In a global economy which has seen turbulent times since the financial crisis of 2008 onwards, the growth of sub-Saharan African economies is one of the greatest, and perhaps most unexpected – success stories. In general, African economies have consistently outperformed the economies of what is sometimes referred to as the “developed” world with average growth rising by around 6% in 2014, compared with flat-lining, or even moderate recession, in many traditional “first world” economic powerhouses.
But GDP and economic growth only tells a fraction of the picture. Sub-Saharan Africa remains a region of massive inequality, deprivation, conflict and waste. The challenge for African economies will be to build on recent successes to make growth sustainable and inclusive for all.
Woman processing rice in Ghana
Can African growth be sustained?
How can this be achieved in a regional economy which still relies heavily on primary industries – agriculture and extractive production? Joaquim Chissano, former president of Mozambique writing in the journal Europe’s World, puts a powerful case that the only way to ensure sustained inclusivity is the full and equal involvement of African women. While the greater women empowerment is long overdue in a global sense, the need to harness what is arguably Africa’s greatest untapped resource – the energy, resourcefulness and power of its women and girls – is a vital component in driving growth and development and overcoming the legacy of imperialism which has held Africa back for far too long. In reaching its true potential, Africa doesn’t just unlock benefits for the region, but for the global economy too.
Developments in agriculture, required to offset the droughts already experienced by much of the region and exacerbated by the effects of climate change, are one area where women empowerment is a key issue. With increasing urbanisation, yields need to increase beyond the agrarian “cash crop” economic model to sustain further industrial growth. Studies across Africa suggest that increasing the involvement of women and equalising women’s access to productive resources could potentially increase agricultural yields by 20-30%.
Increased women empowerment is important not just in agriculture. As Africa continues to develop a solid manufacturing base in the region’s growing urban centres, it becomes increasingly important to challenge the established male dominance in the industrial sector. Again, studies cited by Chissano and others suggest increases in worker productivity are possible – and necessary if Sub-Saharan economic growth is to be sustained. Thought of in terms of Rostow’s model of stages of economic growth, Africa is close to achieving the “Pre-Conditions for Take-Off”. In order to reach Take-Off and the subsequent “Drive to Maturity”, Women empowerment is the key.
Progress still required
But even in its progress towards achieving women empowerment, Africa remains a region of contrasts. For example, in terms of involving women in government, the region has a proud record. Women are increasingly engaged in government in African nations as a brief review of the composition of the governments of countries like Malawi, Liberia and Senegal will confirm.
Isibindi team of the National Association of Child Care Workers in South Africa, source Lindsay Mgbor/Department for International Development
In 2008, Rwanda was the first country in the world to have a majority of women in the legislature. However, as referenced in Francesca de Bardin’s inspirational book for women, "Fighting Global Tyranny – Where are the Women?" inequality, abuse and violence against women remains endemic in some parts of Africa.. African Women’s charities like the Association for Women’s Sanctuary and Development (AWSAD) are taking the lead in not only combatting the effects of lingering post-colonial imperialism attitudes towards women but taking massive steps towards changing attitudes, as this article in the Guardian Newspaper vividly illustrates.
Releasing the potential of the millions of African women can transform the sub-Saharan economy to the benefit of all of us. Women in Africa are at the very centre of the region’s sustainable development. Indeed, In terms of the health, education and social inclusiveness and equality of women within society, it’s arguably only women and inherently female values which can create the preconditions necessary to harness the much needed human capital and enterprise which African women can inject into the regional economy.
About the Author
Since my first visit to Africa with a children’s charity I have been fascinated and appalled in equal measure by the stark contrast in social and economic development of the continent. The extent to which African women are making a difference is the most inspiring change in recent years.