Empowering women entrepreneurs in developing countries

eTrade for Women combines the transformative power of women entrepreneurship with the positive impact of digital technologies. We support women entrepreneurs who are shaping the digital ecosystem in developing and transition economies to thrive as business leaders, and emerge as an influential voice in the public policy debate.

eTrade for Women benefits from the financial support of the Netherlands and Sweden and is implemented in collaboration with eTrade for all partners.

The eTrade for Women Advocates are successful and influential women entrepreneurs who are leading digital businesses and are committed to tackling the gender gap.

The eTrade for Women Advocates

Through their work, leadership and influence, the Advocates inspire and empower other women entrepreneurs. They help us bring women’s voices to the front to shape more inclusive digital ecosystems.

What we do


The eTrade for Women Masterclasses are empowerment events aimed at equipping the next generation of women entrepreneurs from developing and transition economies with the right skills to thrive in a fast-changing digital landscape.


The eTrade for Women Communities gather women digital entrepreneurs from across the world to share experiences and gain visibility. Together, communities’ members expand their connections, acquire new skills and foster solutions to overcome common challenges that can have an impact on their ecosystem.

Policy Dialogue

We facilitate inclusive policy dialogues among women digital entrepreneurs, policymakers and other key stakeholders, at the local, regional and global levels, to foster more gender-responsive and enabling policy and regulatory environments.



The funds will support activities that can enable more countries to engage in and benefit from the evolving digital economy.


Switzerland has announced a contribution of $4.4 million (4 million Swiss francs) to UNCTAD’s e-commerce and digital economy programme.

The funds to be provided through the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) will support the programme’s technical cooperation, research and consensus-building activities until 2024.

UNCTAD and Switzerland signed an agreement on 13 September.

“We sincerely thank Switzerland for the generous contribution,” said Isabelle Durant, deputy secretary-general of UNCTAD. “The financial support will enable us to scale up our efforts to foster more inclusive and sustainable development gains from e-commerce and the digital economy for people and businesses in developing countries.”

“Switzerland is proud to contribute to UNCTAD’s programme on e-commerce, which supports the establishment of favourable framework conditions for e-commerce in developing and least developed countries,” said Didier Chambovey, ambassador of the Swiss Permanent Mission to the World Trade Organization and the European Free Trade Association.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic revealed, a robust e-commerce ecosystem is needed to maintain trade flows and mitigate economic and social consequences in times of crisis, particularly in the most vulnerable countries.”

Spreading the benefits of the digital economy

The UNCTAD programme aims to reduce inequality, enable the benefits of digitalization to reach all people and ensure that no one is left behind in the evolving digital economy.

Its activities include, among others, the biennial Digital Economy Report, the eCommerce Week, eTrade for alleTrade for Women and eTrade readiness assessments.

The Swiss contribution will boost the programme’s ability to respond to the growing demand from countries for UNCTAD’s support, not least in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has accentuated the need to support countries with the lowest levels of readiness to take advantage of the opportunities and mitigate the risks presented by digitalization.

Committed to digitalization

The contribution demonstrates Switzerland’s commitment to strengthening its support to digitalization in line with its International Cooperation Strategy for 2021-24 and its Digital Foreign Policy Strategy 2021-2024, both of which recognize the role of digitalization in meeting current and future development challenges.

The contribution will finance at least three eTrade readiness assessments, which will provide a diagnostic of the state of e-commerce in the countries concerned, covering seven policy areas considered most relevant for e-commerce development. It will also build on a close collaboration with selected eTrade for all partners.

In 2020, Switzerland topped UNCTAD’s Business-to-Consumer E-commerce Index, which ranks 152 countries on their readiness to engage in electronic commerce.

It scored highly across all four dimensions of the index, with 97% of the population using the internet (2019) and 98% of the population aged 15 and older having a bank account (2017).

It also ranked 7th in the world in terms of postal reliability according to the Universal Postal Union, and 5th among the countries included in the index for secure server density, a proxy for online stores.

Experts often cite the benefits of financial technology (fintech) and digital finance for women. At the same time, few women are represented in decision-making roles in this fast-growing industry.

While they make up half of the financial services workforce in many countries, women fill only about 20 per cent of the leadership roles. Their representation in emerging markets is lower. Even so, they do better in finance than in the other part of the equation, the technology sector.

A closer look at the figures

The overall tech workforce was 28.8 per cent female in 2020, and despite growth in women’s representation on boards and in C suites at tech companies in the past ten years, there’s still a long way to go. Out of nearly 1300 technology companies across the world, women hold on average 16.6 per cent of board seats.

While 35 per cent of higher education graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programmes globally are female, many of them, according to Catalyst, end up leaving STEM careers.

The fast-growing fintech industry doesn’t appear to fare better in terms of women’s leadership.

The financial industry is making rapid progress in boosting the number of women in senior leadership roles, but fintech lags more traditional finance in terms of gender balance. “Despite starting with a blank slate, fintech has emerged as an outlier struggling with gender balance at the board level,” according to international management consultancy Oliver Wyman.

Missed opportunities

Placing women in leadership positions tends to drive innovation, increase productivity, and boost profitability, says a study by Deloitte. Yet among fintech founders, women are less likely to receive investor funding than their male counterparts.

“More diverse teams create better results,” affirms Margaret Miller, Lead Financial Sector Economist at the World Bank Group and co-moderator of a session at the Financial Inclusion Global Initiative (FIGI) Symposium.

“It’s business sense to be looking at how we can incorporate women and women’s voices more in leadership.”

The stubborn gender gap in fintech leadership stems from more than the lack of diversity in financial services and the scarcity of women across the wider tech sector. Differing cultural norms also come into play, along with each country’s current economic conditions.

In Pakistan, for example, women are employed largely in the informal sector, says Roshaneh Zafar, Founder and Managing Director of the Kashf Foundation, a non-banking micro finance company. This reflects a pattern seen in many developing countries, with around 95 per cent of women’s work in Asia and 89 per cent in Sub-Saharan Africa being done informally, according to a report from the World Bank Group and partners.

Zafar pointed to educational barriers and questioned whether women were being educated to become managers. In her view, perceptions about women and leadership must change, which also means cultural stereotypes need to be broken down.

“The lack of networking is something that prevents women from getting not only the investments they require but also the amounts of investment,” she says.

“Women don’t lack the expertise or the ability. It’s really the perception that creates the glass ceiling, both within institutions and within the investor space.”

Championing women as leaders

The Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) has started dedicating annual awards to outstanding women in the banking sector, with winners receiving learning opportunities at globally prestigious universities, including Harvard.

May Abulnaga, First Sub-Governor, sees a crucial role for regulators in promoting women, starting from the top down.

“Today, as a regulator, we have been able to achieve a number of milestones towards building an inclusive financial sector.”

The CBE has also undertaken a joint programme with Egypt’s National Council for Women to promote female financial empowerment.
Laura Fernandez Lord, Head of Women’s Economic Empowerment at BBVA Microfinance Foundation (a subsidiary of Spain’s multinational financial services firm BBVA), adds:

“There is only one way to move the needle to bridge the gender financial gap, and that is to lead by example.”

Possible approaches include promoting women champions for organizational change, bringing men into the discussion, training top managers on gender diversity, and investing in career counselling, career planning, mentoring and coaching for both men and women. But organizations and companies seeking to improve their gender balance may also need tools for tackling unintended biases, rules on hiring 50 per cent women employees, and mandatory availability of day-care facilities.

Fintech firms in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are piloting the business case for gender-intelligent services. The Arab Women’s Enterprise Fund (AWEF) has actively helped to promote solutions from mobile wallets to merchant payment integration. Its Eight Lessons from the Field report urges fintechs to take a deliberate approach to meeting the needs of women.

Including women in fintech — a holistic approach

study by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) recommends a holistic approach, both to expand financial services for women and increase the number of women in fintech. The supply of financial services is not by itself a panacea.

Governments, donors, and financial institutions must intervene where needed to boost financial literacy, improve product design, and address specific constraints for women.

Otherwise, rapid growth in digital banking and the creation of a cashless society could serve to deepen and reinforce the existing digital gender divide.
Even before the current pandemic, an estimated 52 per cent of women tended to remain totally offline, compared with 42 per cent of men worldwide, according to ITU’s 2019 Measuring Digital Development report.

Proportion of internet users by gender - ITU Facts and Figures 2019

In our post-pandemic world, the ability to connect to usable affordable digital services will surely be the new baseline for full social and economic inclusion, especially for women.

Note: This article is based on a panel discussion during the 2021 Financial Inclusion Global Initiative (FIGI) Symposium.


Wacu Kihara is the founder of the sustainable and contemporary fashion label Khangadelic in Kenya. Her business was born from her passion for fashion and love for the environment. All her designs symbolize the colour and vibrancy of the Kenyan coastal culture and lifestyle, using reusable Khanga cloth bags from fabric offcuts.

Her online journey kicked-off in 2018 when she opened an eBay store, through a SheTrades project, and started collaborating with DHL to ship worldwide. However, her business only really took off with the the start of the pandemic in 2020. The key to Wacu’s increase in sales was adapting to the global demand and sharing good quality photos of her products in her online channels.

She shifted her production to masks and started selling them on eBay to customers all over the world, from the US to Japan, Ireland and Norway.

Apart from eBay, her other sales channel is social media. Many of her customers contact Wacu directly through Facebook and Instagram. She is now exploring how to use the “Shop” functionality.

Wacu participated in the International Trade Centre’s Facebook Live series “E-commerce Tips from Peers”, organized by the ecomConnect team – the e-commerce initiative at ITC – where she provided a series of tips. Among them, she encouraged entrepreneurs to:

  • Know their market to reduce costs. Knowing the market, customers and their preferences can help invest in what is more fruitful for entrepreneurs.
  • Research competitors, their prices and the keywords they are using to attract new customers.
  • Customize products and communications to your customers. For example, entrepreneurs can send customized emails to let clients know the status of their orders.
  • Gather positive reviews. Customers’ feedback is everything: in online platforms, positive feedback is key to appear first in the search results. When Wacu’s business failed to deliver on time, she always refunded the customer to avoid negative feedback.
  • Be up to date with legal documents to save time when working with payment solutions and logistic providers. This will help entrepreneurs save time.

Wacu also suggested that entrepreneurs build a quality network of businesses and associations operating in their respective sector. “By joining various WhatsApp groups of business associations, one is able to gain access to business opportunities and training. This is a great help for your business, especially in the first stages”, she adds.


eTrade of Women is an initiative by the UNCTAD, in partnership with eTrade for all. It is supported by the Government of the Netherlands and Sweden.
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