Women in tech drive change in the Middle East

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Please watch Women Entrepreneurship to Reshape the Economy through Innovation in MENA, at the European Development Days live on Tuesday October 16 at 11:00 AM cet

Across the developing world, women business owners are far more prevalent at the informal and micro-scale than growth oriented small and medium sized enterprises.  Women still face an uneven playing field in education, employment, earnings, and decision-making power.Women tech entrepreneurs have the potential to change the face of the MENA economy. (Credit: moderntime, Flickr Creative Commons)

The Middle East and Northern African (MENA) region faces its own particular set of challenges.  In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the development of strong economies and opportunities for both men and women to pursue a livelihood without barriers is integral to the future of the region.  There is an enormous enterprise and job creation agenda to be fulfilled in the Middle East. A recent study by the OECD notes that today, only 27% of women in the region join the labor force, compared to 51% in other low, middle and high-income economies, and only 11% are self-employed, against 22% of men.


The growth of SMEs and startups in MENA has been difficult due to institutional hurdles and inadequate financing. Women-owned businesses are hampered by these same challenges. On top of that, women entrepreneurs in MENA face other barriers such as cultural attitudes toward women’s roles. Entrepreneurial women running promising companies with the potential to scale, often lack the autonomy, finance, and skills necessary to expand their businesses.
Development partners desperately want women to lead businesses, as underscored again this week by the seminar “Women in the private sector – Good for business and government”, at the World Bank / IMF Annual Meetings in Japan.

Next week, a high-level panel at the European Development Days  (October 16 – 17), organized by infoDev, UN Women, and Turkish economic research agency TEPAV,  will come up with a recommendation how entrepreneurial initiatives led by Arab women can be stimulated. The panel entitled “Women Entrepreneurship to Reshape the Economy through Innovation in MENA” will include few leading women entrepreneurs from the region, and several key actors in the ‘enabling environment’ of entrepreneurs. 

I am happy to participate in the panel, because I believe in women in technology.  infoDev seeks to promote the role of women as entrepreneurs , business persons and tech champions who spur innovation, create jobs, and drive the charge toward gender equality in the developing world.

I take inspiration from women like Rima Shaban, who is a business skills trainer within infoDev’s network of business incubation centers.  An engineer by background, Rima came across an opportunity to run an ICT business incubator in Syria. It was a stepping stone for her to become a region-wide trainer in innovation and entrepreneurship – educating both men and women.

I believe that new communication and information technologies can provide the leap forward for women entrepreneurs. There are almost 6 billion mobile phones in the world, of which 80% are in developing and emerging economies. In many countries in the MENA region, the penetration rate of cellular phones is over 100%. The unprecedented reach of communication technologies is expanding not only how business is done, but also who can do business in this new  and evolving ecosystem of high-quality, inclusive jobs.

Through a 2009 - 2010 survey by infoDev’s global business incubator network, women entrepreneurs expressed that lack of relevant business information and knowledge, lack of supportive networks, and lack of self-confidence were major impediments to the growth of female-led firms, in addition to cultural barriers.  A recent study by IFC among female entrepreneurs in the Middle East, found that two-thirds (67%) of  the respondents said that access to capital is a very or extremely important issue along with keeping up with new technologies.  The great thing to know for commercial banks, is that women are better at repaying loans than their male counterparts.

This teaches me two things: we have to work on access to relevant knowledge and networks for female business owners, because they gain strength in numbers. Secondly, we should improve women entrepreneurs' access to formal finance. And probably, stakeholders from both the public sector , the private sector (banking sector, technology enterprises), and development agencies like infoDev /World Bank have to collaborate in a partnership to make this happen.



Valerie D'Costa

Program Manager, infoDev

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