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Africa’s rich and abundant natural resources have positioned the continent with significant potential for growth and development. However, having long been consigned as simply an extraction point for these raw materials, rather than as a value-add producer and manufacturer, Africa has not as yet been able to realise its full potential. 

Today, the continent faces new challenges on top of its many existing challenges, such as unemployment and inequality, in the form of rising geopolitical risks, a looming recession, and the need to become more sustainable and ensure food, water and energy security. It is vital that Africa take advantage of, and leverage, its most overlooked and valuable resource: its people. 

By mobilising the continent’s rapidly growing, and very young, population into the entrepreneurship ecosystem, we would be not only able to increase economic participation but also drive economic development and innovation.

However, on this International Women’s Day it is important to note that to truly tap into the underutilised potential of the continent, African businesses need to take a far more serious view of the meaningful inclusion of women in the business environment. This means we need to bring the more than 50% of the continent’s population that has historically been excluded from full participation in the economy into the entrepreneurship ecosystem, and into senior and leadership roles within organisations.

Diversity in the workplace has long been advocated as a means of ensuring equity and equality. But it also has the capability to enable better business performance and organisational health while contributing to the wider goal of reviving and uplifting Africa’s economies.

Although Africa currently has the highest percentage of women entrepreneurs in the world, with 25.9% of women in the process of starting or managing a business in Sub-Saharan Africa, and women’s participation in the labour force has increased since 2010, women account for only a small portion of Africa’s GDP (only about a third in 2018). That’s why businesses in Africa must look at gender equality in a new light — not as an obligation but rather as a way to drive innovation that will create new revenue streams, enable increased efficiencies, and build the competitive advantage needed to weather any future disruptions.

Facilitating resilience in a volatile environment

The need for resilience has truly been amplified in recent years, following the 2008 financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. That’s why, to face the challenging economic headwinds ahead businesses across Africa need to be able to stand the test of time, bounce back from unexpected disruptions, and do so while adapting to a new environment as quickly as possible. 

By ensuring a more diverse and inclusive workforce through increased gender equality, businesses will be able to take up space in the marketplace in a more responsible way. Because each individual thinks or perceives things differently — influenced by things such as their gender, culture and background experience — we could see new products and solutions emerge because there are things that women want and need that are currently not being catered for. 

Additionally, research from benchmark reporter GRESB showcases that diverse boards and leadership teams are less likely to take uncalculated financial risks, thus significantly reducing return volatility.

Enabling innovation and growth

As organisations, industries and economies across Africa try to facilitate recovery from the economic effect of disruption from these last few years under financial limitations, ensuring gender equality could continue to slip down their list of priorities as new challenges arise. However, businesses and leaders on the continent need to begin to realise that the increased participation of women in entrepreneurship and economies will play a vital role in helping to ensure they remain steadfast in the future.

Enabling gender equality will not only unlock much-needed resilience for businesses in Africa, but also introduce new voices that will foster radical innovation and drive market growth.

If women are encouraged to develop their potential in the economic sphere, not only will they benefit through the facilitation of their own economic freedom but also, as they are often caretakers, their families will benefit through the likely gains of education, better nutrition and more significant opportunities in life. In addition, this would mean that women are also more likely to become employers, thus removing barriers to the number of jobs that could be created on the continent.

• Douglas is ESG officer at Spear Capital.

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