Only 1 in 3 African women have access to the internet compared to half of men. The cost to the continent’s economy could be in the billions

People line the streets as U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visits Lusaka, Zambia April 1. Kent Nishimura – Los Angeles Times – Getty Images

During a trip to Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia in April, Vice President Kamala Harris announced more than $1 billion in public and private investment to bridge the digital divide in Africa, with a focus on expanding access for girls and women. It might seem like a niche target. Indeed, it will not only expand opportunities for millions of people but also have far-reaching knock-on effects on health, growth, stability and resilience in a region of growing strategic importance.

Improving women’s access to technologies and digital skills is key to ensuring they can fully participate and contribute to today’s economy. However, today only one in three African women use the internet, compared to nearly half of men. Women on the continent are also 30% less likely than men to own a smartphone.

This lack of access hampers women’s entrepreneurship and deprives society of their talents and innovations.

The internet, for example, was instrumental in helping Fafape Ama Etsa Foe establish E90 Ghana, a sustainable farm in Accra that uses sawdust to grow mushrooms. Sawdust, a byproduct of the woodworking industry, is typically burned, which pollutes the air and can lead to health problems, including cancer. E90 Ghana uses it instead to produce healthy and nutritious food, while improving the environment and increasing the resilience of local food systems to climate change.

Ms. Foe, who is known locally as the Queen of Mushrooms and recently met with Vice President Harris to discuss the economic importance of empowering women, told me the internet has helped her research growing techniques, challenges and opportunities. of mushrooms. Today she also allows her to reach more customers and keep costs down. I’m in contact with all my regular customers on WhatsApp and Telegram, where I take their orders and deliver them without delay, she says. These digital tools have helped me prevent post-harvest losses, which used to account for up to 25% of annual revenue.

Ms Foe believes that improved digital connectivity will foster entrepreneurship among women on the continent by expanding access to information and funding opportunities: closing the digital gender gap will help women, particularly to market their products and also to come out with new innovative products.

Their families, communities and society at large will also benefit. Indeed, investments in Internet infrastructure grow the economy as a whole. The World Bank estimates that expanding broadband penetration by 10% in low- and middle-income economies results in a 1.4% increase in real GDP per capita. And according to the UN Women’s Gender Snapshot 2022 report, the exclusion of women from the digital economy has already cost low- and middle-income countries $1 trillion in GDP in the previous decade, and the cost could grow to $1.5 trillion by 2025 if nothing is done to close the gap.

Whispa Health is another example of a woman-founded company that wouldn’t be possible without reliable Internet access. It’s a Nigeria-based app that gives users, mainly women and young people, access to information about their sexual and reproductive health, as well as a platform to book appointments with healthcare professionals and purchase contraceptives, STI tests, and other healthcare products.

Morenike Fajemisin, co-founder and CEO, told me she wanted to help young women take care of their health so they could continue studying and achieve their dreams. As long as that woman or young person has access to a smartphone, she has a way to connect with Whispa Health through our app or any of our social media channels, she said. Thanks to the Internet, it takes just a few clicks to find the shameless and confidential healthcare you need.

We need more women entrepreneurs like Ms Foe and Ms Fajemisin to tackle some of the biggest challenges we are facing today, including climate change, pandemic surveillance and democratic backsliding. Bridging the digital gender divide in Africa is a crucial first step. It will open up the innovation economy to millions of women and girls on the continent. It will give them and through them their children and communities access to knowledge and quality education, as well as health care, which in turn will further stimulate economic development, help build more resilient communities and strengthen the democracies.

The knock-on effects will be large. As Ms. Fajemisin told me, when girls hear about successful women who come from similar backgrounds or nationalities, they realize that such success is possible for them too. (Or, as civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman put it, you can’t be what you don’t see.)

The Global North should not hesitate when it comes to investing in Africa’s digital infrastructure. Sub-Saharan Africa’s population, now around 1.2 billion, is set to nearly double by 2050. And according to a Brookings Institution study, consumer spending on the continent is expected to rise to $2.5 trillion by 2050. 2030.

More business and philanthropic leaders should respond to Vice President Harris’ call to action and join the effort to advance gender equality and digital access in Africa. We will all benefit.

Michelle A. Williams is Dean of the Faculty of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

Opinions expressed in comments are solely the opinions of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or beliefs ofFortune.

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