To mark International Women’s Day this year, many international organisations turned the spotlight on female entrepreneurs in the Arab countries who have launched successful business ventures in industry, agriculture, or the service sector.
One of these was the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), which in its International Women’s Day celebration last week profiled the success stories of women in Arab countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria who have launched educational programmes for women and girls to help them integrate modern technologies into their economic activities.
Such success stories are important as they focus attention on the challenges women may face when trying to launch small or micro-enterprises. Often the problems have less to do with available financing than with the skills and know-how women need in order to put modern technologies to work to set up and run their enterprises in an efficient, sustainable, and profitable fashion.
This topic was explored in the International Women’s Day activities organised by the UfM such as a Webinar on women entrepreneurs and how digital tools can open possibilities for higher rates of employment and business opportunities for women.
During this event, the UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) shared the results of a survey of a sample of women entrepreneurs in industry in seven Arab countries (Egypt, Algeria, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia). This found that only 23 per cent of the sample used digital technology in their manufacturing processes and only four per cent used smart systems. In fact, the women surveyed did not understand what was meant by “smart systems” in the manufacturing sector.
However, even so 84 per cent of them used the Internet for business-related purposes such as publicity and marketing (70 per cent), communicating with clients (63 per cent), and gathering information on the market and competitors (58 per cent).
Most of the women surveyed relied on their mobile phones to connect to the Internet for four reasons: the high cost of the equipment needed to connect to the Internet more securely, the lack of proper Internet coverage in their neighbourhoods, a lack of time to install and programme the required equipment, and fears for their personal safety while using it.
On the other hand, the survey showed that the women were aware of the advantages that digital technologies would bring to their enterprises. A large majority (75 per cent) realised that modern technology improves sales and increases profits, 42 per cent understood how it could improve marketing distribution, and 38.5 per cent saw how it could improve innovation.
Yet, despite such awareness, the women had not received training in how to integrate technology into their business operations. Only 25 per cent of them had had some training related to modern technology, while 65 per cent of them wished they could get this kind of training.
The results of this survey draw attention to a weakness in programmes that aim to promote the economic empowerment of women in the Arab region. Most of these focus on financing small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and pay little attention to global transformations in economic activities as the result of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and high-tech applications that are increasingly using artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, and the Internet of things for business purposes.
What this means is that policymakers who want to empower women in the Arab region need to shift perspective. Instead of relying on numbers and ratios of female entrepreneurs in SMEs and micro-enterprises as progress indicators, they need to take a more in-depth look at how those operations and activities function, especially in terms of the extent to which they integrate modern technologies.
Policymakers also need to explore new approaches to helping women put technological advances to work in the economic activities they engage in. This requires a focus on awareness-raising and capacity-building in how to use technology to create business solutions that promote both sustainability and profitability.
At the same time, they need to rethink the formal educational curricula, whether in the school system or in vocational training institutes, with an eye to incorporating components related to digital technologies and integrating them into economic activities. The more literate and proficient we are in digital technologies, the more we can promote the smart use of available resources, be they material, economic, or human.
The writer is head of the Security Research Department at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a visiting professor of political science at Cairo University.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly