is by making a ‘business case’ for gender lens investing. Investing in women has been proven to be in the financial interest of investors and not just a matter of making a positive impact. Referencing a 2019 IFC report, one speaker noted that a lack of gender representation not only affects women entrepreneurs’ access to capital but also negatively impacts the returns of investment firms as gender balanced leadership teams are correlated with an approximately 25 percent increase in valuation than unbalanced teams.

Be Proactive and Intentional in your Gender Equality Strategy

Discussing the ‘lack of deal flow’ challenge that many investors point to as a reason for not investing in women-led businesses, our panellists pushed back with a simple message: investors must be intentional and proactive when it comes to their gender agenda. One speaker shared how they had managed to deploy 40% of their fund into women-led businesses by proactively reaching out to women-led initiatives and women entrepreneur networks to source investees. The use of gender quotas was also noted as a good approach to reach organisational gender goals. Global networks have emerged to coalesce action towards gender-inclusive finance, for example, the 2X challenge is encouraging funds to ensure at least 30% of their board and senior management teams are women. A key insight here is that being intentional about gender equality doesn’t only benefit women — when financial institutions are able to adapt to women’s needs they are better able to benefit from untapped markets.

Use Data Throughout

By collecting and analysing data often — biannually or yearly at least — organisations can accelerate their gender equality strategy. Our panellists advised that funds who establish benchmarks are more likely to reach their gender equality goals than those that do not; for example, stating the percent of women-led businesses they want to support or the proportion of women represented on their board and management team. But data isn’t only quantitative, and when it is, it doesn’t always give the full picture. Qualitative data can help to understand the why and how of disparities in funding between women and men. By making the effort to talk and interview women entrepreneurs, funds can better understand what women entrepreneurs are looking for when applying for funding and seeking partnerships. For example, one panellist said that through her conversations with women entrepreneurs, she found that women rely more heavily on building trust in financial relationships than their male counterparts. This has informed the way that they reach out to women founders and allowed them to build better working relationships with women-led businesses.

Tailor Your Investment Approach To Local Needs

Another discussion point that emerged during the panel was around the importance of deploying appropriate funding mechanisms which are contextualised to suit local needs. Oftentimes, investors try to apply U.S based Venture Capital (VC) models of funding within the African market. A recent report analysed this mismatch noting that the often unrealistically high growth and outsized return expectations of Silicon Valley VC were not compatible with African markets which are characterised by high levels of fragmentation, price-sensitive consumers and fraught with infrastructural challenges. A non-nuanced investment approach has also been shown to be a challenge for Africa tech ecosystems as it leads to market distortions that limit rather than advance the growth of these ecosystems. In order to extract value from African markets, our panellists argued that investors need to deploy alternative models that adjust for the realities on the ground. Blended capital strategies, for example, can be more appropriate, or, alternative funding models that distribute smaller sums of money than conventional models. These strategies not only benefit the African tech and innovation ecosystem as a whole, but they are also more likely to benefit a more diverse pool of entrepreneurs, including women.

There’s No Need to “Reinvent the Wheel”

There are a lot of available supporting materials for fund managers and individuals wanting to learn about or work towards a gender-smart approach to investing. Below are some resources to help you get started.

  1. How to Begin Considering a Gender Lens Investing Strategy
  2. Designing A Gender Lens Investing Action Plan
  3. Private Equity and Value Creation: A Fund Manager’s Guide to Gender-smart Investing.
  4. Moving Towards Gender Balance in Private Equity and Venture Capital
  5. Investing in the pathways to employment (For adolescent girls and young women in low and middle-income countries)