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Online platforms can dramatically change the digital economy and bring enormous benefits in today's digital society. They play a prominent role in the creation of 'digital value' that underpins future economic growth and as such are of major importance to the effective functioning of the digital market.
Globally, online platforms come in various shapes and sizes and continue to evolve. In Africa, the African Development Bank (AfDB) is spearheading the development of an innovative networking platform called ‘50 Million Women Speak (50MWS)’, developed within the framework of the programme on Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa (AFAWA), to access information on financial and non-financial services. The US$ 24 Million project which is being implemented by three Regional Economic communities (RECs), namely, COMESA covering East and Southern Africa, EAC covering East Africa, and ECOWAS covering West Africa, is targeting women entrepreneurs in Africa, who often struggle to access information on financial and non-financial services, and who also are less likely to have established business networks or mentors that can offer them much-needed advice and guidance on how to grow their businesses.
The 50MWS online platform is unprecedented and will present important and specific characteristics including: ability to create and shape new women’s markets, to challenge traditional ones, and organize new forms of participation based on collecting, processing, and editing large amounts of data that will be collected from the regions as well as provide multisided markets with direct interactions between groups of users particularly women and youths. Users of the platform will benefit from ‘network effects’, where, broadly speaking, the value of the service will increase with the number of users.
The Platform will not only rely on information and communication technologies that are designed to reach users, instantly and effortlessly, but also play a key role in digital value creation, notably by capturing significant value through data accumulation from in-country teams in the 36 regional member countries, facilitating new business ventures, and creating new strategic dependencies. With these features, a range of important benefits will be brought to the digital economy and women and youth in particular and facilitate efficiency gains, while acting as a magnet for data-driven innovation in various sectors including trade, agriculture and services in which women are mostly active.
With this Platform, women will exercise their consumer preference rights, thereby contributing to improved competitiveness of industry and enhancing consumer welfare and women’s economic participation. Specifically, the platform will improve the ability of women entrepreneurs to network and share information and to access financial services including online advertising platforms, marketplaces, search engines, social media and creative content outlets, application distribution platforms, communications services and payment systems for a collaborative and inclusive economy.
The 50MWS platform presents major innovation opportunities for African Women start-ups, new and established business operators to develop new business models, products and services. But to achieve this, efforts have to be directed at addressing some of the challenges on the ground. Most women owned businesses are either too small to qualify for government financial assistance or bank loans or are unaware that these resources exist. A scoping study conducted by the AfDB in 2016 also estimates close to US$ 42 billion gap in women financing in Africa. However, studies have shown that Africa has a thriving start-up community with dynamic women entrepreneurs targeting new opportunities in sectors such as Agriculture. The Agriculture sector alone employs over 175 million people on the continent, majority of them women. With adequate finance, technology transfer and skills development, agriculture has the potential to end Africa’s food insecurity, youth unemployment and mass migration while safeguarding the environment. The African Economic Outlook 2017 also reveals that women in Africa are twice more likely to start a business than women elsewhere in the world.
This is why, AfDB in collaboration with the RECs are committed to ensuring that the Platform creates value for women, by seeing to it that the right framework and appropriate environment are created in close collaboration with the 36 regional member countries where the project is being implemented. A meeting of technical experts that met in Lusaka, Zambia 9-12 October, to launch the platform concluded that, first and foremost this involves breaking down barriers associated with digital platforms, providing guidance on applicable legislation and policies and making recommendations with the aim of supporting balanced development of the digital market economy. The COMESA Gender Director, Beatrice Hamusonde reassured that COMESA was ready to work with the other RECs to establish a strategy for the continent. “The cross-border nature of 50MWS platforms means that success requires good cooperation between relevant authorities and also dependent on the content we provide for the benefit of the end users,’ she said.
Also, speaking at the meeting, the AfDB representative, Salieu Jack said ‘‘in order to reap the full benefits from the platform and stimulate growth in women businesses, self-evidently, there cannot be 36 different sets of rules, processes and data designs for the online platform. Differing rules for the online platform create uncertainty for economic operators, limit the availability of digital services, and generate confusion for users and businesses,’’ he added.
The 50MWS was designed to implement Pillar 4 of the AFAWA programme which was launched at the Bank’s Annual Meeting in May 2016 in Lusaka, Zambia. AFAWA is a pan African-wide initiative with an overarching objective of addressing, in a holistic manner, access to finance challenges faced by women in business, specifically women entrepreneurs, through the mobilization of financial and other non-financial resources.