How can e-platforms help women entrepreneurs in developing countries?

E-commerce is powerful enough to level the economic playing field for women in emerging economies. There needs to be collaboration between government, the private sector, aid programmes and civil society to help enable women’s digital access. I think action is needed in both policy and in the skills base.

For women-owned micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) – especially in least developed countries (LDCs) – the potential benefits are great.

Digital spaces should deliver the same opportunities to both men and women. And given the cultural barriers in some societies that require women to stay home, e-commerce provides women with the freedom to work from home while expanding a business.

Yet MSMEs in the e-commerce space are struggling with basic infrastructure challenges like creating supply chains and organising reliable logistics.

Studies in e-trade readiness, undertaken by UNCTAD, reveal deficiencies in areas including e-commerce development strategies and policies, payments, legal and regulatory frameworks and access to financing – to name a few.

Only 14 of 47 LDCs have created legislation for online consumer protection.

For women, these challenges are made worse, given limitations they face like access to finance and skills, as well as the cultural barriers.

To ensure no one is left behind, governments, the private sector, and ‘aid for trade’ programmes such as the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) all have roles to play.

Women face more apparent difficulties in gaining access to digital platforms. Data from the ITU shows one in seven women in LDCs uses the internet, compared with one out of five men.

While most e-commerce transactions are carried out by phone, female connectivity is still an issue. While awareness of mobile internet services is growing in most markets, it remains consistently lower for women than men.

Once online, women are 30 to 50% less likely than men to use the internet for any purpose. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggests that globally, 250 million fewer women than men are online. And women-owned start-ups receive 23% less funding than men-owned businesses.

These longstanding inequalities in access to, and use of, the internet holds back its egalitarian promise. When presented with the opportunity, female entrepreneurs are more likely to engage in digital entrepreneurship. The challenge is helping them gain access in the first place.

Clearly, governments need to take steps to encourage more women into IT, entrepreneurship and e-commerce.

A big hurdle is, of course, funding access to funding should be a globalised priority. Innovation coming out of emerging economies should not be held back simply due to a lack of funds. Encouraging more women into e-commerce will surely lead to more women advocating for change at the policy-making table, ensuring governments can deliver policy that provides access and opportunity.

“It’s a well-known fact that women in technology are underrepresented and poorly funded,” said Candace Nkoth Bisseck, UNCTAD’s eTrade for Women project manager.

eTrade for Women is a United Nations Conference on Trade and Development-backed scheme. Since November 2020, more than 100 entrepreneurs in 20 developing countries have joined eTrade for Women communities, which aim to nurture, build, connect and empower global female entrepreneurs, helping them to become the leaders of tomorrow, in a more sustainable, inclusive future.

In emerging economies, e-platforms can certainly help women step up and rise to the challenges of fulfilling their potential.

What needs to happen first is a global focus on access and equality in the digital realm. Simply put, allowing women greater access to online tools, information, banking and funding has a direct, clear holistic benefit on overall society.