Female tech entrepreneurs are instigating a revolution

March 8, 2012 12:01 am

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In 2010, two Kenyan women, Jamila Abbas and Susan Oguya, were angered by newspaper reports about middlemen exploiting small farmers. In response, the two IT professionals launched M-Farm, a company that sends farmers real-time crop prices and market information via SMS, connecting them directly with food exporters and cutting out the middlemen. Now, less than two years later, M-Farm reaches more than 2,000 farmers in Kenya, including many female smallholders, and has won several international awards.

Ms. Abbas and Ms. Oguya represent a new class of female innovators. They have built a profitable business that empowers women and that contributes to a more open and inclusive society. It is women like them -- entrepreneurs who found companies, create jobs and lead the way toward gender equality in the developing world -- whom we celebrate today, the 101st International Women's Day.

According to the World Bank's World Development Report 2012, the world's 3.5 billion woman and girls still face an uneven playing field in education, employment, earnings and decision-making power.

The report shows that gender inequality comes with a cost, while equality for women can create economic opportunities and boost efficiency and productivity. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that if women in rural areas had the same access to land, technology, financial services, education and markets that men do, agricultural production would increase and the number of hungry people would be reduced by 100 million to 150 million.

There are bright spots on the horizon. Forbes magazine's "100 Most Powerful Women" last year listed its traditional collection of government officials, activists and business leaders, but it also included a new cadre of women in technology: venture capitalists, start-up managers and engineers leading technological innovation.

Women entrepreneurs in developing countries face special challenges starting companies in the formal economy and expanding them into firms with growth potential. The World Bank's 2011 report, "Women, Business and the Law," noted that women in 103 of the 141 economies that it analyzed still face legal discrimination on the basis of gender. The fact that M-Farm launched in Kenya is no coincidence: According to the same report, Kenya has led the world in gender-parity reforms over the past two years.

First Published 2012-03-07 23:41:47

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