The government, the private sector, aid programs and civil society must come together to guarantee women's digital access.
8 min read
The opinions expressed by collaborators are personal.
Dolphine Kylignoza is a Ugandan designer who sells colorful dresses, tops and men's clothing at various stores she runs in Kampala. However, now it also offers its products to people around the world through its web portal. She would not have been able to enter e-commerce without mentoring and training.
Trading used to consist of exchanging goods for money, where a customer physically visited a store, chose from a variety of selections, and paid a specific amount. Now, without a doubt, that physical presence is increasingly unnecessary with the emergence and increasing consolidation of electronic commerce, which offers more opportunities for companies from all over the world, such as Kyaligonza, to sell at any time of the day or night. .
For women-owned micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), especially those in least developed countries (LDCs), the potential for profit is even greater. For what reason? Because digital spaces should provide men and women with the same opportunities. In addition, given the cultural barriers that exist in some societies that require women to stay at home, e-commerce offers women the freedom to work from home while expanding their business.
How can women in LDCs take advantage of this? Are they in a position to reap the benefits of e-commerce? What do they need to be successful?
The main reason among women for not using the Internet is the lack of knowledge Image: Webfoundation.org
The female connectivity gap
While there is significant growth potential for e-businesses in LDCs, the environment in many of these countries is not conducive to these businesses developing and thriving, and this is especially true for women-owned MSMEs.
The first fundamental requirement for an electronic business is access to the Internet. ITU data shows that one in seven women in LDCs uses the Internet, compared to one in five men. Additionally, most e-commerce transactions are conducted over the phone, and studies show that there is still a gap in female connectivity. Although awareness of the mobile Internet is growing in most markets, it is still clearly lower for women than for men. Once online, women are 30% to 50% less likely than men to use the Internet to increase their income or participate in public life.
MSMEs in the e-commerce space face basic infrastructure challenges such as establishing functional supply chains and reliable logistics. UNCTAD's e-commerce readiness studies reveal weaknesses in various areas, such as strategies and policies for the development of electronic commerce, payments, legal and regulatory frameworks and access to finance, among others. Only 14 of the 47 LDCs have legislation for online consumer protection. In the case of women, these challenges are heightened due to the limitations they face, such as access to finances and skills and cultural barriers.
To ensure that no one is left behind in this space, governments, the private sector, Aid for Trade programs such as the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) and civil society play complementary roles. The following actions need to be prioritized, some of them accelerated in view of the rapid rate of change in technology.
Proportion of men and women who use the Internet worldwide. Image: ITU.int
Cambodia leads the way in politics
The political space is the area where a major change is needed. LDC governments need to improve and update legislative and regulatory frameworks covering consumer protection, private transaction security, ICT and payment infrastructure. The MIM currently supports nine countries to conduct readiness assessments (eT Ready) for e – commerce, a process that allows countries to prioritize the actions needed to exploit the potential of e – commerce. This is especially important considering that just 1% of all aid for trade is allocated to ICT solutions.
Cambodia was one of the first countries to undergo an E-Commerce Readiness Assessment in 2017, and has been using the analysis to guide its digital commerce efforts. The Ministry of Commerce developed the evaluation's recommendations and has worked to better align them with donor priorities. The study laid the foundations for chapters on e-commerce and ICT in the recently released Cambodia Trade Integration Strategy Update for 2019-2023 . Based on this, the EIF is currently supporting Cambodia to develop a strong e-commerce ecosystem and a Cambodia-owned and managed market. This support is especially targeted at women-owned companies and provincial MSMEs to address identified obstacles and grow their online businesses.
Capabilities for the future
Capacity is critical to empowering MSMEs to thrive in the e-commerce space. Potential digital entrepreneurs in LDCs cannot start businesses unless they have the necessary skills. But what capabilities do they need?
It is essential to first identify those needs and then provide training accordingly. The EIF is working not only to identify and enhance the capabilities of entrepreneurs, but also to provide LDC governments with what they need to ensure that they can formulate and implement policies that create an environment adapted to electronic commerce.
In South Asia, the EIF has joined forces with UNESCAP to develop the capacity of women entrepreneurs to join e-commerce platforms to boost their commercial exports and participate in local, regional and global supply chains. Similarly, in The Gambia, the International Trade Center's SheTrades initiative is providing individual training to entrepreneurs in the fashion sector, so that they can target international clients online.
Offering coaching and mentoring opportunities to entrepreneurs so they have the knowledge and experience they need to succeed has enabled female entrepreneurs to grow their businesses in the digital space.
In Uganda, young fashion entrepreneurs are marketing their products outside the country through social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Kyaligonza is one of the people who received mentoring and training, and has opened a virtual clothing store in addition to its stores in Kampala. In turn, she has passed on her knowledge to the young fashion designers who work with her, enabling them to meet the online demand for African clothing and fabrics. Consequently, it has international customers who order virtually, pay directly through their phones using WorldRemit and other platforms, and receive their products through international mail. Its international customer base is growing exponentially.
Electronic commerce must be considered one of the driving forces for women's economic empowerment. Let's make sure we make it possible.