7 ways to support the next wave of women-led innovation in Ethiopia

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While it’s International Women’s Day tomorrow, many of us at infoDev are trying every day to make women, specifically women innovators, central to our strategy of supporting high-growth entrepreneurs in developing countries. But this is easier said than done as women are notoriously under-represented in tech-related industries and even more so in the area that I work in – clean technology – which is largely manufacturing and therefore male, dominated.

I recently attended one of the largest renewable energy forums in the Caribbean attracting investors, experts and entrepreneurs from around the region. As I looked around the room, I spotted only a handful of women. And this is not an isolated case. I see this scenario play out whenever I meet climate and clean energy entrepreneurs at events like this around the world. It’s no secret that increasing women’s role in the private sector can provide huge upside benefits to GDP and many other co-benefits (for example if the United States increased women’s participation in the workforce by 8% it could boost GDP up to 4%). However designing programs to empower women to be more proactively involved as business leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators is no easy task. It was around International Women’s Day last year that infoDev decided to tackle this gender gap head-on in the design of the Ethiopian Climate Innovation Center (CIC), which is preparing for launch by this summer.

While women in Ethiopia operate 65% of micro-enterprises, their participation in manufacturing is only 26% and land ownership is even less at 19%. Moreover, given household responsibilities, credit availability and other constraints, women are unable or unwilling to scale their businesses beyond a micro-enterprise level. Faced with these challenges, we contacted 16 women business leaders from various corners of the country to provide us with ideas we could incorporate into our program design process. This focus group included women-led cleantech companies such as Ecopia, an organic food and cosmetics producer; Sole Rebels, a manufacturer of recycled shoes; and Amsal Energy, maker of energy-efficient cook stoves. It also involved organizations including the Amhara Region Women Entrepreneurs Association, working with over 2000 women-owned businesses in their network.

Luckily there was no shortage of energetic Ethiopian women in the group who had strong views on how the CIC should operate its women-led innovation strategy. Their advice included these seven tips:

1.    Women-specific programs should be smartly designed and equal. Targeted programs to identify women entrepreneurs shouldn’t crowd out promising ideas and companies led by men.
2.    Focus on the men behind the women. A successful program of the Women Entrepreneurs Association includes a training program for men to help them excel in household duties while their higher-earning spouses work. Influencing spouses is essential to changing attitudes towards working women.
3.    Create role models. Women entrepreneurs are very effective at inspiring other women to start their own businesses.
4.    Outreach is critical. Training, education and awareness rated higher than access to capital as the top needs of women entrepreneurs, especially in tech sectors.
5.    It’s not only about women. There are some programs where men may be underrepresented and will need support to raise their participation levels.
6.    Target women along the value chain. This means including women designers, producers, distributors and consumers in the innovation process, not just women business-owners.
7.    Mainstream gender through M&E. Only through actively measuring women’s involvement across all activities and reviewing success regularly can programs like the CIC make gender central to its strategy.

From one million Birr proof-of-concept challenges to establishing a women mentor network, the CIC will experiment with a number of these approaches to boost women’s involvement in cleantech in Ethiopia. I only hope that when I attend the next conference I spot a few more of the latest and greatest technologies coming from women entrepreneurs.


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