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INTERVIEW: Powering Women Entrepreneurship in Africa with Mastercard

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Luis Monzon
Luis Monzon
Journalist. Reach me at

Ebehijie Momoh is the senior VP and GM for Mastercard West Africa. A role she has held since December 2019. Based in Nigeria, Ebehijie focuses on the advancement of the Mastercard brand presence in West Africa as well as deploying innovative payment solutions and partnering with local governments and market regulators to build, what Mastercard calls, a World Beyond Cash – starting with a digital, cashless Africa.

For February’s International Women’s Month, IT News Africa’s Luis Monzon had the opportunity to speak to Ebehijie on how Mastercard’s new methods of digitisation could empower the growth of women entrepreneurs in Africa, and what burgeoning young women in the industry should keep in mind going forward. Here’s what transpired:

From your perspective, as a businesswoman in a senior position in a large international company, what are the issues that hold back women from achieving the business successes that their male counterparts enjoy?

In Africa, women are a vital source of innovation, prosperity, and economic growth and it is the only region in the world where more women than men choose to become entrepreneurs.

Yet inequality and exclusion still hold women back in many aspects of their everyday lives; from growing their businesses to having the financial tools to participate in the formal economy, from joining the C-Suite to following their passions. While positive steps are being taken to level the playing field, too much of our world is still designed without women in mind and without women involved.

According to research findings from the World Bank, women in Africa are generally marginalised because of the disparity in the access of IT solutions, and further are kept back by institutional barriers that keep these women from accessing funding. These include high-interest rates, a lack of collateral guarantees and an overall complicated process in the venue of securing funding.

Other than this, young women are barred from the industry because of restrictive cultural and social norms whereby women business owners are often restricted by family or cultural expectations that impede them from accessing the financial and business services they need to help drive their business ventures.

Finally, its a lack of confidence that is needed to deal with the region’s bureaucracies and financial institutions because of hostility and criticism they receive from communities.

Despite these challenges, our recent Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs (MIWE) also found that sub-Saharan African women are largely entrepreneurial.  They are forging ahead despite the restrictions that could slow them down.

In fact, the survey revealed that Uganda, Ghana, and Botswana, ranked as the top three countries with the highest percentages of women-owned businesses across the 58 markets evaluated in the research.

However, most of these women entrepreneurs are “driven-by-necessity”, determined to succeed despite a lack of access to funds and an enabling environment in order to provide the basic needs for themselves and their families. For these women, there is, unfortunately, no guarantee these businesses will grow beyond micro- or small business stage. Imagine what they could achieve with access to capital and enabling services?

There are definite bottom-line benefits to empowering women – closing the workforce gender gap could add $12 trillion to global wealth by 2025, specifically $300 billion in sub-Saharan Africa. The UNDP estimates that failure to integrate women into national economies costs SSA countries a combined $95 billion in lost productivity every year. And, a 2019 McKinsey report finds that $316 billion could be added to Africa’s GDP in 2025 if countries matched the progress towards gender equality of their best-performing neighbour.

Please explain how targeted support and digital innovation in business and entrepreneurship can fast-track these women and overcome some of these issues.

Let me start by giving some context, you see, as I mentioned earlier, too much of our world was designed without women in mind – and without women involved. Even today, inequality and exclusion still hold women back. Often, the data we rely on to create the future doesn’t truly capture women’s experiences, and we fail to spot the barriers that prevent women from seizing the possibilities we create.

On our part, we are committed to helping to pave the way for the progress and prosperity of businesses owned by women. We apply our technology to empower women and enable them to become successful entrepreneurs.

That’s why Mastercard has made gender equality a central, guiding theme, not only in our own diversity and inclusion efforts but also in our business strategy. In all facets of our workplace, business operations, products, partnerships, and sponsorships, we’re committed to reshaping the way our world is designed and advancing the journey toward gender equality in Africa and around the world. After all, a world that works better for women creates limitless possibilities for us all.

Women by Design is Mastercard’s insight fueled approach to incorporate women’s perspectives into the design and innovation process in order to create better products, services, communications and experiences that open greater opportunities for women – especially in the financial sector, where our aim is to connect more women to financial innovations that meet their needs. When women’s financial needs are met, it’s a win for women, their families, and businesses like our own.

Here is how Mastercard is approaching the challenges faced by women as outlined by the research findings from the World Bank – with regards to a disparity in access to the Internet & Technology, we just announced a partnership with Samsung to enable digital access to consumers and small businesses in emerging markets through its extensible Pay on Demand platform.

Mastercard’s Pay on Demand platform is designed to accelerate digital inclusion by bringing together financial institutions, original equipment manufacturers and telcos to holistically solve issues that have limited device financing in emerging markets. In line with Mastercard’s principles for data responsibility, the solution allows consumers to access devices in a pay-as-you-go model.

Tackling the challenge of institutional barriers to accessing funding such as high-interest rates, lack of collateral guarantees, complicated process and lack of business track record to secure financing, we have solutions like Jaza Duka, Mastercard Farmer Network, Kupaa and uKeshe.

With Jaza Duka, in partnership with Unilever and KCB Bank, Mastercard helps micro-merchants, many of whom are women, in Kenya grow by enabling access to credit and by helping to build their capacity as business owners.

Mastercard Farmer Network (MFN) – a digital platform that connects smallholder farmers, agents, buyers, service providers, and financial institutions. MFN provides farmers, including women who balance farming and household duties, with a digital identity enabling them to sell produce, buy inputs and receive payments for agricultural goods via their feature phones.

Kupaa is a digital payment tool that is making school fees more affordable by allowing caregivers to pay them via a basic cell phone in small amounts and allowing multiple individuals to contribute funds to the child’s education. Many women are the caregivers that manage savings to keep children in school, especially girls who are pulled out at a higher rate than boys.

uKheshe, backed by banking payments partner Nedbank, enables people without bank accounts or smartphones to get paid in real-time through an uKheshe card, which features a Quick Response (QR) code linked to their cell phone number. More than 55% of uKheshe’s active base are females with more than 10,000.

To address the lack of confidence problem, Mastercard is working with Junior Achievement South Africa to empower women and youth, and drive entrepreneurship. This initiative is focused on empowering unemployed or self-employed young women between the ages of 18 – 35 to pursue entrepreneurial ventures of their own. The nine-year partnership with JA South Africa has helped 3,000+ young girls and women gain entrepreneurial skills, start new businesses and create new jobs.

In Nigeria, we support the Youth for Technology Foundation, which has provided financial literacy training to over 15,000 women over the past 5 years. The partnership focuses on deepening female entrepreneurs’ business management and capacity building skills through classroom and online training.

Mastercard is contributing to enabling more women to participate and be present in jobs that will power the future – jobs in science and technology. For example, the Girls4Tech education programme which we launched in 2014, aims to drive interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) studies and careers among primary school girls aged 10, 11 and 12. The programme connects Mastercard’s payment technology business to STEM principles and shows students that it takes all kinds of interests and skills to pursue a STEM career. Last year, we set out to reach 200,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 13 by 2020. So far, we’ve reached more than 70,000 girls in 21 countries.

Finally, to create an enabling regulatory environment, we participate in forums and platforms like the Forbes Woman Africa Leading Women Summit, where we join likeminded people to debate and promote the Women by Design thinking. We need to have more women involved in the design process of goods and services and have their needs taken into consideration when solutions are being created.

What will it take to normalize women in positions of economic power?

More of them. The more women are seen to be successfully heading profitable, sustainable businesses, the easier the path will be for the women who follow. Championing role models is essential and having attended the recent Forbes Woman Africa Leading Women Summit which Mastercard sponsored, reconfirmed to me how important it is to celebrate inspiring women visibly and publicly so their stories can positively influence others.

Of course, businesses also need to address the opportunities related to road-mapping women’s pathways to leadership and learn from advances made by companies which actively champion diversity and equality, and as a result, benefit from a strong corps of women leaders. Over the past five years, Mastercard grew its number of female employees by 370% across Africa, and currently, we have female representation at senior levels of 30% in South Africa, 22% in East Africa, and 33% in West Africa. Our dedicated Women’s Leadership Network enables career opportunities for women, inspires success, encourages entrepreneurial leadership and encourages our women to lead.

How does empowering women through digital innovation push us as a society forward, how does it create new opportunities for us all?

By empowering women, we empower families, communities, and local economies. When women have financial accounts, they tend to spend more than men on food, education, and health care, increasing the welfare and productivity of their families. Research shows that improving women’s access to finance could boost global economic output by up to $28 trillion by 2025.

Do you have any advice for young women navigating the “trenches” of the business world for the first time?

Persevere, perform and prove your worth. The world is transforming and making way for women who understand business and know what they are doing. This is not happening as quickly as we would like, but it is happening and if women hone their skills and make the most of every opportunity, nothing will stop them.

Edited by Luis Monzon

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