Connecting African women with IT is good for growth

afdbGetting women in Africa access to information technology (IT) like smart phones is not just about closing the usage gender gap, experts say it is also a major driver of economic growth across the continent. That was the main theme Thursday at a panel discussion on women and IT during the 50th Annual Meetings of the African Development Bank Group (AfDB) in Abidjan.

There is serious cash to be made around the world, said Shireen Shantosham of Groupe Speciale Mobile Association’s Connect Women Program. “170 billion over five years,” she said, and “Sub-Saharan African represents 30 billion of that.”

Shantosham, along with representatives from Google, Intel, OXFAM and Côte d’Ivoire’s Minister of Post and Information Communications Technology, Kone Bruno, all said their organizations are working towards inclusion, but agree there are some major barriers to access for women. Shantosham said her organization did one of the few surveys on the issue. She said cost, network quality, personal security, technical literacy and confidence are the main areas that hold women back.

“Women are getting harassed by strangers on the phone.” Shantosham said. It happens when men randomly dial a number, find a woman and repeatedly call her. “That can lead to suspicion in the house” and even restricted or revoked access by a male family members, she said.

Côte d’Ivoire is ahead of the game when it comes to breaking down some of those barriers. Bruno said there are 22 million mobile subscribers in the country and that the ratio of men to women is roughly 50:50, which is a major achievement compared with other nations on the continent. He added that the government has a five-point plan to ensure technology reaches the masses and it involves regulation, connectivity and access to equipment, content and training. In addition, Bruno said his country has formulated cyber protection laws, and is the process of launching access programs and getting rural areas online. He said there are also cyber centres in 3,000 rural communities.

“All governments should follow Côte d’Ivoire,” said Assiatou Sow of Intel. She said internet access has had a tremendous impact on lifting countries out of poverty. For Intel’s part, the company has a program called “Intel Women Connect” that focuses bringing more connectivity to women and girls.

Content is another area for growth, Amy O’Donnell of OXFAM said. “Ninety percent of content is generated outside the continent” of Africa. Helping to create content that will bring African women into the fold is a huge part of bringing them online, she said.

That is also an avenue for a new employment sector, Deme Tidjan of Aid Google Africa said. “We need to create businesses and seize the financial opportunities.” But he also added that the best way to find out what is needed is to continue to generate the research that will lead to solutions and he encouraged organizations including the AfDB to fund it.