The UNCTAD-led eTrade for Women initiative is creating regional networks to help women digital entrepreneurs access the resources needed to succeed and contribute to sustainable development.
Participants at the eTrade for Women masterclass in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, held from 26 to 28 February 2020.
By connecting women digital entrepreneurs, UNCTAD is building communities where they can find the support and resources they need to capitalize on e-commerce opportunities.
More than 100 entrepreneurs in over 20 developing countries around the globe have joined eTrade for Women communities, which since November 2020 have been launched in southeast Asia and east and west Africa.
“Being an entrepreneur is a very lonely adventure, especially for women, who often lack a network to lean on or learn from,” says Sonia Nnadozie, who leads the eTrade for Women community-building activities.
“The multitasking whirlpool they often face as they try to grow their business while taking care of the family creates very specific challenges.”
250 million fewer women online
Other hurdles, such as less access to the internet and finance, make it more challenging for women entrepreneurs to seize the opportunities offered by the digital economy.
Globally, 250 million fewer women than men are online. And women-owned startups receive 23% less funding than men-owned businesses, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
“Traditional banks and investors are often reluctant to invest in digital startups,” says Shamika N. Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s director of technology and logistics. “And women digital entrepreneurs face even more skepticism.”
"Many of our members have said they had to bring a male relative to their meetings to help ease potential investors’ ‘concerns’ about women-run businesses,” she added.
The communities serve as the regional chapters of the global eTrade for Women initiative, which boosts visibility for women leaders in the digital world.
It also helps women digital entrepreneurs build the capacities they need to succeed and offers opportunities for inclusive policy dialogue on issues related to e-commerce and the digital economy.
Since 2019, the initiative has trained 88 women entrepreneurs in 21 countries through masterclasses led by the initiative’s advocates – a cohort of highly successful women digital entrepreneurs from developing and transition economies.
While the classes equip women entrepreneurs with the tools they need to thrive, success in the digital economy requires much more than the right knowledge and skills.
“There’s a need to go beyond training,” says Ms. Nnadozie. “Women are held back by much more than a lack of skills.”
The hurdles include the lack of financial resources, marketing skills, poorer access to business networks and role models.
It takes a community
In November 2020, the organization launched the first community, bringing together graduates of the masterclasses from the west African nations of Benin, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Chad.
This was followed by the creation of a community in southeast Asia (Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines) in January 2021 and east Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania) in March 2021.
A fourth community for the Balkans will be launched in July 2021.
Beatrice Armelle Koffi, who runs Ora Technologies et Multimedia in Côte d’Ivoire, says the communities are “a space where we can interact as women entrepreneurs and support each other in good times and especially in difficult times.”
“For me,” she says, “the community is an opportunity to belong to a group of like-minded entrepreneurs, a space where we can share our experiences, develop our skills and inspire and motivate each other.”
COVID-19 made the digital transformation even more critical
Global e-commerce sales, which were already worth $26.7 trillion in 2019, have surged during the pandemic, according to an UNCTAD report.
Bunkered down at home, global consumers have shopped more than ever online, raising e-commerce’s share of global retail trade among major economies from 16% in 2019 to 19% in 2020.
Inspiring and supporting women entrepreneurs striving to succeed in the digital space has thus become even more critical since the outbreak.
“Aspiring women entrepreneurs increasingly have no choice but to embrace the digital age,” says Patricia Zoundi, the eTrade for Women advocate for French-speaking African countries.
“Part of my role is to show them it’s possible – that they can succeed as a woman digital entrepreneur in a developing country, that they can succeed against all odds.”
Ms. Zoundi, who has founded several successful companies, including Quickcash and Canaan Land adds that empowering women through digital entrepreneurship is a way to help them gain autonomy and contribute to the creation of an environment that gives equal opportunities to all.
Four main objectives
The eTrade for Women communities have four main objectives:
- Build: After a masterclass, to create and nurture communities of women digital entrepreneurs all around the developing world with the potential to become digital leaders of tomorrow.
- Empower: To help entrepreneurs to grow by providing access to resources and support to develop their businesses and inspire future generations of entrepreneurs.
- Connect: To enable members to expand their network by interacting with like-minded women digital entrepreneurs, sharing experiences and best practices that will help them overcome the barriers they face daily.
- Impact: To reduce gender inequality by bringing female digital entrepreneurs to the decision-making table, leveraging their presence in policymaking processes to shape a more sustainable and inclusive future.
To achieve these objectives, the communities create a safe space where women digital entrepreneurs can:
- Promote their businesses, network and share their best practices.
- Benefit from trainings and skill-building activities provided by UNCTAD and its partners, and engage in dialogues with policymakers about how to create more inclusive ecosystems.
UNCTAD launched the eTrade for Women initiative in 2019. It’s funded by the Netherlands and Sweden and implemented in collaboration with the eTrade for all partners.