Africa is a continent with great economic potential. Foreign investors are competing to enter the market and invest. That potential however is only in part met as a result of the limited role of women in the economy.
Currently one of the most important economic sectors in Africa is agriculture. It accounts for more than 32% of Africa’s GDP and it accounts for around 65% of Africa’s employment. As the economy develops this preponderance is likely to decline as it has done in other countries as they develop but agriculture will still remain important for reducing famine and malnutrition.
The majority of the people working in the field are women. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, women in Africa are responsible for 70% of crop production, 50% of animal husbandry and 60% of marketing. Women undertake nearly 100% of food processing activities, in addition to child care and other responsibilities in households.
Agriculture both illustrates how women are vital to African future prosperity and some of the problems along the road to prosperity. Women in Africa have few rights; they can seldom own land, although they are working it, they cannot take loans from banks in order to invest, and many of them lack a basic education. Women own less than 1% of the African continent’s landmass. Only 51% of females over the age of 15 in Africa are able to read and write, compared to 67% men. It is estimated that this inequality reduces Africa’s annual per capita growth by 0.8%. If this growth had taken place Africa’s economies would have doubled over the last 30 years.
Women, therefore, might be considered to be key to Africa’s economic future. That is if the continent can overcome these inequalities to provide women with the necessary training, with rights and liberties to move freely in the market, to run their own businesses and make their own economic decisions. Women represent a pool of untapped labour. One of the biggest mistakes to be made in any economy is to misuse one’s factors of production. Time has come for Africa to start integrating women into the economy and to start maximizing their potential as future entrepreneurs.
 ‘Fact Sheet: The World Bank and Agriculture in Africa’, The World Bank, 2013, http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/AFRICAEXT/0,,contentMDK:21935583~pagePK:146736~piPK:146830~theSitePK:258644,00.html
 Zerbo, Sandra, Olivier Beni, and Valérie Traore, ‘Everyday Heroes’, Trust Africa, 2011, http://www.trustafrica.info/documents/Everyday_Heroes.pdf
 ‘Gender and Economic Empowerment of Women’, Africa Partnership Forum Support Unit, Briefing paper no.3, September 2007, http://www.africapartnershipforum.org/39921766.pdf
It sounds dramatic, but when more than 70% percent of the agricultural labor force of Africa is represented by women, and that sector is a third of GDP, one can say that women really are the backbone of Africa’s economy. But the sector does not reach its full potential. Women do most of the work but hold none of the profit; they cannot innovate and receive salaries up to 50% less than men. This is because they cannot own land, they cannot take loans, and therefore cannot invest to increase profits.
The way to make women key to Africa’s future therefore is to provide them with rights to their land. This will provide women with an asset that can be used to obtain loans to increase productivity. The Food and Agriculture organisation argues “if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent. This could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5–4 percent, which could in turn reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12–17 percent.”
The bottom line is that women work hard but their work is not recognised and potential not realised. What is true in agriculture is even truer in other sectors where women do not make up the majority of workers where the simple lack of female workers demonstrates wasted potential. The inefficient use of resources reduces the growth of the economy.
 Oppong-Ansah, Albert, ‘Ghana’s Small Women’s Savings Groups Have Big Impact’, Inter Press Service, 28 February 2014, http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/ghanas-small-womens-savings-groups-big-impact/
 Mucavele, Saquina, ‘The Role of Rural Women in Africa’, World Farmers Organisation, http://www.wfo-oma.com/women-in-agriculture/articles/the-role-of-rural-women-in-agriculture.html
Women do indeed work on small farms, but it is this very size that means they will not be key to the future. A 2.5-4% increase in agricultural production is not much. Even with agriculture as a third of the economy this is only a one off 1% increase in GDP.
This small size is also the reason they do not get loans and the opportunity to develop the land or business; they are not profitable over the long term. Subsistence farming is necessary and investing to create some surplus is beneficial but it will not have sufficient impact.
Instead women need to be taken out of their traditional role where they are the caretakers of the family. They are not the future for Africa’s economy just because they are fulfilling their traditional role, quite the opposite. The fact that women still continue to work in agriculture and they have yet to stand out in the more competitive areas of the economy shows that they are not ready yet to have an impact over the economy, and that this job, securing the future of Africa’s economy as a whole, is still in the hands of men.
Where women in Africa are treated more as equals and are being given political power there are benefits for the economy. Africa is already surging economically with 6 out of the world’s ten fastest growing economies in the past decade being a part of sub-Saharan Africa.
While some of the fastest growing economies are simply as a result of natural resource exploitation some are also countries that have given much more influence to women. 56% of Rwanda’s parliamentarians are women. The country’s economy is growing; its poverty rate has dropped from 59% to 45% in 2011 and economic growth is expected to reach up to 10% by 2018. Women become the driving force of the socio-economic development after the 1994 genocide with many taking on leadership roles in their communities.
In Liberia, since Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took the presidency seat on January 2006, notable reforms have been implemented in the country to boot the economy, and with visible results. Liberia’s GDP has grown from 4.6% in 2009 to 7.7% by the end of 2013.
Men in Africa on the other hand have often lead their countries into war, conflict, discord, and the resulting slower economic growth. Men fight leaving women behind to tend the household and care for the family. Giving women a greater voice helps encourage longer term thinking and discourages conflict, one of the main reasons for Africa’s plight in the second half of the 20th century. The feminisation of politics has been identified by Stephen Pinker as one of the causes for a decline in conflict. When peace brings economic growth women will deserve an outsize share of the credit.
 Baobab, ‘Growth and other things’, The Economist, May 1st 2013 http://www.economist.com/blogs/baobab/2013/05/development-africa
 Izabiliza, Jeanne, ‘The role of women in reconstruction: Experience of Rwanda’, UNESCO, http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/SHS/pdf/Role-Women-Rwanda.pdf
 Pinker, S., The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2011
While it is true that the quota of women in African politics is growing, it is still a far stretch from the control needed to have a credible influence on the economy. It is true; they have high representation in Rwanda, in South Africa, in Liberia and Malawi. But the rest of the continent is lacking in women representation.
Africans appear to not be ready to empower their women; the overall representation of women in the continent is lower than in Europe or North America.
Politics is also not always central to running the economy. There may be women in parliament but do they have an influence on the economy as ministers? In South Africa only 19% of board members are women and they make up less than 20% of top management positions. The future for Africa’s economy hinges not on the representation of women in politics but in investments, good resource managements, developing infrastructure and a cleansing of the system of corruption.
 The Economist, ‘Africa’s female politicians: Women are winning’, 9 November 2013, http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21589490-quota-systems-are-transforming-african-parliaments-women-are-winning
 Thorpe, Jen, ‘Why are there still so few female leaders?’, women24, http://www.women24.com/CareersAndMoney/AtWork/Why-there-are-so-few-women-in-leadership-positions-20140331
There is great potential in educating African women. Two out of three illiterate Africans are women. In 1996 the countries with the highest illiteracy rates in women are Burkina Faso with a staggering 91.1%, Sierra Leone with 88.7%, Guinea with 86.6% and Chad with 82.1% of women illiterate. The situation is however improving. Women are starting to reach their educational potential: by 2011 the illiteracy rate among female youth (15-24) had dropped to 52% in Sierra Leone, 22% in Guinea and 42% in Chad.
Women in Africa are becoming much better educated. This means they are much more likely to be able to reach their full potential in the economy. Education provides opportunities as educated women will be better able to work in the manufacturing or services sectors. They will also be much more capable of setting up and running their own businesses or organisations. As a more educated cohort of women enters the workforce they will have a much greater effect on the economy than women have had in the past.
 ‘The role of Women in Post-independent Africa’, African Women Culture, 29 April 2011, http://africanwomenculture.blogspot.ro/2011/04/role-of-women-in-post-independent.html
 UNESCO Institute of Statistics, ‘Literacy rate, youth female (% of females ages 15-24)’, data.worldbank.org, 2009-2013, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.1524.LT.FE.ZS/countries
An increase in literacy does not necessarily translate into greater economic participation by women in the future. Yes more women are being educated but it is not just a lack of education that hinders them. It also requires infrastructure and facilities that are missing in almost every African country, especially in the rural areas. For all of these to happen, first there needs to be political stability. Discrimination against women also needs to go, as proposition has already pointed out in agriculture where women provide the workforce they don’t keep the benefits of their labour; the same could happen in other sectors too.
 Shepherd, Ben, ‘Political Stability: Crucial for Growth?’, LSE.ac.uk, http://www.lse.ac.uk/IDEAS/publications/reports/pdf/SU004/shepherd.pdf
Africa has a very significant amount of resources that have not yet been exploited and put to good use. The continent has 12% of the world's oil reserves, 40% of its gold, and 80% to 90% of its chromium and platinum. Moreover, it is home to 60% of the world’s underutilized arable land and has vast timber resources.
Given the economic changes, and the recent continent’s economical upraise, Africa has now a real opportunity to capitalize on their resource endowments and high international commodity prices. The major point is that Africa’s resources fuel the world. Commodities from laptops to cell phones, cars or airplanes, all are made from using minerals that come from Africa. For example, catalytic converters are fitted to cars in order to reduce air pollution. Platinum and rhodium are the key components, both resources found in abundance in Africa. Cell phones or laptops use parts made out of tantalum, which is exported from African countries such as Mozambique or Rwanda, and so on.
Africa is also the continent, excluding Antarctica, which is least explored so has most potential growth in raw materials. New explorations reveal much larger reserves than previously known. If these resources and wealth are well managed, in an efficient and equitable way, it could boost Africa’s economy, helping all categories of people, from women to children, offering jobs and generally raising the level of life on the continent.
 Lopes, Carlos, and Tony Elumelu, ‘How Africa’s natural resources can drive industrial revolution’, CNN, 20 November 2013, http://edition.cnn.com/2013/11/20/opinion/africas-natural-resources-industrial-revolution/
 Economic Commission for Africa, ‘Making the Most of Africa’s Commodities: Industrializing for Growth, Jobs and Economic Transformation’, uneca.org, 2013, http://www.uneca.org/sites/default/files/publications/unera_report_eng_final_web.pdf
 Tutton, Mark, and Milena Veselinovic, ‘How Africa’s resources fuel the world’, CNN, 25 July 2013, http://edition.cnn.com/2013/07/25/world/africa/africa-resources-fuel-world/index.html
While Africa has huge reserves of natural resources they are not its economic future. Mining employs few people and provides little value added to the economy. Also not every African country has natural resources to exploit while all have people, including the currently underutilised women, who could with better education bring about a manufacturing or services economy. Such an economy would be much more sustainable rather than relying on resource booms that have in the past turned to bust.
In the short to medium term women are unlikely to be the key to Africa’s economic future. Even in western economies, there is still a gap between genders at the workplace. Women are still paid less than men, there are more men CEO’s than women and so forth. This is likely to remain replicated in Africa for decades after there has been full acceptance that women should be treated equally as has happened in the west.
In some parts of Africa there are cultural reasons why women are unlikely to obtain a key role in the near future. In Egypt for example, where 90% of the populations is Muslim, women account for 24% of the labour force, even though they have the right to education. This is true across North Africa where women amount for less than 25% of the work force. Just because there is clearly a large amount of potential being wasted here does not mean that is going to change. Women often have few political or legal rights and so are unlikely to be able to work as equals except in a very few professions such as nursing or teaching.
 International Labour Organisation, ‘Labour force, female (% of total labor force)’, data.worldbank.org, 2009-2013, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.TLF.TOTL.FE.ZS
There is little reason to believe Africa will follow the path that western countries have when it comes to the role of women. Change could come much more quickly than expected. Already there are African countries that have most women in Parliament; Rwanda has by far the highest percentage in the world with 63.8% of seats in the lower house taken by women with three other African countries (South Africa, Seychelles, and Senegal) in the top 10. If Africa, with the exception of the North, has accepted women in politics much faster than the west there is little reason to assume the same won’t happen with business.
Africa’s greatest needs for development are infrastructure and education. Neither of these needs implies that women are about to become key to the African economy.
Africa is severely deficient in infrastructure; Sub Saharan Africa generates the same amount of electricity as Spain, a country with one seventeenth the population. The World Bank suggests “if all African countries were to catch up with Mauritius in infrastructure, per capita economic growth in the region could increase by 2.2 percentage points. Catching up with Korea’s level would increase economic growth per capita by up to 2.6 percent per year.”
There are numerous projects to alleviate this deficit such as immense projects like the Grand Inga Dam in the Democratic Republic of Congo which could power not just the country but its neighbours too. However if construction is the key to the future then this implies men are going to continue to have more impact as the construction industry is traditionally dominated by men.
Africa has been making strides in education for women. Yet there still remains a gap. To take a few examples the youth female literacy rates in Angola 66%, Central African Republic 59%, Ghana 83% and Sierra Leone 52% is still lower than youth male literacy rates or 80%, 72%, 88%, and 70%. And the gap often increases with further education. To take Senegal as an example there are actually more girls than boys enrolled in primary education, a ratio of 1.06 but for secondary this drops to 0.77 and to 0.6 for tertiary. The situation is the same in other countries; Mauritania 1.06, 0.86, 0.42, Mozambique, 0.95, 0.96, 0.63, and Ghana 0.98, 0.92, 0.63.
With women not breaking through to the highest level in education it is unlikely that they will be the main driver of the economy in the future. Their influence may increase as a result of increasing education at lower levels but without equality at the highest level they are unlikely to become key to their countries economic future as the highest skilled jobs and the roles of directing the economy will still be carried out primarily by men.
 UNESCO Institute for Statistics, ‘Literacy rate, youth male (% of males ages 15-24)’, data.worldbank.org, 2009-2013, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.1524.LT.MA.ZS/countries
 Schwab Klaus et al., The Global Gender Gap Report 2013, World Economic Forum, 2013, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GenderGap_Report_2013.pdf, pp.328, 276, 288, 208 (in order of mentioning, examples taken pretty much at random – though there are one or two where the ratios actually don’t change much such as Mauritius, but that is against the trend)
Neither education not infrastructure can discount the possibility of women being key to the economic future. Yes infrastructure is needed before many businesses can reach their full potential. But the same limits are on men and women. The lack of infrastructure does not necessarily mean that men will be the ones who benefit. Nor can we be certain that Africa will develop through building infrastructure in the manner than China has. Some infrastructure may become unnecessary; for example there is now no need to build extensive systems of landlines as a result of the use of mobile phones. Other technologies in the future may make other large scale infrastructure projects less necessary – for example community based renewable energy.
Similarly education is not destiny; those who do not go to university may well contribute as much as those who do. Moreover this education gap simply shows that when it is closed the impact from women will be all the greater.
‘The role of Women in Post-independent Africa’, African Women Culture, 29 April 2011, http://africanwomenculture.blogspot.ro/2011/04/role-of-women-in-post-independent.html
‘Gender and Economic Empowerment of Women’, Africa Partnership Forum Support Unit, Briefing paper no.3, September 2007, http://www.africapartnershipforum.org/39921766.pdf
Baobab, ‘Growth and other things’, The Economist, May 1st 2013 http://www.economist.com/blogs/baobab/2013/05/development-africa
Economic Commission for Africa, ‘Making the Most of Africa’s Commodities: Industrializing for Growth, Jobs and Economic Transformation’, uneca.org, 2013, http://www.uneca.org/sites/default/files/publications/unera_report_eng_final_web.pdf
‘Africa’s female politicians: Women are winning’, The Economist, 9 November 2013, http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21589490-quota-systems-are-transforming-african-parliaments-women-are-winning
FAO, ‘Gender Equality and Food Security’, fao.org, 2013, http://www.fao.org/wairdocs/ar259e/ar259e.pdf
International Labour Organisation, ‘Labour force, female (% of total labor force)’, data.worldbank.org, 2009-2013, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.TLF.TOTL.FE.ZS
‘Women in national Parliaments’, Inter-Parliamentary Union, 1 February 2014, http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm
Izabiliza, Jeanne, ‘The role of women in reconstruction: Experience of Rwanda’, UNESCO, http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/SHS/pdf/Role-Women-Rwanda.pdf
Lopes, Carlos, and Tony Elumelu, ‘How Africa’s natural resources can drive industrial revolution’, CNN, 20 November 2013, http://edition.cnn.com/2013/11/20/opinion/africas-natural-resources-industrial-revolution/
Mucavele, Saquina, ‘The Role of Rural Women in Africa’, World Farmers Organisation, http://www.wfo-oma.com/women-in-agriculture/articles/the-role-of-rural-women-in-agriculture.html
Oppong-Ansah, Albert, ‘Ghana’s Small Women’s Savings Groups Have Big Impact’, Inter Press Service, 28 February 2014, http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/ghanas-small-womens-savings-groups-big-impact/
Pinker, S., The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2011
Schwab Klaus et al., The Global Gender Gap Report 2013, World Economic Forum, 2013, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GenderGap_Report_2013.pdf
Shepherd, Ben, ‘Political Stability: Crucial for Growth?’, LSE.ac.uk, http://www.lse.ac.uk/IDEAS/publications/reports/pdf/SU004/shepherd.pdf
Thorpe, Jen, ‘Why are there still so few female leaders?’, women24, http://www.women24.com/CareersAndMoney/AtWork/Why-there-are-so-few-women-in-leadership-positions-20140331
Tutton, Mark, and Milena Veselinovic, ‘How Africa’s resources fuel the world’, CNN, 25 July 2013, http://edition.cnn.com/2013/07/25/world/africa/africa-resources-fuel-world/index.html
UNESCO Institute of Statistics, ‘Literacy rate, youth female (% of females ages 15-24)’, data.worldbank.org, 2009-2013, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.1524.LT.FE.ZS/countries
UNESCO Institute for Statistics, ‘Literacy rate, youth male (% of males ages 15-24)’, data.worldbank.org, 2009-2013, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.1524.LT.MA.ZS/countries
‘Fact Sheet: The World Bank and Agriculture in Africa’, The World Bank, 2013, http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/AFRICAEXT/0,,contentMDK:21935583~pagePK:146736~piPK:146830~theSitePK:258644,00.html
‘Fact Sheet: Infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa’, The World Bank, http://go.worldbank.org/SWDECPM5S0
Zerbo, Sandra, Olivier Beni, and Valérie Traore, ‘Everyday Heroes’, Trust Africa, 2011, http://www.trustafrica.info/documents/Everyday_Heroes.pdf