News

A new report reveals persistent barriers in the digital finance sector that limit women’s economic empowerment in Africa, while recommending policy responses to overcome them.

Commissioned by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the latest edition of the biennial African Women’s Report was published today. The report analyses the digital finance ecosystem in Africa to examine all its components and how they impact women’s economic prospects.

Barriers

The report pinpoints five key issues affecting the use of digital finance as a catalyst for women’s economic empowerment in Africa. First, despite having more mobile money services than anywhere else in the world, women’s access to digital services, mobile and internet in Africa is limited due to illiteracy, cost, skills gap and social norms.

Second, while impressive gains are made in improving women’s digital finance skills, Africa lags behind compared to other regions. For instance, the share of women with digital finance skills in North Africa has doubled from 12.5 per cent in 2014 to 25.7 per cent in 2018 – surpassing the global average of about 20 per cent. However, the same figure stands at only 12 per cent for the entire continent.

Third, only 33 per cent of women in Africa have a formal bank account compared to 43 per cent of men. This gap, together with limited access to economic assets, escalates women’s vulnerability and exclusion from profitable sectors and formal jobs. Fourth, social norms as well as inherent biases in financial practices, products and services adversely impact women.

Finally, the lack of women’s participation in decision-making processes, as well as in financial and technology fields, means digital finance policies and products are unlikely to include women’s perspectives and meet their needs. In addition, in some African countries, women are nine times less likely to have formal identification than men, which impedes their ability to access, own and use digital finance services freely and safely.

Speaking about the report, Ms. Edlam Yemeru, acting Director of ECA’s Gender, Poverty and Social Policy Division, said: “Africa is a global leader in several transactional technologies such as mobile money but there remains considerable scope to scale up digital finance and ensure that women can take full advantage of the resulting opportunities. This requires addressing a number of barriers related to connectivity, digital literacy, cost, laws and culture.”

She continued: “Our report takes a holistic approach in looking at the digital finance ecosystem and defines policy options for governments to develop the sector further and accelerate financial inclusion while paving the way for women’s economic empowerment – leaving no one behind.”

Responses

The report outlines 10 policy responses for governments to consider in ensuring their national digital ecosystem supports, not challenges, women’s economic empowerment.

Specific responses include prioritising female representation in the sector, up-skilling people – especially women – in digital finance, reforming laws for greater mobile money uptake and designing gender-sensitive policies that combine technology with social development.

The report proposes that sex-disaggregated data on internet usage, mobile ownership and financial literacy should be part of national household surveys to inform the design of relevant policies.

It further recommends embedding digital finance frameworks in national development plans and working with credit bureaus to address the potential for inherent gender biases within credit reporting systems.

Finally, the report urges African countries to establish regional digital finance regulatory and justice frameworks using the African Continental Free Trade Area as a platform to enable digital identities and improve cross-border cooperation.

The African Women’s Report is a biennial flagship publication of the ECA. The latest edition focuses on ‘Digital Finance Ecosystems – Pathways to Women’s Economic Empowerment in Africa’’.

  • Eight-month free online training on ITC SheTrades and ecomConnect for women-led small and medium-sized enterprises in Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay.
  • SheTrades increases content offer in Spanish and promotes a networking community for women entrepreneurs.
  • Alliances with specialized institutions in the four countries until June 2023.

The International Trade Centre (ITC) has launched the “SheTrades Latam & ecomConnect: Empowering women in e-commerce” pilot project to increase its services in Spanish, thereby meeting the needs of the women-led business in the region as they keep engaging in e-commerce.

Despite the sharp increase of e-commerce due to the COVID-19 pandemic, among other reasons, a notable gender gap in the business digital transformation in Latin America and the Caribbean still remains. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, women-led companies represent just 1% of the total volume of electronic transactions.

The project aims to expedite the inclusion of women in trade by promoting women-led companies in Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay so that they can sell their products online and access national and international markets through virtual capacity training and access to an entrepreneur community that allows collaborative work and experience and knowledge sharing.

Between October 2022 and June 2023, ITC will cooperate with four local specialized institutions to furnish the participating women entrepreneurs with tools and methodologies in Spanish. The training sessions will be delivered through the shetrades.com virtual learning platform.

The courses available are self-paced and cover a wide range of topics related to e-commerce, such as market investigation and strategy, online sales channels, payment solutions, logistics or digital marketing techniques. The capacity training sessions will be complemented by workshops, video tutorials, debates and networking events that will enhance the collaboration and knowledge sharing at a regional level.

This project is funded by the SheTrades initiative and implemented by ITC “ecomConnect” e-commerce programme.

How to join the programme?

The programme is open to any woman leading a micro, small or medium-sized enterprise (MSME) or working for a small women-led company in Argentina, Chile, Colombia or Uruguay manufacturing relevant products for online sell and from the following sectors: beauty and cosmetics, fashion, accessories, costume jewelry, crafts, toys, stationery or gourmet products, among others.

Interested people meeting the requirements can register here before October 10, 2022. The programme will start on October 24.

Quotes

“While many small businesses are embracing the digital transformation in Latin America, women entrepreneurs still face numerous obstacles while building and scaling their digital operations,” says Pamela Coke-Hamilton, Executive Director of the International Trade Centre. “Collaboration and training are key to increase the opportunities for women entrepreneurs, to improve their employment situation and to generate a positive impact in their communities”, she added.

“The aim of this initiative is to continue supporting the women entrepreneurs and businesswomen community working with the Santiago Chamber of Commerce. Taking a step towards digitization will allow them to grow and strengthen their businesses and to improve their income,” said María Teresa Vial, President of the Santiago Chamber of Commerce (Chile).

About ITC SheTrades – The SheTrades initiative aims to break down the barriers that women face when trying to access economic opportunities. SheTrades collaborates with governments, Trade Promotion Organizations and the private sector to develop women’s entrepreneurial skills and to develop a fairer and more sustainable global economy.

For more information, visit SheTrades.com: https://www.shetrades.com/

About ITC ecomConnect – The ITC ecomConnect program empowers micro, small and medium-sized businesses to sell online through its personalized learning programme, technical assistance, digital tools, innovative solutions and associations with public and private partners.

For more information, visit https://www.intracen.org/ecomConnect/ and https://ecomconnect.org/, the online community for e-commerce professionals.

About the ITC – The International Trade Centre is the joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations. ITC assists small and medium-sized enterprises in developing and transition economies to become more competitive in global markets, thereby contributing to sustainable economic development within the frameworks of the Aid-for-Trade agenda and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. For more information, visit www.intracen.org

Top Senegalese start-ups eye 37 deals after Viva AfricArena and VivaTech in Paris.

Positioning Senegal as an African digital powerhouse

Since 2016, VivaTech has made its mark as the European epicenter of innovation and digital technology. With more than 2,000 exhibitors from across the globe, the trade show offers unparalleled access to international customers, major investors and new markets.

Senegal has emerged as one of Africa’s five main tech hubs, making the event from 15 to 18 June a key opportunity. The country’s most promising startups went to Paris with support from the NTF V project, the French Embassy in Dakar, and the Senegalese government’s agency for entrepreneurship – known as the Délégation générale à l’Entreprenariat Rapide des Femmes et des Jeunes (DER/FJ).

In just a few days, these “Tech Lions” initiated more than 37 deals. According to DER/FJ’s Carine Vavasseur, these excellent results validate the attractiveness of Senegal’s tech ecosystem.

“Senegal is at the crossroads of French-speaking Africa, with mature start-ups that are ready to be exported. Our well-organized business environment facilitates collaborations,” said Vavasseur, the head of innovation and ecosystem coordination at DER/FJ.

“The creation of the Mohamed Bin Zayed hub for entrepreneurship and innovation is proof of this. Senegal is attracting more and more investors, but also companies from all over the continent which are interested in our innovation platform. Senegal is in a state of dynamic openness. And this is what we would like to demonstrate by participating in international events such as VivaTech.”

Feeding inspiration and growing the network

Since founding Logidoo two years ago, Tamsir Ousmane Traore has revolutionized logistics in West Africa. His award-winning platform has become the region’s go-to platform for transport.

By 2023, Logidoo plans to expand its franchise network to 13 African countries. Traore visited VivaTech amid his drive to raise 1.5 million euros to finance that growth.

His trip to Paris let him meet leading investors and take the pulse of global innovations.

“The day before VivaTech, the Viva AfricArena conference took place. We were able to visit Station F, one of the most prestigious start-up campuses in the world. To see what others are doing and where the world is heading is inspiring, and essential for staying in the race.”

In the following days, Logidoo had many meetings at the VivaTech booth.

“Many partners wanted to meet, and VivaTech gave us the space to do so. We also had the opportunity to identify prospects and attract new operators,” Logidoo said.

“Thanks to VivaTech, we recruited our franchisee for the Congolese market. Participating in such big events means being able to show off, interact with the community and grow your networks. This is what the NTF V project helps us do. If we want to meet our growth objectives and add new functionalities to our solutions in the future, such support is essential.”

About the project

The Netherlands Trust Fund V (NTF) (July 2021 – June 2025) is based on a partnership between the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the International Trade Centre. The programme supports small businesses in sub-Saharan Africa in the digital technology and agribusiness sectors. It aims at contributing to an inclusive and sustainable transformation of agri-food systems partly through digital solutions, improving the competitiveness of local tech start-ups internationally and supporting the implementation of IT&BPO companies’ export strategies.

The Commonwealth Secretariat has partnered with the Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (ITFC), a member of the Islamic Development Bank Group, and Cameroon’s Ministry of Trade to deliver the first of a series of digital boot camp training workshops to build the capacity of women-owned micro, small and medium sized enterprises (MSMEs) across the west central African country.

As part of an initiative of the recently signed Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Secretariat and ITFC, the digital boot camps are an integral element of a partnership to support the development of Cameroon’s e-commerce strategy to increase the participation of Cameroonian women entrepreneurs in global e-commerce trade.

The first of the intensive three-day training workshops was held in Douala in August and focussed on building the innovative skills of women-owned MSMEs operating in the sectors of agribusiness including agro-processing, wholesale and retail trade, education, health and social services, arts and crafts, events management, food, and beverage, hospitality, and tourism.

Harnessing the potential of e-commerce

E-commerce is widely recognised in Cameroon as an important tool for innovation, competitiveness, job creation and growth. It presents a huge potential for entrepreneurs and MSMEs to expand their market reach and make their goods and services available to overseas buyers. Similar to other African nations, Cameroon’s MSMEs contribute significantly to job creation and poverty reduction.

This contribution will be even greater when MSMEs’ capacity to develop innovative products capitalise on domestic and international market opportunities and participate in global supply chains via e-commerce. In addition, enhanced MSMEs’ capacities will enable competition at the continental level under the world’s largest free trade area, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

Since 2019, the Secretariat has supported the Government of Cameroon to facilitate the development of an e-commerce strategy after conducting an e-readiness assessment. A key deliverable under this project was to conduct capacity building programmes for enhancing women and MSME cross-border e-commerce knowledge.

A study conducted into the business readiness of Cameroonian entrepreneurs revealed the digital gap that existed with regards to access to digital infrastructure for men and women entrepreneurs, with women entrepreneurs found to be at a disadvantage in terms of access to digital infrastructure and participation in e-commerce platforms.

Building the capacity of women-owned MSMEs

The Head of Trade Competitiveness at the Commonwealth Secretariat, Opeyemi Abebe, said: “This new partnership (with the ITFC) provides an opportunity to scale up the project in Cameroon, reach more women and enhance the quality of the capacity building support to these entrepreneurs”.

Amadou Cire Sall, ITFC’s Regional Coordinator, Trade and Business Department, commented on the significance of the workshops, stating:

“It is exciting to see that ITFC’s partnership with the Commonwealth Secretariat is a partnership of action. The digital boot camp is aligned with meeting this goal (of the partnership) as the workshop is designed to build the capacity of women-owned MSMEs in the areas of digital trade and e-commerce.”

Representing the Honourable Luc Magloire Mbarga Atangana, Minister of Trade, Ndah Mirabel, Director of Internal Trade, additionally noted that e-commerce activity in Cameroon has grown steadily.

“It should be noted that the last decade has seen a remarkable evolution in the development of e-commerce in our country with the penetration of the internet increasing from 18 percent in 2016 to 34 percent in 2021, a growth that is having a clear positive impact on economic development prospects. The e-commerce and digital marketing workshops allow women-owned MSMEs to increase their profit margins through the introduction of an online sales method.”

It is this online sales method, and the steps required to achieve increased sales, which was the focus of the workshops. “I came here like a blind person and am going out with very bright eyes”, said Pauline Mbanga, founder and owner of a local natural juice company, and participant of the workshop. “I didn’t know what e-commerce was about and have learnt a lot. We need (this support) for women. Without women, there is no economy.”

Following the workshop in Douala from 9 to 11 August 2022, the project plans to host the next workshop in Yaounde in early 2023, with approximately 100 women-owned MSMEs expected to be beneficiaries of the partnership with ITFC.

Four young Gazans now have careers as WordPress freelancers after building their skills and qualifications to work online.

Despite having a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, Rasha Alaswad struggled for almost two years to land a job in the field. After finding work on one engineering project, the young Palestinian faced rejection after rejection – due partly to Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, partly because the local market already has multitudes of engineers and partly because there are simply few engineering opportunities. But the biggest obstacle was the fact that she is a woman.

‘The stereotypical image the community created of what jobs are decent for girls and what are not started to get the best of me,’ Rasha says.

But as the saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. And that’s just what Rasha did: she switched her career focus and applied to the International Trade Centre’s (ITC) Go Digital initiative, training to become a freelance specialist in WordPress. After completing the five-month programme, which involved technical, Freelancing and soft skills training as well as coaching, she joined up with three other trainees – Sahar Abu Ruwaida, Ali Shaat and Khalid Abu Abda – who selected the same track because WordPress is one of the most demanded skills in the technology market.

And now the work is pouring in.

‘As a group of friends, we supported each other to apply for more jobs,’ Rasha explains. ‘And guess what? Clients started to reply and assign us jobs. We completed the jobs and submitted them as a group of friends as well, supporting each other technically and morally. Later on, we considered the idea of [eventually] working as an agency.’

Sahar, Ali and Khalid also faced obstacles before joining Go Digital, which ITC administers in partnership with the Business and Technology Incubator (BTI) in the State of Palestine with funding from Japan. Sahar says she applied ‘in vain’ for jobs in a medical laboratory while Ali was unable to find work as an interior designer. Khalid faced disappointment trying to help his family and become a role model for his younger siblings ‘when Gaza is sinking in the dark’.

Go Digital changed that.

‘Long years of study were not enough to get us a decent job,’ says Rasha, 25. ‘Opportunities here in Gaza are like a miracle; it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. As is the case for most of my peers in Gaza, we all ended up sinking in darkness, fear, fury, frustration and depression. These terms identified us before landing on BTI and joining the Go Digital project.’

Raising expectations and hopes

The young trainees were seeking skills, job opportunities, a ‘great community and partners along the journey’, she says. ‘Luckily enough, we found them all. The Go Digital project, with its great organization, supporting environment and great choice of trainers, mentors and even trainees, has succeeded to raise our expectations and hopes.’

Since February, Khalid has worked on a whopping 20 jobs – including a full-time contract with a company in the United Arab Emirates – pocketing $6,800. Rasha has made $895 working on seven projects, while Ali has completed three jobs worth a combined $700. Sahar has worked on two contracts, earning $295.

But beyond the much-appreciated income, the four young Palestinians have also gained self-value and confidence in the future, Rasha says. ‘The language of figures is beautiful and maybe you can trace it by looking at the revenue report, but the effect of the Go Digital project is bigger than revenues. It reached not only individuals, but also a whole community.’

‘Life has finally accepted us after we got the chance to be trainees in this track,’ she says. ‘One is born when he makes a choice, and we chose to be born again in the GoDigital project.’

ITC supports Lebanese jewellery designers to target international clientele through e-commerce, finding alternative markets

Lebanon is one of the most important jewellery producers in the world. Following the COVID-19 crisis and the country’s economic crisis, many Lebanese companies, in particular small ones, have sought to diversify their sales channels by strengthening their e-commerce presence.

Today, the jewellery industry is adapting to the new reality of the post-COVID economic situation by strengthening their online presence internationally and developing new distribution and online sales channels.

Knowing your target market and its potential

When a brand wants to go internationally through e-commerce, it is essential for it to identify and analyse its target markets and their potential. This allows relevant e-commerce and marketing strategies that will lead to the business’ success.

Lina Rai is a jewellery brand founded in 2017 by Lina Rai, one of the project’s beneficiaries. Lina says that her main goal was to gain more knowledge in online marketing and social media, and to reach international marketplaces.

With the support of the International Trade Centre, Lina defined her internationalization strategy by analysing the most promising markets for exporting her products. Several ITC online tools such as its Export Potential Map and Trade Map were used for this purpose.

Lina was able to exhibit her products at Wolf & Badger, a well-known international marketplace in the fashion and jewellery sector.

“We learned that we need to be fully prepared before we approach an international platform”, explains the founder. “Thanks to the programme’s support and training materials, we learned how to use several online tools that helped us overcome these challenges and we got advice tailored to our business needs.”

The content is king

Mukhi Sisters is another example of how training in online marketing can lead to success – a family business founded in 2019 by three sisters from a jewellery family.

Among the main challenges the company faced, were defining the buyer personas and target customers in addition to developing a content and digital marketing strategy.

“It’s not like a traditional shop where operations don’t change much,” says Maya, one of the founding sisters. “I learned that the more I understood about how things work online, the more relevant results I could get (through SEO, data collection etc.). Most importantly, I learned that my brand is not just about me, it’s about my customers, which has led me to change our content and our perception of communication with them. I also feel more confident about our online shop in terms of structure and policies.”

About the project

Under its Women’s Enterprise Finance Initiative (We-Fi), the ecomConnect team at the International Trade Centre (ITC) implemented the E-commerce for Women-led Businesses project in Lebanon, which helps women entrepreneurs access domestic and export markets through e-commerce platforms.

The ITC-World Bank We-Fi project in Lebanon is part of a regional project that gives women-led small businesses access to markets through e-commerce platforms and improves their e-commerce related business environment and infrastructure. The project’s participants are now connected to local and international e-commerce platforms and receive practical advisory support.

Capacity Building Workshop Supported Women-owned MSMEs in Cameroon to Increase Digital Trade and e-Commerce/Online Sales.

The International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (ITFC) (www.ITFC-idb.org), a member of the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) Group, in collaboration with the Ministry of Trade of the Republic of Cameroon and the Commonwealth Secretariat, organized a digital boot camp to build the capacity of women-owned MSMEs in the areas of digital trade and e-commerce/online sales.

The overarching goal of the project is mainly to increase the participation of Cameroonian women entrepreneurs in the global e-commerce trade

Capacity-building workshops form an integral element of the partnership between ITFC and the Commonwealth Secretariat. The workshop focused on building the innovative skills of women-owned MSMEs operating in the sectors of agribusiness including agro-processing, wholesale and retail trade, education, health and social services, arts and crafts, events management, food, and beverage, hospitality, and tourism.

Similar to other African nations, Cameroon’s MSMEs contribute significantly to job creation and poverty reduction. This contribution will be even greater when MSMEs’ capacity to develop innovative products capitalise on domestic and international market opportunities and participate in global supply chains via e-commerce. In addition, enhanced MSMEs’ capacities will enable them to compete at the continental level under the AfCFTA as well.

Mr. Amadou Cire Sall, ITFC Regional Coordinator, Trade and Business Department, commented on the significance of the workshop, stating: “It is exciting to see that ITFC’s partnership with the Commonwealth Secretariat is a partnership of action. The overarching goal of the project is mainly to increase the participation of Cameroonian women entrepreneurs in the global e-commerce trade. The digital boot camp is aligned with meeting this goal as the workshop is designed to build the capacity of women-owned MSMEs in the areas of digital trade and e-commerce.”

Mrs. Ndah Mirabel, Director of Internal Trade, speaking on behalf of Mr. Luc Magloire Mbarga Atangana, Minister of Trade of the Republic of Cameroon, noted that E-commerce activity in Cameroon has grown steadily as a result of significant improvements in services and the telecommunications industry: “It should be noted that the last decade has seen a remarkable evolution in the development of e-commerce in our country with the penetration of the internet increasing from 18% in 2016 to 34% in 2021, a growth that is having a clear positive impact on economic development prospects. The e-commerce and digital marketing workshop allow women-owned MSMEs to increase their profit margins through the introduction of an online sales method.”

Cybersecurity poses a great threat to development. Cyberattacks have shut down infrastructure, extorted governments and businesses, drained people’s bank accounts, and more.   Countries around the world are making great strides to strengthen their defenses against these attacks, but one hurdle continues to stymie efforts. In 2021, there was a shortage of 3.5 million cybersecurity professionals. How can we address the scarcity of talent in this industry? One solution is right in front of us—tapping into the talent of female professionals, who thus far have been underrepresented and underutilized in the sector.

Gender disparity 

There is a strong business case for striving towards more diverse representation. Studies show companies that embrace gender diversity on executive teams are 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability. In the tech space, women leaders have proven to be more capital-efficient and, on average, achieve 35 percent higher returns on investment. This indicates that the cybersecurity sector has much to gain from increasing the number of women professionals.

However, there is marked gender disparity when it comes to jobs in cybersecurity. According to a report by (ISC)², a cybersecurity professional organization, women in this field currently account for only about one quarter (24 percent) of the overall workforce. The Middle East and Africa have the lowest representation, with women contributing to 5 percent and 9 percent of the cybersecurity workforce respectively. The gap is further widened by the difference rates of digital literacy between men and women. With the global cybersecurity sector expanding, there is ample opportunity to meet the rising demand for talent while reaping the benefits of a more representative business.  

Attracting and retaining more women to the field

Given the flexible routes through which its skill sets might be acquired, cybersecurity as a sector is uniquely positioned to bring dedicated and qualified talent on board with lower barriers for entry.  For instance, Apple, IBM, Google, Tesla, and other companies have eliminated the four-year bachelor’s degree as an application requirement for many jobs. Certification programs represent a faster and more accessible entry point into the cybersecurity workforce. According to an article in Computerworld, 76 percent of HR leaders say certifications are a factor in IT hiring, and at least 47 percent expect certifications to become even more important as a candidate evaluation tool.

The different stages of women’s professional lives must be considered to ensure access to job opportunities.  Many accomplished women who leave tech careers or make a career change will likely face obstacles when returning to work. They will likely encounter biases over gaps in their resumes, especially as technology evolves. In response, a growing number of companies are actively pursuing this pool of diverse talent by offering 12–16 week “returnship” programs, where professionals brush up on their skills after spending time away from the workforce.
A strong mentorship network is essential to retain females in an industry that has traditionally been unwelcoming. Only 25 percent of women in tech companies expressed confidence in being promoted to executive management, with many noting a lack of support and mentorship. Of those who stayed in tech careers, 75 percent pointed to the positive impact of role models in their companies despite such difficulties.

There are also encouraging signs that various stakeholders have begun targeted and sustained initiatives to ensure that cybersecurity and tech become more diverse. Both public and private entities are organizing coding camps, hackathons, skill training sessions, female mentorship programs, and campaigns to get young students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math. Public-private partnerships have the potential to break crucial ground.

Amidst these changes, one proposition is becoming increasingly evident: for the tech sector to become more robust and continue to deliver relevant solutions to pressing cybersecurity issues, it must become as diverse as the society in which it operates.  

 

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, watch the replay of an event organized by the World Bank’s Digital Development team: Women and Cybersecurity: Creating A More Inclusive Cyberspace.

The ITU Americas Regional Office visited a digital community centre in rural Argentina to learn more about the role of digital skills, technology, and connectivity in indigenous communities, and the ITU project on the promotion of digital skills training to benefit youth capacity development and economic integration.

After 50 kilometres of dirt road, a sign reads Los Caminos de las Artesanías: “The Paths of the Crafts.”

The turnoff lies in Argentina’s north-eastern Formosa Province, an hour’s drive from the closest town. An adjacent national park is called “The Impenetrable.”

The noon sun bakes the white sandy pathway to Vaca Perdida (“Lost Cow”), a remote village in the heart of the Gran Chaco region.

The Onanagaelpi women’s community centre has operated here since 2005, managed by the women artisans from the indigenous Qomle’ec community.

Initially organized to produce handicrafts using sheep’s wool, the group turned to digital technologies in 2015 as a way to improve and commercialize these distinctive local products.

Women at the entrance of the Onanagaelpi women’s community centre, operated by the indigenous Qomle’ec community in Argentina. Image credit: ITU Regional Office of the Americas
Women at the entrance of the Onanagaelpi women’s community centre, operated by the indigenous Qomle’ec community in Argentina. Image credit: ITU Regional Office of the Americas
Tech in indigenous communities

At the entrance to a house of red brick and concrete, two women stand at the door to welcome visitors. Inside, the tables are draped in handwoven textiles with eye-catching patterns and designs. Atop the vibrant fabrics lie a laptop computer, a tablet, chargers, and an extension cord.

Several of the women in the room hold mobile phones, each connected to the community centre’s Wi-Fi network.

These indigenous women leaders explain how digital connectivity has helped them sell their handicrafts, especially during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing more resources to their homes and community.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have helped the community stay informed and ensured ongoing access to education. Women with digital skills helped young people from their communities create e-mail addresses.

Opportunities for the future

The future of these youth remains a pressing concern for the community. Few families have the means to send their young people to study at big city universities.

Vaca Perdida’s indigenous leaders quickly recognised how digital technologies could enable young people to study from their villages, minimizing displacement challenges. They expressed hopes that with the capacity to meaningfully engage with digital technologies, the youth from these remote communities could eventually become doctors, lawyers, and other kinds of professionals who serve the community.

Enabling development through ICTs

The experience of Vaca Perdida highlights how ICTs can reach and benefit people even in the most impenetrable territories. It also underlines the crucial need for the digital knowledge – including the skills to use technology in a meaningful way – as indigenous peoples strive to achieve key development goals.

As the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is committed to empowering indigenous peoples through ICT skills, access, and knowledge.

ITU has focused on supporting indigenous peoples’ personal development, as well as self-sustainability and socio-economic growth in their communities.

For example, the Youth Digital Inclusion project led by ITU, in partnership with the local Gran Chaco Foundation, aims to promote capacity development and economic integration by training youth from communities like Vaca Perdida. The goal is to promote ICT capacity development activities to benefit youth from local communities in line with the needs of the ICT labour market and ecosystem.

Additionally, the project aims to support countries in the development of national strategies to develop young people’s digital skills and build an enabling environment for innovation and entrepreneurship.

The project will also develop recommendations for the creation of innovation centers and educational projects that contribute to the ICT labour market and ecosystem as well as young entrepreneurship.

The Youth Digital Inclusion project will be piloted in Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay starting in September 2022.

Learn more about the digital inclusion of indigenous peoples.

  • Women in the least developed countries are half as likely to be online as men, curtailing their chance to learn online and improve their lives.
  • The digital divide hurts women and costs the world billions of dollars in GDP every year.
  • A concerted effort by the public and private sectors can see this trend reversed, allowing women worldwide to live up to their potential.

The digital divide hurts women the most. Women disproportionately find themselves unable to access modern

But when women are provided equal access to digital services, amazing things can happen.

Take Confidence, a young data analyst from Nigeria. Struggling to find work as the country grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, she turned to online learning platform Coursera. Confidence soon completed a Genomic Data Science Specialization with Johns Hopkins University and a professional certification in Google Data Analytics.

Her investment paid off. Confidence’s new skills helped her land a job, ending a two-year stretch of unemployment.

Stories like Confidence’s demonstrate the transformative power of online education, which grew exponentially during the pandemic.

Online education in developing countries

Nowhere is the potential higher than in developing countries. Young populations, fewer existing educational opportunities and increasing connectivity have set the stage for explosive growth in these parts of the world. In fact, IFC estimates that the market for adult online learning in emerging markets alone will more than double within the next five years.

This potential growth comes with significant benefits for both individuals and developing economies. A recent study by IFC, developed in partnership with Coursera and the European Commission, found nearly half of online learners in Egypt, India, Mexico and Nigeria who took to digital education to start or grow their business succeeded in their efforts. Nearly 40 percent reported improved career opportunities or income increases.

But fully realizing these benefits isn’t a given — stories like Confidence’s are, unfortunately, not the norm.

The online learning paradox

There’s a paradox at the heart of online learning: the people who are most likely to benefit from it are also the least likely to have access to it. This is especially true for women, who are being disproportionately affected by the digital divide.

Globally, women are 21 percent less likely to be online compared to men; in the least developed countries, they’re half as likely. This digital exclusion does more than prevent women from accessing online education. It prevents them from fully participating in the digital economy — and it is costing the world billions of dollars in GDP each year.

How should we go about solving this online learning paradox? Closing the digital inclusion gap will require a multi-pronged approach and close alignment between the public and private sectors.


There are stark differences in internet access across regions, with Africa lagging far behind Europe. That has consequences for education. Image: UN

Bridging the digital divide

First, we need to broadly invest in digital infrastructure that increases connectivity and ensures everyone — including women — can fully access the digital economy. Last year, IFC exceeded $1 billion in commitments to the telecom sector for the first time, with three-quarters of those investments going to Africa. Targeted funding pools like this and blended finance can catalyze the deployment of private capital at every level of the digital ecosystem, from broadband and datacenters to independent tower and mobile network operators.

But infrastructure alone isn’t enough to bridge the digital divide. We must also ensure digital products are relevant and affordable for women. Service and device costs remain one of the primary barriers standing between women and access to digital technologies.

Affordability can also influence if and how women use digital services. IFC research found that free or audited courses are the single biggest entry point to online learning, with more than 50 percent of female students in Egypt, India, Mexico and Nigeria relying on free trials. We need to support digital literacy, adoption and usage by embracing innovative financing solutions that connect women with technology and educational services at low to no cost.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the urgency of this task cannot be understated. A World Bank Group study found that women were 11 percentage points more likely to have lost a job during the pandemic, while female-owned businesses were 7 percentage points more likely to have closed than those owned by men. Online education has the potential to help these women gain new skills, open new businesses and re-enter the labor market — but only if they can access it.

Success stories like Confidence’s are not the norm right now, but they could be. By working together to remove the barriers keeping women from accessing online education and all the opportunities that come with the digital economy, we can all win.