Ensuring Women’s equality through e-commerce in Africa

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

Dr Susan Isiko Štrba

Les membres du Collectif genevois pour la grève féministe lors de la présentation du programme de la Journée Internationale de lutte pour les droits des femmes. KEYSTONE/MARTIAL TREZZINI sda-ats


There have been numerous ways to celebrate International Women’s Day, ranging from a focus on women in leadership, for example by the Nigerian Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA)1 to equity in the scientific communication or promotion of equality between men and women in the professional world.2 In Switzerland for example, those in charge of the historical museum of Lausanne lamented that 50 years women were allowed to vote, real advance in equality between women and men is still a dream, either in terms salaries, careers, freedom of expression, appearance in public or share of chores.3 These two examples emphasize inequalities between men and women, whether in developed or developing world. In this piece, we examine the role of trade in promoting gender equality, with a particular focus on Africa.

Trade in itself, whether through brick and mortar or e-commerce, cannot close the gender gap. But there are opportunities to be seized by making trade more inclusive. Governments, international organizations, and the private sector can collectively—through complementary initiatives— create the conditions to ensure that women benefit from trade instead of being left behind.4

Studies have shown that COVID-19 pandemic has led to greater gender gap in the economic sphere. For example on the international scale, a recent report by the World Trade Organization and the World Bank show that Women hold a disproportionate number of jobs in the clothing sector yet tariffs on garments remain stubbornly high compared to tariffs on other manufactured goods.5 This disparity amounts to a “pink tariff”—hurting women consumers across the world and keeping women workers in developing countries from broader export opportunities and better jobs.6 Engaging in digital trade or e-commerce is one way women can achieve better work–life balance.7

Women in Africa make up a large proportion of traders in the informal trade.8 This is an important contribution, considering that most of the trade on the African continent takes place in the informal environment, which contributes between 25 and 65% to the GDP.9 There are still stark disparities between the status of men and women across many African societies.’10 Existing Regional Economic Communities (RECs) do not go far enough to promote gender equality and non-discrimination against women. But as we demonstrate below, there are some promising efforts to support women’s journey towards gender empowerment and equality.


Informal cross-border trade (ICBT) is popular in Africa. ICBT refers to trade in goods/merchandise and services which may be legally imported or exported on one side of the border and illegally on the other side and vice-versa, on account of neither having been recorded in the official trade statistics nor subjected to the required statutory border formalities such as customs clearance.11Reasons for the informal cross border trade include socio-economic challenges like gender bias that prevent beneficial engagement (of women) in formal trade.12 There are however efforts to support cross border women traders.

Efforts to assist small-scale cross-border women traders

According to the AU Trade & Industry Commissioner, a study is underway to see how small-scale cross-border traders can be mainstreamed into the AfCFTA. This is vital because it will facilitate their growth, train them to market their products, make returns, manage their accounts, legally register their businesses and pay taxes, all of which allow them to access capital from financial institutions.13 Much as COVID-19 has led to stagnation, especially in brick-and-mortar trade, e-commerce can be used to boost women’s trade, for example through advertising and placing of orders by electronic.


According to a report from the World Bank: The African Continental Free Trade Area: Economic Distributional Effects,implementing the AfCFTA has the potential to spur larger wage gains for women (10.5%) than for men (9.9%). There are challenges, including network infrastructure, which might hinder or slow the full realization of this dream. Other challenges are travel and transport between African countries and regions via roads, rail and air, which need a boost to be more efficient. Some of these challenges can be partly overcome by engaging in e-commerce which will by pass the lack of appropriate physical infrastructure. Digital infrastructure and stronger internet penetration need to be assured. However, there is also need for SMEs to take full advantage of the the AfCFTA agreement.

More women need to be encouraged to engage in technically challenging fields,14 including in intellectual property and e-commerce. Women need skills and access to information to enable them to engage and compete with men. There are some initiatives by RECs to bridge this gap. A more recent example is the launch of a digital platform by the East African Community (EAC), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS), to empower women. The portal, and mobile application, the 50 Million African Women Speak Platform (50MAWSP), come to solve the information challenge African women face when it comes to accessing available information on financial and non-financial services.15 The platform is intended to connect 50 million African Women in business across 38 African countries. It is expected to help women create business opportunities and thus empower them economically.16 As the WTO and World Bank observed, even simple interventions to facilitate trade can make a big impact for small-scale traders,17 many of whom are women involved in e-commerce.

Five years ago Meghan Markle, speaking for the UN Women, encouraged women to “create their own table” if they are not invited to get involved in matters created and run by men. When it comes to women economic empowerment and e-commerce, women could use the information available to them to create their own table, for example marketing of the products they want to sell, through e-commerce.

1International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Nigeria, ‘Women In Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a COVID-19 World’ available at https://fida.org.ng/2021/03/international-womens-day-2021/, (accessed on 08/03/21).

2Swissinfo, ‘Journée des droits des femmes: des revendications dans tout le pays’, available at https://www.swissinfo.ch/fre/toute-l-actu-en-bref/journ%C3%A9e-des-droits-des-femmes—des-revendications-dans-tout-le-pays/46428872, (accessed 08 March 2021).

3Microsoft News, Journée des droits des femmes: diverses actions et revendications (2021) available at https://www.msn.com/fr-ch/actualite/national/journ%c3%a9e-des-droits-des-femmes-diverses-actions-et-revendications/ar-BB1elFCX?ocid=se(accessed 08 March, 2021)

4World Bank and WTO Report, supra, at xi

5World Bank and World Trade Organization. 2020. Women and Trade: The Role of Trade in Promoting Gender Equality. Washington, DC: World Bank. Doi:10.1596/978-1-4648-1541-6., at ix.

6ibid

7Ibid, at ix

8The term ‘informal economy’ is “used broadly to include both modern and traditional non-agricultural work that stands in contrast to formal economy in that it involves work without recognized contracts, fixed wages or government protection, and is located outsider the established sphere of factory and office-based employment.’ Suffyan Koroma et al., ‘Formalization of Informal Trade in Africa: Trends, Experiences and Social- Economic Impacts’, UN Food and Agricultural Organization’, (2017), available at http://www.fao.org/3/i7603e/i7603e.pdf, (accessed on 08 March 2021).

9Celine Allard, ‘The Informal Economy in Sub-Saharan Africa’,(2017) available at https://www.elibrary.imf.org/view/IMF086/24031-9781475574463/24031-9781475574463/ch03.xml?redirect=true, (accessed 08 March 2021).

10Clair Gammage and Mariam Momodu, ‘The Economic Empowerment of Women in African: Regional approaches to Gender-Sensitive Trade Policies’, African Journal of International Economic Law,volume 1 (Fall 2020), pp. 1 – 40, at p.33

11Ibid.

12Ibid.

13Parminder Val OBE, ‘Benefits of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Agreement to African SMEs’, (2021) available at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/benefits-african-continental-free-trade-area-afcfta-smes-vir-obe/?trackingId=RmH7ruiOSl2Ae064xTrMzA%3D%3D, (accessed 08 March ,2021)

14Involvement of women in technical fields is miserably poor. See Dan L. Burk, ‘Bridging the gender gap in intellectual property’, (2018), available at https://www.wipo.int/wipo_magazine/en/2018/02/article_0001.html, (accessed 08 March 2021).

15EAC, ‘EAC-COMESA-ECOWAS launch digital platform to empower women’, (2019), available at https://www.eac.int/press-releases/146-gender,-community-development-civil-society/1633-eac-comesa-ecowas-launch-digital-platform-to-empower-women, (accessed 08 March, 2021)

16ibid

17World Bank and WTO Report, supra, at x.

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