Bridging the Digital Gender Divide in Africa: Insights from Ghana and Uganda
Digital technologies are transforming Africa’s social and economic landscape. Across the region, digital innovations are helping to make essential services in healthcare, education, finance and energy available to larger proportions of the population. However, along with their many benefits, the widespread use of digital technologies presents a growing challenge for marginalised groups who are often excluded from these solutions. In particular, the digital gender divide poses a major risk to Africa’s socio-economic development. African women and girls continue to face barriers in accessing and benefiting from digital innovation. This is seen to reinforce existing gender inequalities and hinder progress towards achieving the sustainable development goals.
The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the urgent need to ensure that women and girls have equal access to digital opportunities. While there are a growing number of initiatives across Africa that are working to increase women and girls’ digital inclusion, for example by providing access to technology and business skills, many of these initiatives are struggling to create impact at scale. Indeed, there is evidence that the African digital gender gap is growing.
To help address this challenge, we established Coalition for Digital Equality (CODE), a multi-stakeholder network connecting African digital ecosystem actors (starting in Uganda and Ghana) with UK academic and industry partners to work collaboratively to address the digital gender divide in Africa. Our goal is to connect and support disparate initiatives and actors to work together to create collective impact at a system level.
Recently, we consulted over 20 digital ecosystem stakeholders in Ghana and Uganda to understand the challenges they face in delivering and scaling their gender inclusion programmes. We subsequently hosted an online co-creation workshop in each country. Both workshops convened over 40 stakeholders to discuss the challenges identified and co-develop potential solutions to address digital gender gaps in the local ecosystems in Ghana and Uganda. Participants included leaders from innovation hubs, digital skills initiatives, small and medium-sized businesses, policy makers and advocacy groups.
From the workshop discussions and consultations we held with stakeholders, the following five key themes emerged regarding the challenges limiting the impact of digital gender inclusion efforts in Ghana and Uganda.
- Cultural barriers
Stakeholders in both Ghana and Uganda emphasised the crucial role of culture and gender norms in bridging the digital gender divide. For example, a number of programme leaders said they sometimes struggle to attract and retain female participants in their digital initiatives. This is driven by the prevailing cultural perception of technology as a male domain which discourages women and girls from pursuing STEM subjects and careers. Thus, women are socialised towards what are perceived to be feminine sectors, including vocational fields such as hair and beauty, fashion and hospitality. Consequently, some programme leaders noted that women often lacked confidence when it comes to technology which may prevent them from taking up training, career and business opportunities. Furthermore, it was highlighted that women who join the digital sector often face gender bias and discrimination and are susceptible to dropping out of programmes due to competing family obligations. Participants recommended that digital gender interventions need to address cultural issues from the grassroots by engaging with families and communities and in particular, striving to involve male decision makers. They also proposed solutions such as the implementation of programmes like STEM clubs for girls in schools at a national level, a digital curriculum for vocational colleges, and a mentorship scheme for female entrepreneurs.
2. Resource and capacity constraints
It emerged that many digital ecosystem actors face resource and capacity constraints which limit the impact of their work in supporting women. Participants noted that funders (often development and philanthropic organisations) are primarily interested in supporting work that directly impacts women and girls, but do not invest in building the capacity of the local organisations that deliver these programmes. For example, organisation leaders noted that, with technologies ever evolving, they sometimes struggle to access facilitators with up to date technical skills to deliver training programmes. However they lack resources to invest in upskilling or recruiting new staff. Programme leaders also noted that the short-term nature of the funding cycles within the sector makes it more challenging for programmes to create long term impact and scale their efforts. Furthermore, participants highlighted the lack of coordinated efforts between local ecosystem actors, infrastructural gaps, and the absence of streamlined support from the government as additional limiting factors. To address these challenges, participants called for capacity building programmes and funding directed towards programme implementers, as well as infrastructural support and equipment to enable them reach women in harder to reach communities with their programmes.
3. The business case for women-focused innovation is not recognised
We found that many small and medium sized businesses in Africa may not fully recognise the business case for investing in women. Some of the Ghanaian business leaders we consulted, for example, confessed that they did not view tailoring their solutions to better serve women as critical to their business growth. They felt that while the development of specific solutions to serve female markets could be done as part of grant funded projects, for example, it was not financially viable in its own right. At the co-creation workshop with stakeholders in Ghana, one participant pointed again to cultural perceptions as a key driver behind this attitude. She noted that despite clear evidence showing that women pay back loans at a higher rate, women in Ghana are still often denied financing by institutions because of persistent gender-biased attitudes. A key insight that emerged from the discussion was that, ultimately, changing the way businesses operate requires changing peoples’ mindsets and behaviours. Thus, to help address this challenge, participants proposed targeted awareness campaigns to change perceptions about women in business and technology as well as policy level interventions such as tax breaks for businesses and financial institutions which support women.
4. The gender-lens investment gap
The stakeholders drew attention to the challenges that women face within the digital entrepreneurship ecosystem. In particular, the financing gap for women-led and women-impacting startups was seen to be a major hindrance to the development of inclusive digital solutions that cater to women’s needs. One investor we spoke to in Uganda for example intimated that they struggled to find women-led startups to invest in and that their calls for funding applications often drew very few responses from female applicants. He gave an example of a recent COVID relief fund they launched which received less than 30% of applications from women-owned businesses. On the other hand, the discussions highlighted the challenges female entrepreneurs face in accessing finance. One entrepreneur decried the tendency of funders to require long application forms, and the proliferation of pitch competitions which she felt wasted a lot of time that could be better spent developing her business. She further noted that funding competitions are often male-dominated, which can be intimidating for women; and that female entrepreneurs who applied were usually unsuccessful because of biased mindsets among assessors and investors. To address the mis-match between funders and women-led businesses, participants proposed that investors adopt more proactive venture-building approaches, which provide constructive feedback and tailored support to female entrepreneurs. They also suggested the establishment of a startup fund and angel investment network designed to meet the specific needs of women entrepreneurs, and a platform to support women in accessing and increasing their likelihood of success in existing start-up funds and programmes.
5. Top down approaches to programme design and implementation
The consultations and discussions with ecosystem stakeholders revealed that the impact of digital gender programmes is sometimes limited by the fact that they are designed from the top by funders and may not take into account the specific needs of beneficiaries. One leader of a digital training organisation in Ghana said that international funders have in the past approached them to deliver projects based on predefined tools or methodologies without asking what was actually needed on the ground or what would work well within the local market. As an established organisation, this organisation has been able to turn down such offers, however, the participant acknowledged that several smaller organisations and programmes which struggle to get funding will often end up agreeing to implement these ineffective programmes. This sentiment was shared by a programme leader in Uganda, who similarly noted that the process of sharing of feedback and concerns with funders is often bureaucratic and time-consuming. This makes it difficult to implement the changes needed to improve programmes. In response to this challenge, participants recommended that a human centred design approach be used in the development and implementation of digital gender initiatives. They, for example, proposed that an ecosystem-wide initiative could bring together funders, programme leaders and beneficiaries to co-design programmes, collect impact data, and develop ways to improve them.