After COVID-19, African women must get back to better jobs

By Ahunna Eziakonwa

As market women breathe a collective sigh of relief in Ghana, the first country to ease COVID 19–related movement restrictions, evidence of the new normal is everywhere: in mask-wearing, social distancing, and varying days for the sale of different products.

Some 80 percent of incomes in Africa’s informal sector were lost in just the first month of COVID 19—and not everyone can return to work yet.

Still under lockdown and waiting for their turn are Africa’s 6.2 million people engaged in the airline industry and the millions more in related sectors: hotels, conferences, festivals, religious activities, and sports, with no end in sight. According to UNESCO, Africa’s over 330 million school-going learners are at home with no alternative education, as are its roughly 8.5 million teachers.

UNDP research confirms that we are witnessing the first global reversal of human development since 1990. And as Africa’s economies continue to contract, jobs and livelihoods dry up, causing poverty, hunger, and hardship to spike.

If sub-Saharan household consumption falls by 5 to 20 percent, estimates say, the number of  income-poor people will increase by 28 million to 120 million, with workers in accommodation and food services, manufacturing wholesale and retail trade, real estate, and other business activities hardest hit.

Sectors in which women are twice as likely to work, such as health, social work, hospitality, and food, are the ones most impacted by new protocols on social distancing.

Yet the self-employed nature of most female-dominated businesses (80 percent either self-employed or working in a family business versus 60 for men) limits their capacity to cope, especially in situations of limited public services.

Even if women in eastern, central, and western Africa are mostly employed in the agricultural sector, the vulnerabilities associated with their employment mean that they are in fact the working poor. For those women in the formal sector, typically in northern and southern Africa, support requires special attention to protection of jobs in manufacturing, tourism, accommodation, and hospitality.

Protecting jobs

The realities of work in the COVID-19 context call for sizeable investments in digital and mobile technology to expand markets.

Digital-enabled marketing of locally sourced goods and services is opening opportunities for women. In Kenya, start-ups in e-commerce, clean cookstoves, and micro-distribution created Safe Hands Kenya, which is deploying free soap, hand sanitizer, cleaners, disinfectants, and masks to Kenyans through hundreds of distribution points.

Leveraging e-payment services is supporting Ugandan women entrepreneurs in using mobile-based digital transactions to improve credit access and promote stay-at-home marketplaces. Women market sellers are using the Market Garden app to sell and safely deliver fruits and vegetables to customers. UNDP has supported COVID–specific initiatives in this area to safeguard livelihoods.

A back-to-better jobs agenda for Africa’s women

Helping women get back-to-better requires a simultaneous focus on protecting jobs and increasing capabilities for scale. The following five pillars could help us get ahead:

1. Embrace informality.

COVID-19 has demonstrated that we cannot continue to treat the informal sector as if it didn’t exist. Investing in and embracing informality requires application of policy measures designed to support and facilitate, and not chastise, women entrepreneurs. Tax breaks, and affordable financing and skills training, must pre-occupy our programming if we are to make the shift to “people first” policies.

2. Leverage digitalization and technology for work.

Democratizing access to technology will put women a step further ahead in widening markets for their products, and in adding value, while promoting inclusivity by drawing in more players. Investing in key infrastructure, including renewable energy, is important for continuity and efficiency. Initiatives like UNDP’s Solar for Health Programme providing clean energy through solar panels in remote health facilities in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Libya, Namibia, Sudan, and South Sudan could be adapted and expanded to entrepreneurial spaces: in agriculture, tourism, nature-based services, personal care, and related services and industries.

3. Save women’s jobs, support women’s enterprises.

Providing financial rescue packages for women’s businesses is a critical short-term measure. In the medium to longer term, we must focus on the availability of low-cost financing and business development services as well as business linkages. In the Gambia, Equatorial Guinea, Niger, and Uganda, UNDP is offering women entrepreneurs resuscitation package programmes to keep them afloat, in light of the devastating effects of COVID-19. Nurturing the nascent entrepreneurship demonstrated in Africa’s production of personal protective equipment (PPE) will remain a UNDP focus.

4. Single out women for social protection programmes.

Women must be included in social protection registers given their central role in keeping family units together and caring for children and other vulnerable people. Wage and livelihood support to withstand shocks is important. Examples from Nigeria show that women who receive cash transfers are more likely to work and keep their houses more food secure. Cash transfers can support economic recovery as women recipients are more engaged with home-based economic activities.

5. Ensure young people are not left behind.

Africa’s youth require a new Marshall Plan, setting aside financing instruments to invest in their ideas, innovation, goods, and services, so they can create and scale income-generating opportunities. COVID-19 has demonstrated the ingenuity of the African mind. Investing in them is to secure their future.

Tackling discriminatory social norms and practices, which limit access to opportunities and technology, is essential to reducing inequality and boosting shared prosperity. This—along with a new mindset embracing African-made products and African women workers and entrepreneurs—will be a game-changer.

With trade across the African Continental Free Trade Area now imminent, a renewed commitment to “Made in Africa” will bring opportunity and hope to millions of women across the continent. Let’s make it count.

Article and Cover Photo