18th Sept 2018

Women: the driving force for economic and social growth in Africa

As Charles Malik, Lebanese diplomat and philosopher said: “The fastest way to change society is to mobilize the women of the world”. So what barriers are holding them back, and how can this be changed?

When Phyllis Keino, who runs the Lewa Children's Home in Kenya was asked about the challenges she had faced, she described in a nutshell the barriers women in Africa face: “When I started there was no support; it was difficult to get finance, and I couldn’t own land, or do business”. As women make up over 50% of Africa’s population, there is a danger of huge untapped potential going to waste and Africa failing to take its proper place in the world.

While circumstances have improved since Phyllis set up the Lewa orphanage in 1978, women still face problems when they want to run an organisation or business, get a proper education, borrow money or own land.

Women – an unrecognised force

The first obstacle Phyllis referred to was the difficulty of getting support. This was possibly because, as a woman, her contribution was not recognised.

Women in Africa make a considerable contribution to economic activities, but this is often unnoticed, as most of them work in the informal sector. In the seven largest economies in Africa, women make up 70% of the informal sector workforce, and just 32.7% of the formal labour force.

Woman with cow, Ethiopia, Afar region

Much of their work is in the agricultural sector, where women play the leading role. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) women in Africa are responsible for 50% of animal rearing and 70% of crop production and in sub-Saharan Africa 80% to 90% of crop cultivation.

Education – women’s multiplier effect

In terms of education, girls are missing out. In Kenya, in upper secondary school there are just 37 girls for every 100 boys. As well as being unfair, the country is losing what the UN refers to the ‘multiplier effect’, where educated women have a positive effect on a country’s productivity, efficiency and sustained economic growth. At university level in Africa as a whole, 28% of female graduates, compared to 17% male graduates leave to seek employment abroad, where opportunities for women are better.

This is a great loss to Africa, which is losing its growth creators and role models for younger women, and means there are few women in decision-making positions, pushing for change.

Girls at the Logos Academy high school in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Finance – women a more reliable economic force

The second obstacle Phyllis referred to was lack of access to finance. Financial institutions see women as riskier, high-cost and lower-return clients, despite evidence to the contrary. The World Bank has found that small- and medium-sized enterprises, the majority of which are owned by women, performed well, and that loan repayment “is higher among female borrowers, mostly due to more conservative investments and lower moral hazard risk” [i].

Woman learns to sew on sewing machine at a TVET training in Ethiopia

Like education, giving women access to finance also has a multiplier effect on the family. Madelaine Albright has pointed out that women reinvest 90% of their income in their families and communities, compared to men who reinvest only 30% to 40%. Plan International said in its Because I am a Girl campaign[ii] “Female borrowing from micro credit institutions has had a larger impact on children’s enrolment in school than borrowing by males”.

One can see this in action in the projects supported by Bread and Water for Africa UK to provide women with literacy and job skills: their main objective is to provide an education for their children. 

Women’s lack of access to land

Former-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has affirmed that women are the linchpin of food security in Africa: “Food security could not be achieved without women. Girls and women are society’s best chance to overcome hunger”[iii]. Figures quoted above show that women are the agricultural entrepreneurs, so it is a travesty that in most sub-Saharan Africa they do not own the land they farm.

In Kenya’s 2010 Constitution women have the right to own and inherit land, and Phyllis has mentioned that this has made it easier for her; however, for many women, who may not be aware of their rights, old attitudes remain, and it is reported that only 3% of Kenyan women own land. In Zimbabwe, another country where Bread and Water for Africa UK operates, 20% of women own land, but traditional attitudes and lack of access to finance prevent their profiting from it.

Female farmers work the land in a farm in Sierra Leone


It is clear that women have specific skills: they can be more innovative, visionary, and flexible than men, yet dogged in the face of difficulty. Changes are needed to give them space to show this. So while things have improved what measures are needed to help women get ahead and follow the example of our “three heroines”?

  • Push to reach SDG Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education;
  • Relax regulations that hinder women’s economic participation, including removing barriers to access loans;
  • Introduce land reforms to enable women to own land;
  • Introduce quotas so more women are in positions to introduce gender-sensitive policies.

Students learn to weld at TVET center in Ethiopia

[i] Quoted in “Women and Repayment in Microfinance” – working paper CGAP, 2009.
[ii] https://plan-international.org/because-i-am-a-girl
[iii] Quoted in The future of Food is Female, Busani Bafana. http://www.ipsnews.net/2012/10/the-face-of-food-security-is-female/

Daphne Davies is a Volunteer at Bread and Water for Africa UK.

Contact | Profile