‘Dearth of Women -Led Tech Start-Ups is Costing Us All’

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Muhammad Nabil

Africa’s technology start-up scene is vibrant – and growing fast. There are currently over 640 active technology hubs across the continent, and according to Partech Africa, start-ups raised $1.163 billion raised in equity funding in 2018 – a 108% year-on-year growth. Topping the list are fintech start-ups, who raised $132.75 million in 2018 – enjoying 39.7 percent of all funding.

Despite this momentum, however, there’s a concerning trend: Globally, women-led start-ups only receive two percent of all venture capital (VC) funding – and the picture within enterprise tech is dimmer. Additionally, of all start-ups, only 22 percent are founded by at least one woman. Africa-specific data is lacking, but sources suggest only nine percent of start-ups have women-leaders, and female-led South African start-ups receive only 4.5 percent of all funding.

Female-led start-ups are in short supply. And, where they are available, they often lack the investor backing to scale. The result is a significant loss of insight, perspectives, development and solutions, which affects us all.

African tech start-ups are renowned for building solutions to some of the most complex challenges. This often stems from having first-hand experience of the problem, and knowing best how to solve it. In Nigeria, payment technology company Flutterwave enables Africans to build global businesses that can accept and make any payment from anywhere in the world. Their goal is to see that any merchant can process their payment with ease. By aggregating payment services from multiple gateways and placing them under one platform, Flutterwave is also helping international merchants more cost-effectively navigate the local market by embracing alternative payment methods, such as mobile money.

Technology like this is set to completely redefine the way we interact with the world. But if technology is only being created by a portion of the population, how effective will it really be? Without the input and contribution of women, how many challenges and opportunities will go unnoticed, or only partially met?

Innovation needs diversity

Microsoft recently partnered with Sehat Kahani, a tele-health start-up founded by two women, Dr. Iffat Zafar and Dr. Sara Khurram, in Pakistan. As doctors themselves, they noticed a recurring “doctor-bride” trend, where only 23 percent of female medical graduates in Pakistan become registered physicians. The others either move abroad, or stop practicing after marriage due to socio-cultural pressures and household responsibilities. Yet, Pakistan is in desperate need of doctors, with a doctor-patient ratio of 1:1200.

Sehat Kahani developed a platform that pairs these female physicians with patients in need of healthcare. Patients receive affordable and quality care virtually using tele-medicine, while female physicians are able to remain active, working at home on their own hours to effectively balance family life.

If it weren’t for these two women entrepreneurs, this challenge, opportunity and approach could have been missed entirely.

Diversity is better for business

Investors recognise the need for diversity in the long-run, which makes the lack of early-stage funding for female start-ups perplexing. Studies show that start-ups with at least one female founder raise, over time, 21 percent more VC funding than companies with all-male teams. Similarly, research also shows that if women and men participate equally as entrepreneurs, global GDP could rise by approximately three to six percent.

Diversity in business doesn’t just yield better innovation, but better financial results too, as mixed teams are better able to recognise and capitalize on market opportunities.

So, the question becomes: What is needed to encourage more women to start businesses, and investors to take bigger bets on them earlier?

Firstly, female entrepreneurs need to be given equal access to the tools needed to succeed as their male peers, including access to finance, technology, markets, information, skills and services. Second, and as a partial solve to the first, investing in diversity starts with having a diverse team of investors. Start-up mentors, investors, pitch competition judges and all ecosystem players should come from diverse backgrounds, able to recognise, relate to and see the potential in different challenges and opportunities.

Last year’s Africa Seedstars Summit had a dedicated focus on female entrepreneurship, which is a positive step forward. However, the focus should not be on women-only initiatives or women-specific conversations alone, but on initiatives and conversations centered around all start-ups, where women are considered and treated as equals. Diversity and Inclusion are not an initiative, they’re a lifestyle.

Nabil is Partners and Star-Ups Strategy Lead at Microsoft 4afrika