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On Friday, 6 May 2022, UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched the Rapid Financing Facility that will enable women entrepreneurs to access affordable digital financial products and services.

The Rapid Financing Facility takes a multi-pronged approach to address various barriers women entrepreneurs face in the formal and informal sectors. This includes supporting women entrepreneurs to:

  • Enhance their business capacity skills
  • Understand requirements to pitch at innovation funds
  • Know requirements to be able to sell on E-commerce platforms
  • Understand process and requirments to gain access to financial products.

The launch saw the signing of the performance-based grant funding agreements with five partners under two UNCDF Funds; the ‘Women’s Entrepreneurship Capacity Building Fund’ and ‘E-Commence Support Fund’. Emstret Holdings, PNGX Markets, Tok Stret Consulting, Westpac and Agbook were selected through a competitive process.

UNCDF Country Lead Jagdeep Dahiya said that “5,000 women entrepreneurs will benefit from digital and financial literacy training before the end of this year.” Mr. Dahiya added that “partners are expected to contribute at least 20% of the total project cost to ensure the services are well developed and embedded in their businesses.”

The project seeks to support the development of digital and financial literacy solutions targeting women-led MSMEs and women entrepreneurs to enhance their financial management and business skills in the country.

UNDP Resident Representative Dirk Wagener said that “the Rapid Financing Facility supports women entrepreneurs by working with financial service providers to promote solutions that are both fitting, suitable and affordable in terms of financial products and services”.

“We know that the informal sector is a large sector that drives the economy, primarily dominated by women here in Papua New Guinea. These women need access to those digital solutions and financial services to suit their needs. And the pandemic has disproportionately impacted women, youth, poor households, informal and self-employed workers and MSMEs who were not ready to meet some of the challenges presented to them”.

Acting Governor of Bank of Papua New Guinea (BPNG), George Awap said, “with the COVID-19 pandemic we all witnessed how important it is to leverage technology and digitization to keep us ticking and bring in new means and ways of doing business. These new things should trickle down to the women and entrepreneurs in the formal and informal sector, which are critical players in our economy”.

Small, Medium, Enterprise Corporation (SMEC) Chairman, Mr. John Pora said, “the MSME space has got a lot of room for growth, and that room for growth will be defined by how we make relevant the programmes, the re-architecture of what building and constructing looks like in terms of citizen participation”.

“Access to finance is one of the difficult areas, and it’s not only the responsibility of the government to provide money or our development partners to facilitate development funds, but it also requires our citizens to step up”.

Additional interventions are planned as part of the project for the year 2022, including the first-ever portfolio guarantee and innovation fund for digital financial services adoption by women entrepreneurs of Papua New Guinea.

The country’s online system is making it easier for women entrepreneurs to access the benefits of registering their company with the government.

Saja al-Bayati has been fascinated by information technology and news since she can remember.

While pursuing a master’s degree in computer engineering, she merged her tech and cyber-security interests with a budding freelance journalism career to start digital awareness campaigns – beginning a journey that would combine her two passions into a business endeavour.

“The field of information technology in Iraq is quite important. We have high rates of digital illiteracy – and that can put people at risk,” Ms. al-Bayati says.

The 29-year-old from Baghdad now runs a company of security experts that keeps people and organizations safe from cyberattacks.

“I help protect individuals and institutions from hacking, and drive awareness on how to protect private, confidential information,” she says.

When Ms. Al-Bayati registered her company, Al-Baydaq (Pawn) Information Technology, with the government in October 2022, she found the process much easier than expected thanks to a new online registration portal.

From 35 steps to a few clicks

On 8 November 2021, the Iraqi government set up business.mot.gov.iq – an online “single window” for business registration – with support from UNCTAD, the United States government and the Global Entrepreneurship Network, a non-profit organization.

The portal simplifies a process that used to entail 35 steps and long hours waiting in line at different government offices. Ms. al-Bayati was able to register her company in just a few clicks and in a matter of minutes.

“I submitted all my papers and paid the registration fees online without needing a lawyer,” she says. “It was the first government e-service I ever experienced, and it was great.”

Unlocking important benefits

According to a recent joint UNDP report, Iraq’s private sector, which accounts for 40% to 50% of employment, is mainly informal. And women in the country generally face more hurdles than men to own a formal business because of social and cultural norms.

By not registering their business with the government, women entrepreneurs miss out on important benefits, like limited personal liability, tax incentives, access to loans and the ability to build a company brand.

This could also put employees at a disadvantage, as workers in the informal sector often have less job security and social protection.

Fast-tracking women’s entrepreneurial ambitions

The Iraqi government invested in the portal to make it easier for everyone in the country to do business – so far almost 3,000 entrepreneurs have used it to register their company.

“It is a moment to be proud and demonstrates that e-registration is a critical empowerment tool,” says Frank Grozel, head of UNCTAD’s business facilitation programme.

The portal has shown that a good one-stop shop for business registration can help women accelerate their entrepreneurial ambitions. More than 150 women entrepreneurs have had similar experiences to Ms. Al-Bayati.

These include Asmaa Hussain Mohammed, who registered Twilight Brightness (سطوع الشفق), a printing, marketing, events and logistics company; Sanaa Abdel Rahim Shakeel, who used the portal to formalize her clothes importing business, Qobat Al Iraq ( قبة العراق) General Trading Limited Liability; and Baida Imran Musa, who registered Al Hayat ( الحياة), an airfield and ground services company.

“As women in society, we need the government’s support to operate at optimum,” Ms. Musa says.

So far, women have accounted for 7% of those registering their business through the portal since its launch. Jonathan Ortmans, president of the Global Entrepreneurship Network, expects the share to grow as awareness of the single window increases.

“The data, especially over the past two months, proves that digital government is removing a fundamental barrier to entrepreneurship, especially among those traditionally left out of economic activity,” Mr. Ortmans says.

Xin’An (XA) Bank in partnership with the i3 Programme funded by Metlife Foundation is using Natural Language Processing (NLP) based digital applications to increase women’s access to finance in the An’hui province of China. Their work carries several learnings for market-system actors in designing women-centric financial services.

China has about 8 million registered Small and micro-sized enterprises (SMEs) and around 60 million individual-owned unregistered micro-enterprises. According to the Chinese Central Bank, MSMEs account for more than 90% of market participation, 80% of employment, 70% of patents, 60% of GDP growth, and 50% of the taxes collected.

Despite its significant contribution to the economy, one of the biggest challenges faced by SMEs in China is the availability of capital. While all entrepreneurs face significant challenges, women-led enterprises face disproportionate barriers as a result of gender-discriminatory social and cultural norms that often limit women’s mobility and social networks limiting their scope of expanding their business. Moreover, constraints on access to finance, digital access, high unpaid care burden, time poverty, lower access to productive assets, limited entrepreneurial networks, and lack of confidence in business skills are critical factors that inhibit women’s entrepreneurial journey.

IFC estimates that more than 70% of women-owned SMEs worldwide have inadequate or no access to financial services, resulting in a $300 billion gap in financing.

Why it’s even tougher for women entrepreneurs to get funding in the credit-starved SME sector in the province

An’Hui Province is one of China’s underdeveloped areas with a population of around 60 million and a severe lack of economic opportunities. The province has a high incidence of migration to other nearby regions within China such as Shanghai and Jiangsu, as people move out in search of employment opportunities. Most of the migrant workers are men, leaving behind women and children in their hometowns in the province.

To add to the household income and provide for the family, women in An’hui operate small businesses and run enterprises, in addition to managing their household and caregiving responsibilities. Of the nearly 3.4 million registered self-employed individuals, almost half are women (1.2 million), yet the latter remain financially underserved due to a lack of access to suitable credit products.

Ms. Yang an entrepreneur in the trade business is a typical example. Despite having developed stable relationships with big corporate suppliers, she faces financing pressure due to the long time gap between the purchase of stock and its sales, especially at the end of the year. Most of the income she collects comes from WeChat or other digital payment channels and these don’t build up a bank account transaction history to prove a business’ potential for loan approval from traditional banks. This leaves her to seek alternative funding methods from fintech providers; however, the credit she qualifies for are smaller-sized loans with higher interest rates making it inadequate and expensive for stocking inventory.

“It’s just too tiring for me to collect all these paper materials from various government departments especially when I have kids at home. I don’t like big banks; they always think I’m not a qualified business owner as a woman and that my business is not stable enough. There are always reasons to reject my loan application.” – Ms. Yang, Anhui province China

Experiences like that of Ms. Yang accurately reflect the gap in the market. Though China has been one of the frontiers in digital financial inclusion, technology hasn’t yet been able to cover the financial needs of low and moderate-income people. The stereotypes and biases against women business owners are consciously or unconsciously carried in both human loan investigation and big data credit analysis.

According to a recent study, only 16% of women-owned SMEs worldwide report dependence on bank loans as a source of capital to fund their businesses, as compared with 22% of those owned by men. This could be explained by the established gendered social norms and how the credit methodology exacerbates rather than neutralize those biases.

Data inequality exists even across alternative data credit rating systems as the required digital footprint typically favours men. Moreover, unlike in developing countries where guidelines on the fair credit act ensure that elements such as gender are not factored into the algorithms, China has yet to impose an equivalent guidance.

Very often, we see human bias being carried to the lending decisioning algorithms wherein factors like women under or above a certain age, married or divorced, become critical variables for credit decisions, preventing women from accessing necessary credit for their enterprise.

These challenges and biases have created a vicious cycle for women SME-owners with many of them hesitant to seek credit from formal sources. What they need is an unbiased, non-intimidating and inclusive system of credit assessment and loan approvals

Mr. Sun Xiao, CEO of XA Bank, explains the problem which is rooted deeply in the mindset of financial institutions.

“Many bankers don’t trust women entrepreneurs and are not bold enough to design products for them. From my experience, women are better borrowers if we compare the default rate, and they use money in a more cautious way. And empowering women means supporting an entire family: the kids and the next generation. So, I’m very confident and willing to lend to women.”

XA Bank’s women-centric approach to diagnosing and addressing the challenges

XA Bank, a newly licensed private bank, saw the challenge in its entirety but also recognized an opportunity to promote gender equality for a sustainable future in the province. XA Bank’s CEO Mr. Sun had the experience of working with the Ma’an’shan Rural Commercial Bank of An’hui and had seen the success of the World Bank-sponsored IPC technology in enabling rural commercial banks to provide credit to women entrepreneurs. That experience enabled Mr. Sun to continue empowering women entrepreneurs in the tech-savvy XA Bank. While the IPC approach was effective for building deep relationships and understanding customers’ credibility, it had a heavy reliance on offline loan officers. For XA Bank, the commitment to serve women-owned SMEs encouraged them to continuously invest in new technology to create more inclusive financing frameworks.

XA Bank summarizes the ethos, underlying their approach, by saying:

“We believe that the essence of small and micro-enterprise credit is ultimately about assessing willingness and ability to pay through various tool kits. Big data and other methods partially solve the risk control decision caused by information asymmetry for smaller amounts of credit with the rule of thumb. But when it comes to credit demand with very little data and larger ticket size, big data does not work that well.”

The NLP-based AI credit product improves women’s experience of the loan process, reduces inefficiencies at the financial institution level, and enhances access to credit for women-led enterprises

After in-depth market research, XA Bank, supported by the i3 program developed a Natural Language Processing (NLP) based digital application for women entrepreneurs. The product aims to lend to local entrepreneurs with a credit demand between 200,000 RMB to 1,000,000 RMB for an interest rate of 7-8%. It only requires a digital app which allows end customers to freely answer questions to a virtual ‘investigator’ and upload information, while back-end analytics would do automatic comparing and analysis. Further, there would be only one field visit from the bank for signing the contract and the loan would be disbursed within two days.

NLP is a subfield of linguistics, computer science, and artificial intelligence concerned with programming computers to process and analyze large amounts of natural language data. The goal is to equip a computer to understand the contents of documents, including the contextual nuances of the language within them. The technology can then accurately extract information and insights contained in the documents as well as categorize and organize the documents themselves.

XA Bank’s NLP solution had a virtual investigator NLP wherein customers could answer questions as if they were interacting with a real person without having to face any conscious or unconscious bias that they may have to face during actual human interaction. The system captures the voice and transforms it into text messages. XA Bank’s NLP also collects ‘soft information’ like the family details, the cross-checks of different answers, the tones, and facial expressions for credit building. The analysis serves for credit rating purposes as well as to guide women entrepreneurs through the loan application process, eliminating unfamiliarity with digital technology.

XA Bank explains its innovation this way:

In addition to digitizing traditional credit processes, this NLP-based approach also obtains more information through set questions, especially those that are not available in big data. Information, which is an important part of risk control approval. In addition, NLP technology can also break the limitations of time and space, allowing the efficient and fast image of AI Goddess Loan to be displayed anytime, anywhere.

The NLP system has increased efficiency, for both XA Bank and end customers and eliminated the need for labour and a pen-paper data analysis. More importantly, it has revolutionized the engagement between financial institution agents and women entrepreneurs and minimized gender-based discrimination in the credit approval process.

For people like Ms. Yang, who were previously dissatisfied with the inefficiency of financial institutions taking 10-15 days to process loans, today enjoy a smooth 30-minute application, with a 5-minute approval, and 2-day settlement service. The timely funding has enabled her to further expand her business, increasing her income and in turn, her ability to be more secure and resilient in the future.

Another entrepreneur Ms. Zhang, whose business was severely affected in 2020, required immediate cash to sustain her business. While most of the banks were hesitant to lend money to her, she successfully received 350,000 RMB credit from XA Bank through simple steps. Now with the economic recovery, Ms. Zhang has successfully repaid the loan and expanded her business outside the province of Xi’an and Zhengzhou. She continued to seek support from XA Bank with a second financing of 850,000 RMB for this expansion. Satisfied by the service, she now saves with XA Bank with her business earning surplus income, building her financial resilience.

The future of XA Bank’s product: iterations and capacity building to continue improving the financial health of women entrepreneurs

Between 2019 to June 2022, XA Bank has provided credit to more than 3,000 women SME owners spread across multiple industries and age groups. The current default rate is negligible (0.35%), which is much better than the market default rates for the SME segment.

In 2021, XA Bank integrated electronic signatures, electronic contracts, remote video and other technologies to ensure that the entire process from application to disbursement goes fully digital. This enables the AI loan product to be zero carbon emissions as well. XA Bank also piloted women’s capacity-building programs and workshops partnering with An’Hui Women’s Federation and Women Entrepreneurs Association.

For XA Bank, the work for empowering women entrepreneurs does not stop at providing credit. The bank remains committed to pioneering technology innovation to achieve its SDGs as an inclusive, focused financial institution.

“We understand this is not a one-off ‘only credit’ service. It’s also about continuously upgrading based on customers’ feedback. We have to build up an ecosystem beyond financial services to empower women as better business owners. We are trying hard to do it step by step,” – XA Bank

Studies from Forrester and Deloitte demonstrate that customer-centric companies bring in 5.7 times more revenue and 60% more profits than their counterparts. Piloting the AI Goddess Loan product with XA Bank from the very beginning helped the i3 program realize the power of customer centricity. XA Bank’s adoption of a women-centric approach has helped them innovate a technology-led product and make finance available to previously underserved segments of women.

By building its credibility and trust among low-income clients through its gender-conscious design, XA Bank is not only enhancing their customers’ financial health but also growing its own business potential. Their focus is not on the design of a singular product, but rather on shaping an ecosystem that works for women entrepreneurs relying on continuous customer feedback. Their vision, strategy and execution, show that when financial service providers prioritise people before products by improving technology to suit customer needs or by simplifying processes, they gain customer trust and loyalty and shape new pathways of staying competitive and relevant to their customers.

Two years of the project under the i3 program serves as great practical learning for industry practitioners in the midst of the global transition from financial inclusion to financial health.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many people and businesses to work remotely, accelerating the trend toward digital trade and demonstrating its importance to the global economy. Yet developing countries have lagged behind advanced economies in harnessing the power of digital technology and risk missing out on its increasingly important economic benefits. That is why the World Bank has established a pilot Digital Advisory and Trade Assistance (DATA) fund to help developing countries adopt policies and regulations that enhance trust in digital markets, make it easier to do business online, and promote their involvement on international governance of digital trade.

Digital trade is a critical aspect of trade and competitiveness for developing countries. Participation in digital trade offers significant economic benefits, including diversification of export markets and products and lowering the costs of trade in goods and services.  Digital trade has also proven to be an effective tool for inclusion. It allows small businesses and those owned by women to reach consumers directly, without going through costly intermediaries. A World Bank survey shows that women-led firms are more likely to be involved in exporting goods and services than those led by men  in 14 of the 18 countries surveyed in the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia regions.

Figure 1. Digital Trade Regulatory Readiness scores by country income group

Figure 1. Digital Trade Regulatory Readiness scores by country income group

Source: Digital Trade Regulatory Readiness database. (World Bank, forthcoming 2023)

 

Unfortunately, regulations governing digital trade in developing countries are far from adequate. As shown in the World Bank’s forthcoming Digital Trade Regulatory Readiness database, essential rules in areas such as personal data protection, online consumer protection, intermediary liability, and the licensing regime for digital firms are often either missing entirely or offer only broad frameworks that lack adequate regulatory solutions for the digital era.

And as global trade in goods and services increasingly incorporates digital technologies, regulations aimed at fostering digital trade are also becoming a central component of trade agreements.  Several international initiatives seek to promote rules that ensure an open and conducive regulatory framework for global digital trade while safeguarding legitimate public policy concerns in areas such as data privacy and consumer protection. Chief among these efforts is a Joint Statement Initiative (JSI) to establish global rules on digital trade under the auspices of the World Trade Organization.  These plurilateral talks have gained traction since their launch in early 2019, and negotiations have advanced substantially.

While differences remain over its specific content, the JSI also suffers from a worrying shortcoming in representation. Among the 87 WTO Members involved in the discussions, only 30 are developing countries, of which just four are Least Developed Countries (LDCs). Many low- and middle-income countries are reluctant to engage in rulemaking in policy areas where their domestic regulation is still to be developed and their trade opportunities remain largely untapped. This group compares poorly with the 154 WTO Members that signed the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement, including all 35 LDC WTO Members.

Recent bilateral and regional trade agreements also include provisions on multiple aspects of digital trade, including requiring the adoption of regulatory tools for remote transactions, promoting trust-enhancing regulation, and advancing rules on the digital trade ecosystem. Nevertheless, except for some countries in East Asia and Latin America, developing countries, and especially LDCs, have rarely been involved in rulemaking on digital trade.

The new DATA Fund aims to help developing countries adopt policies and regulations that will better equip them to take advantage of rapid advances in digital trade.  The DATA Fund will also support capacity building through specialized training for policymakers and stakeholders. The fund is part of the World Bank’s Umbrella Facility for Trade and is currently supported by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs.

The main focus of the DATA Fund is to contribute to client-facing, results-oriented projects that have a direct impact on developing countries’ ability to benefit from trade in digital services and e-commerce. Areas of “soft infrastructure” covered by the DATA Fund include support to:

  • the legal, regulatory, and institutional framework for digital trade
  • development and analysis of digital trade statistics
  • border management and logistics for e-commerce
  • digital skills and entrepreneurship
  • fiscal regimes for e-commerce and digital services
  • capacity building for policymaking and for international negotiations

The DATA Fund builds on the World Bank’s extensive capacity and engagements on digital trade governance at the country and regional levels. For example, the World Bank has been advising the government of Morocco, as chair for e-commerce negotiations for the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, on paths to advance an e-commerce protocol, both in terms of disciplines as well as flexibility and options for international cooperation. The Bank is also a major source for infrastructure investment that enables digital trade, both related to digital connectivity, as in the case of the Eastern Africa Digital Integration project, and customs procedures and logistics for e-commerce, as captured in the Southern Africa Trade and Connectivity Project.

As part of its capacity building initiatives, the World Bank has also provided training on digital trade governance. Examples include: training for Kenyan officials involved in negotiating bilateral rules with trade partners; helping the central bank of Lao PDR implement data-related provisions under the WTO; and in Albania, the Bank is advising the government on modernizing domestic e-commerce legislation.

As digital trade governance becomes a priority both domestically and internationally, the World Bank and its global partners are joining forces to ensure that developing countries and LDCs can meet the challenges and harness the benefits of digital commerce.

This report pinpoints mobile network costs and access to women entrepreneurs among challenges to scale up inclusive digital economies, and offers road maps for action.

The BRICS countries – Brazil, Russian Federation, India, China and South Africa – are attractive investment destinations for digital sectors due to large markets, a growing middle class, well-developed digital infrastructure and expanding youth populations with solid digital skills.

The digital economy contribution to BRICS’ GDP in recent years is considerable. Estimates from government documents range from 2% in South Africa and 4% in the Russian Federation to 6.9% in India, 7.8% in China and 22% in Brazil. Almost 90% of the populations in BRICS countries are covered by 3G/4G mobile networks and 5G networks have begun to roll out.

While internet use has surged since 2020, largely due to better accessibility and lower costs, mobile internet costs are still higher than the global average and women’s access to the internet needs to be further improved. BRICS countries collectively account for about 30% of the global export of information and communication technology (ICT) goods, but only 11% of global export of digitally deliverable services.

To build on this potential, they can work more closely to bridge digital gaps, improve regulatory environments and drive business cooperation.

These are among the key findings of the International Trade Centre’s (ITC) BRICS Digital Economy Report 2022, which explores how the BRICS can ensure that small firms and low-income populations are included in this reimagining of business in the digital age.

‘BRICS need to bridge the digital divide, enhance education and skills, support innovation and digital entrepreneurship, improve the policy environment and strengthen international cooperation,’ says ITC Executive Director Pamela Coke-Hamilton. ‘The BRICS cooperation mechanism can help, as it forges mutual support among BRICS countries and provides support to other developing countries.’

The report urges policymakers to bridge the digital divide by sharing information on digital infrastructure investment policies, financing digital infrastructure projects, promoting digital literacy, upskilling small firms and supporting women-owned digital businesses. Investing in advanced, future-oriented segments of the digital economy will trigger ‘leapfrogging’ opportunities that can enable BRICS countries to make a quick jump in economic development.

BRICS governments should advance digital governance discussions, especially at the international level, and improve measurement of the digital economy through supporting the G20 workstreams and encouraging the private sector to help out on data-collection efforts, the report says.

The private sector’s involvement is essential to the digital transformation, as is greater cooperation among research institutions, universities and business communities, according to the report. ITC prepared the report with collaboration from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development as an input to the BRICS meetings hosted by China earlier this year.

The Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) has launched two key publications making a case for Africa’s participation in global value chains and leveraging digitalization and furthering trade under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

In remarks at the launch of the two publications, Deputy Executive Secretary and Chief Economist of the Economic Commission for Africa, Hanan Morsy, highlighted how Africa can leverage digital technologies and participate in global value chains.

The annual Economic Report for Africa for 2022 focuses on recent economic and social development in Africa and explores unlocking the potential of developing digital technologies to mitigate global supply-chain risks as well as leveraging digital technologies and regional value chains While the

The Existential Priorities of the AfCFTA – a seminal book to guide and assist implementation of the AfCFTA over the next 15 years – book identifies some of the critical actions needed to achieve the vision of an inclusive, transformative, digital, rules-based, results-based, modern, comprehensive, and fit-for-purpose trade area.

Building on the AfCFTA has become fundamental given the multiple crises that affect and continue to affect the African continent,” Ms. Morsy told participants in remarks read by the ECA Director of the sub-regional office for East Africa, Mama Keita.

Ms. Morsy alluded to the fact that the multiple crises affecting Africa presented an opportunity to use digital technologies to enhance trade through the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

“The AfCFTA is a game changer in promoting industrialization in Africa by availing the key market, demand, and area for trade implementation,” she added.

Mactar Seck, Chief, Technology Section, Technology, Climate Change and Natural Resource Division at ECA, said the AfCFTA provides new opportunities for local businesses to build new linkages in the supply chains on inter-African trade and that governments must create enabling policies and support the harmonization of regional value chains.

The session was moderated by ECA’s Director for Southern Africa, Eunice Kamwendo, who noted that “Digitalization will turbocharge the African Continental Free Trade Area.”

Underscoring the importance of regional integration is very important to Africa, Joseph Atta-Mensah, Principal Economic Affairs Officer, Macroeconomic and Governance Division at the ECA, said integrating 55 economies on the continent into one was a powerful development. He warned that to harness the power of integration, African countries must be competitive because barriers and tariffs will come down when the AfCFTA is fully operational.

The AfCFTA is good but if we want to go to the full frontier of benefits that it promises we need to go the next mile and implement full customs and free movement of people,” advised Mr. Stephen Karingi, Director, Regional Integration and Trade Division at the ECA.

Ms. Joy Kategekwa, Strategy Advisor, UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa, said at this point in time the AfCFTA was ‘in a state of capture’ because it did not deliver on implementation, was not clear of its capacities, and had not freed the movement of people across Africa’s borders.

“It is time to shift from trade policy into industry and focus on great blueprints at the African Union… and go big on effective capacity building and take the pedal off this idea that capacity building is about training,” Ms. Kategekwa said.

In rolling out a successful AfCFTA, women have to be included, argued Mary Lucia Mbithi, Senior Lecturer of Economics at the School of Economics, University of Nairobi. Ms Mbithi is one of the authors of the Existential Priorities of the AfCFTA publication.

“If we have gender equality we are likely to see better outcomes of the AfCFTA,” said Ms. Mbithi, who is also the Director of Research at the Women Economic Empowerment (WEE) Hub in Kenya, adding that statistics show that countries with longer gender gaps tend to have lower per capita GDP.

MFS Africa and United Nations agency International Trade Centre partner to accelerate digitalization in 10 African markets.

To support small businesses in financial digital inclusion, the new partnership between MFS Africa and the International Trade Centre (ITC) marks a milestone in contributing to the 2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development.

MFS Africa is the continent’s largest digital payments hub, connecting over 400 million mobile money wallets and 200 million bank wallets across Africa. The fintech operates in over 35 countries on the continent, and 50 globally. MFS Africa has the vision of making borders matter less when it comes to digital transactions.

The MFS platform Beyonic is an innovative gateway for collections, payments, and business analytics. Through its aggregated back end, Beyonic connects businesses to all available wallets and banks in a domestic market while allowing cross-border transactions (when available) and other value-added services.

Beyonic App“We are delighted to have signed a partnership with MFS Africa to foster SMEs digital financial inclusion in 10 African markets,” says Robert Skidmore, Chief of Sector and Enterprise Competitiveness at the International Trade Centre. “With this partnership ITC will strengthen its commitment to support small businesses in accessing financing and in digitalization and jointly tackle SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth). This partnership is the next step into ITC’s ambition to collaborate with the private sector to scale solutions supporting small business.”

In Africa, small businesses represent at least 80% of Africa’s employment and 50% of its GDP. They are the economic lifeblood of communities around the world. Through this partnership, ITC and MFS Africa will contribute to put small businesses at the heart of financial inclusion and digitalization.

Both entities will support businesses in more than 10 African markets (Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Rwanda, Senegal, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia) through product integration, capacity building in in fintech and digital payments, exposure to investment and business-to-business meetings.

Ali Ouedraogo, Head of Expansion at MFS Africa says: “More and more small businesses in Africa are suffering from the lack of solid payment tools to optimize their business operations. Supporting the SDGs and its ambitions to promote decent work, sustainable growth and no poverty would also mean to intentionally support small business across the African continent. The partnership with ITC will enormously allow us to offer them the Beyonic platform across Africa, and thus build a new era where small business is at the heart of economic growth for the benefit of millions of African citizens.”

A new UNCTAD report outlines ways to accelerate a more gender-equal digital economy for women’s economic and social empowerment.

The digital economy is booming. E-commerce sales worldwide, for example, grew 4% to an estimated $26.7 trillion in 2019, according to the latest data.

But not everyone is benefitting equally. Women across regions and continents still face many obstacles to start and grow digital businesses, including gender bias, lower participation in decision-making processes, and unequal access to funding and technology.

With the necessary support and resources women could add nearly $300 billion to e-commerce markets in South-East Asia and Africa between 2025 and 2030, according to International Finance Corporation estimates.

How to unlock women’s potential in the digital economy is the focus of an UNCTAD report published on 8 December.

It draws on the growth path of seven businesswomen from developing countries, who in 2019 became the first cohort of advocates for UNCTAD’s eTrade for Women initiative.

The report looks at the factors that have propelled the seven advocates to succeed, as well as the challenges they faced, before laying out recommendations to empower women in the digital economy.

“The actions we take today will help shape a more gender-inclusive digital economy, where everyone can benefit equally from the biggest economic transformation of our times,” says Shamika N. Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s technology and logistics director.

Shoring up support

In the report, lead author Nina Angelovska, along with her fellow advocates, calls for policies to tackle the socio-economic constraints hindering female digital entrepreneurship.

They urge more equitable digital infrastructure, emphasizing that “connectivity, accessibility and affordability of the internet are prerequisites.”

Another focus is on improving women entrepreneurs’ access to finance. In this area, governments can offer complementary schemes – grants, guaranteed loans and so on – in addition to private investors’ efforts.

Additionally, the report recommends involving more women entrepreneurs in relevant dialogues and consultations when it comes to digital policymaking.

“To tackle inequalities in the digital economy, we need to ensure women have a seat and a voice at the policymaking table,” Ms. Sirimanne says.

Sharing first-hand experiences

Ms. Angelovska recounts her story as an e-commerce trailblazer in her native North Macedonia.

As a 21-year-old, Ms. Angelovska won a national competition with her business plan and subsequently launched Grouper.mk, the very first group deal buying platform in her country.

Back in 2011, only 2% of consumers in North Macedonia bought online. But the digital economy there has since come a long way, especially after Ms. Angelovska in 2017 established the country’s first e-commerce association, where she remains as president.

According to the World Bank, more than 30% of Macedonians shopped online in 2021.

“In order to push for change and have our voice heard, we realized that we needed to represent and speak on behalf of the industry,” Ms. Angelovska says. “This is how the eCommerce Association of North Macedonia was born.”

Advocating for women digital entrepreneurs

The report also received contributions from Ms. Angelovska’s fellow advocates: Clarisse Iribagiza of Rwanda, Helianti Hilman of Indonesia, Claudia de Heredia of Mexico, Xiaofei Yao of China, Nazanin Daneshvar of Iran and Patricia Zoundi Yao of Côte d’Ivoire.

In June 2022, UNCTAD appointed five new women advocates to continue promoting more inclusive e-commerce ecosystems while inspiring their peers in the digital economy.

This is important because, according to the report, women (54.7%) show less confidence than men (66.2%) in their capability to start a business – even though one in three active growth-oriented entrepreneurs worldwide is a woman.

The eTrade for Women initiative is funded by Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Digitalization can unlock greater financial inclusion among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) digital generation, according to a new report. But there is still work to do.

 

The ASEAN region has seen unprecedented growth in digitalization, and this trend looks set to continue, according to the World Economic Forum’s ASEAN Digital Generation Report 2022. The uptake of digital financial services is also increasing across the region.

However, the report found that women, micro-business owners, rural communities, and other underserved groups experience gaps in accessing financial services in the region.

The ASEAN region has seen unprecedented growth in digitalization, and this trend looks set to continue, according to the World Economic Forum’s ASEAN Digital Generation Report 2022.
The ASEAN region has seen unprecedented growth in digitalization, and this trend looks set to continue, according to the World Economic Forum’s ASEAN Digital Generation Report 2022. Image: WEF

Digital payment apps were the most used by those surveyed of any applications after social media, with 84% of all respondents saying they had used these apps.

Access to finance through digitalization

Those surveyed stressed the importance of improved access to financial services for both personal and business needs, including for cash flow, savings and business expansion.

However, there were inconsistencies in accessing finance for ASEAN’s digital generation. For example, nearly half of those seeking credit support could not access formal spending sources.

And 28% of people seeking loans were unable to secure finance, leaving almost a fifth of respondents relying on less traditional sources of funding, including family and friends, cooperatives or other informal lending options.

The survey found that women have less access than men to loans and financial services. Just 22% of women needing loans received credit from commercial banks, compared to 28% of male applications. Fewer women (19%) than men (28%) used advanced financial products like credit, investment and insurance, too.

ASEAN Women are adopting more financial services apps than men, however.

ASEAN Digital Generation Report: Learning how to manage personal finances improves access to investment services.
ASEAN Digital Generation Report: Learning how to manage personal finances improves access to investment services. Image: ASEAN

The report, now in its sixth edition, surveyed 90,000 people – predominantly aged 16-35 – across six ASEAN nations: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam. It concluded that developing financial management skills was closely linked with accessing financial products, particularly advanced products like insurance, loans and investments.

Other barriers relate to the complex language used in financial services contracts and ambiguous contract terms.

The survey results also revealed concerns about hidden charges when accessing financial services, as well as security and fraud. Then there are the difficulties of dealing with cumbersome or confusing processes and interfaces for things like digital payments and lending services.

But digitalization has the potential to help tackle these concerns while increasing access to finance for underrepresented groups. Strong digitalization of the region’s saving and payment services paves the way to bring more advanced digitalized financial services into reach, such as investment, credit and insurance.

Graph showing the most used apps in the ASEAN region. A strong focus of further digitalization is to make it inclusive.
Graph showing the most used apps in the ASEAN region. A strong focus of further digitalization is to make it inclusive. Image: ASEAN

There is a consensus among women and men – almost 9 in 10 surveyed – calling for ASEAN’s financial services to be digitalized further.

For micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, better access to financial services is essential to improve cashflow management and foster business growth opportunities

A strong focus of further digitalization is to make it inclusive. The report notes that stakeholders must work to identify gaps and challenges, improve digital financial literacy and bolster security and safety provisions to create a more inclusive, stable and sustainable digital economy for ASEAN’s digital generation.Boosting the region’s digital and financial literacy can help people and businesses navigate digital finance safely and proficiently.

The challenge received 66 AI-based solutions to reduce gender discrimination, and 11 were selected.

The Inter-American Development Bank’s innovation lab, IDB Lab, has selected 11 solutions from Latin America that use artificial intelligence to help reduce bias and discrimination based on sex or gender.

These projects were submitted to the regional call for proposals for open innovation on gender and artificial intelligence launched by IDB Lab within the framework of its fAIr LAC initiative to address gender inequality gaps in Latin America and the Caribbean in the areas of financial inclusion, health, and well-being, and education and employment.

The call, which was supported by Accenture, AWS, Globant, Google for Startups, Microsoft, NTT Data Foundation, Oracle, Red Hat, and SONDA, received a total of 66 proposals. Fifty-four sector experts evaluated the solutions in artificial intelligence, entrepreneurship, business, and social impact. In addition, they pre-selected 24 organizations to participate in a bootcamp with specialized content on artificial intelligence and ethics, bias, access to responsible financing, and technical considerations to incorporate diversity and inclusion approaches in technological development.

The participants also had access to individualized mentoring and presented their projects in a Demo Day where the final evaluation and selection were made.

The 11 selected proposals are:

  1. Genomawork (Chile): Solutions to promote diversity and labor inclusion in Latin America.
  2. hiSofi (Brazil): Financial health portal.
  3. Jobecam (Brazil): Automated platform to optimize hiring.
  4. Ethics (Mexico/Spain): Algorithmic audits to ensure data ethics.
  5. Quipu Market (Colombia): Digital bank for the informal economy.
  6. C-Minds (Mexico): Solutions to improve the care economy.
  7. Tirando por Colombia (Colombia): Solutions for preventing teenage pregnancy.
  8. Quantil (Colombia): Solution for developing AI models.
  9. Thermy (Mexico): Medical device for image analysis.
  10. Munay (Bolivia): Solutions for the financial inclusion of women entrepreneurs.
  11. Bancolombia (Colombia): Financial education solutions for women.

In accordance with the Gender and Artificial Intelligence Challenge Guidelines, the selected proposals will initiate an eligibility and due diligence analysis process to potentially receive the financing that will allow them to implement their solution in one of the IDB’s 26 borrowing countries.