Women are the key to unlocking Africa’s economic growth, says new report

A new report from Ernst & Young, published this week, brings together a wide range of data and adds new insight into the potential of women in Africa to boost economic growth, increase levels of education and improve standards of governance in public life.

In 2009, Africa’s collective GDP was $1,5oobn, according to the World Bank - almost as much as Brazil’s ($1,600bn). There are 52 cities across the continent with more than a million inhabitants, and 316 new mobile subscriptions were signed up between 2000 and 2009.

Seshni Samuel, E&Y’s Africa People Leader, says:

“The fact is that Africa needs to harness the power of one of its strongest assets, its growing population, especially women, to drive full economic growth and social development.”

By 2020, estimates suggest the number of Africans of working age will exceed that of China and India.

This echoes a report by Goldman Sachs – Womenomics 3.0. The Time is Now – that argues gender equality “fuels growth by bringing women into the labour force and by raising the overall levels of human capital, productivity and wages”.

It argues that Japan could lift itself out of recession simply by harnessing the eight million female graduates currently excluded from the job market due to family commitments.

In Africa’s seven largest economies, only 32.7 per cent of women participate in the workforce, says the report. In spite of this, women make up an estimated 70 per cent of the “informal” economy in areas such as crop production, animal husbandry and food processing: invisible roles.

According to the latest World Bank Enterprise Survey, in both the public and private sectors, only one in 26 salaried African women is employed in a senior management position, compared with one in every six men, and on top of this the gender pay gap is high, although quantifying it is a challenge. Samuel says:

“While there is a lot of information about the gender pay gap in developed countries, there is very little research that’s been done in Africa.”

Against this background, it is not surprising to read that almost a third (28 per cent) of Africa’s female graduates leave the continent to pursue careers elsewhere. This contrasts with just 17 per cent of male graduates. Removing some of the barriers to women’s participation in economic and public life can help stem this loss of talent, says the report.

One of the great challenges impeding Africa’s growth has been a low standard of governance and transparency. Here too women have a part to play. The Ibrahim Index of African Governance 2010 country rankings shows a positive correlation between higher gender equality and higher accountability and low corruption.

The E&Y researchers support this. They say:

“We find a strong, negative and statistically significant relationship between the proportion of women in a country’s legislature and the level of corruption.”

The last word goes to Samuel:

“One of the challenges in writing this report was the lack of data available: so little research has been done on the role of women in Africa. But with this renaissance taking place – the Arab Spring – there is an opportunity for Africa that’s never been there before.”

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