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The AfDB’s response to ‘African Women as an Untapped Market for Investments’


Too often the narrative on women in Africa is characterized by oppression and marginalization in a system that tends to work against them. While the case is not untrue, it is important to acknowledge women who are changing this narrative and inverting a whole paradigm. The number of female entrepreneurs entering the business space has been growing rapidly over the past decade. From a steel manufacturing company in South Africa, through intricate clothing designers in Nigeria, to the vast array of cross-border traders in West and East Africa and much more. According to the World Bank, the rate of female entrepreneurship is higher in Africa than in any other region in the world.[i] Reports by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) state that Africa leads the world in the number of women starting businesses with equal participation between men and women in most countries whereas in countries like Ghana, Zambia and Nigeria women outnumber men.[ii]

While this new wave of growth is happening throughout the continent, there still remains a significant number of women who are yet to realize their potential. The ability to reach this untapped business potential of half of the continent’s population will support a more inclusive and sustainable growth. Women’s access to financing is considered to be the most crucial instrument in advancing their economic capacity. The African Development Bank (AfDB) aims to leverage this untapped potential through affirmative finance. Affirmative finance acknowledges gender disparities in regulatory and institutional environments that make up the entrepreneurial ecosystem and aims to address and transform all elements of this ecosystem.

Similarities and disparities within the continent

It is widely recognized that women in business are not homogenous since they have different backgrounds, skills, literacy levels, age, firm size, and therefore different needs. Each country presents a unique economic structure, where women may be more or less represented in the market segments. A study was commissioned by the AfDB[iii] to achieve its goal to promote women in business across Africa. The study conducted deep-dive analysis in six countries covering all regions of the continent and highlighted various challenges experienced by female entrepreneurs in Kenya, Cameroon, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria and Zambia, which represent a good diversity of users and as potential users of financial services. For instance, according to Global Findex 2014 data, out of the 66% of Kenyan women who have taken a loan in the previous year, 13% borrowed from a financial institution and less than 6% from an informal lender. Whereas only 2% of Cameroonian women (of the 50% that have taken a loan) borrowed from a financial institution and close to 9% accessed financing through an informal lender.

However, these countries similarly exhibit a low participation of women in the private sector (formal enterprises); according to ILO data, the Study reports an average of 86% of women-owned enterprises operating in the informal sector. Getting reliable information on informal activities, in addition to quasi-inexistent reporting on gender-disaggregated data by financial institutions, makes it difficult to target women as an untapped market segment.

The nature of limiting factors to women’s economic inclusion varies and in some cases, non-financial barriers are more critical obstacles than financial barriers. In Kenya for instance, the collateral requirement coupled with high interest rates was seen as the biggest issue that hampers women’s access to finance. In Cameroon on the other hand, it was not only the lack of financing of female SMEs by formal financial institutions but especially the scarcity of training and capacity building programs to sustain these SMEs. Mali faces weaknesses in the legal and judiciary system to support effective inclusive access to finance and in Morocco, women entrepreneurship’s level remains low mostly due to cultural barriers. In Nigeria, societal norms magnified by religious and cultural beliefs limit female labor force participation and land ownership. In Zambia, there was a lack of supply of financial products that cater to women in business. Policymakers and national governments have embraced an agenda for greater financial inclusion of female entrepreneurs, however the existing gender finance programs are few and where prevalent are of limited scale.

Goals of the AFAWA Program

The Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa (AFAWA) Program will empower women in business with capacity development, training, mentoring, information and knowledge sharing. This approach is particularly important for women-led enterprises, many of which can be classified as micro or small enterprises, which may have equal access to finance to help grow their business in theory but lack the supporting tools to effectively access it. AFAWA has taken a holistic approach that is translated into four components: (1) a financing window that will direct financial resources firstly to financial institutions that have the potential to increase their portfolio of women’s business clientele and secondly to women-led or owned enterprises within private or public financing operations; (2) technical assistance support to women in business financing ecosystem, ranging from eligible financial institutions to macro lending institutions and to women entrepreneurs’ networks, paying particular attention to the contextual dimensions and different stages of the business life cycle; (3) the enabling environment aims to protect the interest of women MSMEs in the review of policies, regulations, compliance systems, labor and land laws, and formalities, in order to provide a conducive business environment for MSMEs to grow and conduct business; (4) the creation of a ‘single point’ knowledge hub, where women entrepreneurs throughout the continent, who are looking to start, grow or scale their businesses, will have access to a wide range of information on financial and non‑financial services, on local and international markets, and space to share experiences and benefit from online training module and mentoring channels.

How to get involved

AFAWA will support the development of strong women-led businesses and formal women’s cooperatives operating along value chains; it will engage to secure government commitments and policy, legal and regulatory reforms; it will support the growth of women’s businesses, with a commensurate increase in income and job creation; it will provide advice on the development of financial products and related services for women in business that are affordable, accessible and available; it will facilitate increasing access to capital, access to information and building capacity for women in business; and it will advocate the business case for financing women in business and building the necessary capacity within financial institutions.

AFAWA is looking for financial institutions, enterprises, women entrepreneurs, and regulators, with whom to bring AFAWA’s goal into concrete actions. The AFAWA Team would be pleased to further engage your organization on such business opportunities.

- Share your thoughts and get access to latest trends on women empowerment through the AfDB Gender in Practice Community (

- Showcase your enterprise and products through the online marketplace platform “Fashionomics” ( and join a continental network of fashion designers, retailers, buyers and investors in creative industries.

[i] World Bank Op-Ed: Obiageli Ezekwesili, Women are an Untapped Opportunity in Africa’s Rise to Prosperity, March 8, 2011, (last accessed on March 30, 2017)

[ii] African Start-Up: Teo Kermeliotis and Milena Veselinovic, for CNN, The numbers that show Africa is buzzing with entrepreneurial spirit, June 10, 2014, (last accessed on March 30, 2017)

[iii] The AfDB commissioned a Market Scoping Study (A2F, May 2016) to inform on the design of its affirmative response that led to the AFAWA Program


Dubem Jideonwo is currently completing a Master of Public Administration in Development Practice at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) in New York. Her passion lies in expanding economic opportunities for underserved groups within the African continent.

Anne Valko Celestino is a Senior Gender Expert at the Gender, Women and Civil Society Department of the AfDB, leading women-in-business initiatives and the AFAWA Program.

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