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E-commerce and business women in Africa: the role of the AfCFTA in accessing international markets

Updated: May 4, 2021

African women selling craft products
(Source: Unknown)

Gender equality and empowerment of women (like in the picture above) are key drivers for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. We would like to mark the annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence campaign (25 November – 10 December), by addressing the importance of electronic commerce (e-commerce) in the empowerment of women entrepreneurs in Africa. In particular, how can women entrepreneurs access international markets, even during the COVID-19 pandemic?

It is reported that Africans like to buy brand goods from outside the continent, which has led to companies like DHL creating delivery opportunities for goods from companies like MallForAfrica to various destinations in Africa. How can the same or similar couriers boost the selling of African products within and outside the continent? Young entrepreneurs are taking keen interest in e-commerce because it entails reasonable start-up funding, offers revenue-generating prospects, and has an open door to all, in ways traditional workplaces may not. “With the emergence of online technologies, Africa is joining the burgeoning world of digital economies,” says Yun Shi. Specifically, during the pandemic, e-commerce presents opportunities. But these opportunities need to be boosted and supported.


There are several challenges facing women in e-commerce in Africa, but this piece addresses only two. Internet connectivity and weak delivery logistics are some of the challenges facing e-commerce industry in Africa. The 2019 edition of the UNCTAD Business-to-Consumer (B2C) E-commerce Index, which measures an economy’s readiness to support on-line shopping, shows that there were changes in the top ten with three countries dropping out (Iceland, New Zealand and Sweden) replaced by Finland, Germany and Australia. The three countries that left the top ten experienced reductions mainly in secure servers and postal reliability. Challenges of Internet connectivity and delivery services indeed exist in most countries of the world but are more pronounced in Africa. The last seven countries on the Index are from Africa. These countries score zero in the UPU postal reliability score.

The new road(s) to postal development.

According to the UPU Postal Development Report 2020, as arising number of postal operators increase their reliance on parcels and logistics in order to reap the benefits of e-commerce growth, they are also de facto increasing their dependence on a highly competitive segment in which reliability and reach are pre-conditions for success. In such an environment, the only way for postal operators to boost relevance in the long term is to attract and retain customers that order goods online and value timeliness and predictability in delivery, regardless of whether the item is purchased domestically or imported. As the starting conditions are not the same everywhere, there will be different roads to postal development, heightening the importance of international cooperation in areas such as knowledge sharing, common standards and technology. According to the 2020 Postal Development Report, two countries from Africa, Tunisia and Ghana are among the top ten performers in postal services.

According to the ITU’s measurement of digital development 2019, the percentage of individuals using Internet is only 28.8% compared to 82.5% in Europe, while the world’s average is 53.6%. The digital gender gap is growing very fast. According to the ITU the Internet user gender gap in Africa has grown from 20.7 in 2013 to 33 in 2019. Mobile broadband continue to grow in any part of the world, with mobile-cellular subscription in Africa standing at 80.1 compared to 118.4 in Europe and 108 in the world. The mobile telephone remains a key channel for connectivity in Africa.

Women can use their mobile telephones to get online. For example, online customers can place orders, pay directly using online platforms like WorldRemit and receive their goods via international couriers like DHL and Jumia (an online platform operating in 11 African Countries.) DHL Africa eShop has invested in e-commerce in Africa, with e-commerce services connecting online shoppers in 34 Africa countries with over 200 UK and US sites by integrating existing online retail and brokerage platforms developed by MallForAfrica and DHL Express’ global logistics network. DHL is present in many African countries but there is need to tap its presence and use it to deliver products outside Africa. The UPU and DHL could serve the overseas market in e-commerce.

The role of the AfCFTA in promoting women’s e-commerce

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) presents opportunities for women in e-commerce. The AfCFTA will create the largest trading bloc with a market of about 1.27 billion consumers. This number is expected to rise up to 1.7 billion by 2030. If the digital and postal delivery divide are bridged, businesses will be able to trade with a large number of consumers on the continent and overseas. Young entrepreneurs like Catherine Oshotse, a seller of hair extensions in Nigeria, and Daphne Kyaligonza, a fashion designer in Uganda are able to sell to international markets, thanks to the digital connectivity. Women-owned micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), especially in least developed countries (LDCs) stand a high chance of benefiting from e-commerce since, arguably, digital spaces provide equal opportunities for both men and women.

The AfCFTA could target to facilitate the delivery of goods, especially in the rural areas by learning from Ghana and Tunisia. Improving postal delivery services is key to facilitating the international couriers. The AU has the intention to promote women’s e-commerce. Aspiration 6 of Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want of the African Union aims to build “an Africa where development is people driven, relying upon the potential offered by people, especially its women and youth and caring for children.” The African Union Strategy for Gender Equality & Women’s Empowerment (GEWE) for 2018-2028 contributes towards realizing Agenda 2063 visions for gender equality by setting forth a plan to realize Aspiration 6 of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and the principles enshrined in Article 4 (l) of the AU’s Constitutive Act, that is: “promotion of gender equality” as well key continental and global commitments. The Strategy is an affirmation of the AU commitment to advancing gender equality, in line with Aspiration 6 of Agenda 2063. The four strategic pillars of GEWE include maximizing (economic) outcomes, opportunities and tech E dividends, a pillar that can cover e-commerce. This pillar particularly addresses gender and the key digital economy and e-commerce related policies, including lack of access to ICT and e-solutions and lack of digital skills.

Under the AfCFTA, State Parties agree, where possible, to mobilise resources, in collaboration with development partners, and implement measures, in support of the domestic efforts of State Parties, with a view to, inter alia: improving the export capacity of both formal and informal service suppliers, with particular attention to micro, small and medium size; women and youth service suppliers. Since women entrepreneurs can own businesses which fall under MSMEs, it is arguable that they fall in the two categories as beneficiaries of resources mobilized by the AfCFTA. The AfCFTA targets to improve the export capacity of both formal and informal suppliers, including women. Working in partnership with international delivery agencies is one yet important way of achieving this goal.

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