Africa’s industrialisation: leaving no woman behind

By Li Yong, UNIDO Director General

Explore this topic further with the upcoming launch of the
2017 African Economic Outlook: Entrepreneurship and Industrialisation in Africa.
Stay tuned for details.

women-work-industry-africaAfrica must industrialise to fulfill its economic potential. To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of the 2030 Agenda, we need to support Africa in accelerating its development by promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialisation.

Inclusive industrialisation means ensuring that no one is left behind, especially not women. Including women is critical, not only because gender equality is a fundamental human right, but also because it enables faster economic growth, shared prosperity and sustainable development. The 2016 Global Gender Gap report1 shows a positive correlation between gender equality and gross domestic product, economic competitiveness and human development. The economic benefits to increasing female labor force participation are real. The OECD estimates that GDP would increase by 12% if participation rates for women were to reach those of men by 2030.2 

We must recognise the importance of the gender equality-industrialisation nexus particularly in the African context. The 2017 High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development will bring this interlinkage to the fore, as both SDG 5 on gender equality and SDG 9 on industry, innovation and infrastructure will undergo in-depth review. Like many of the goals included in the 2030 Agenda, gender equality is not only a goal in itself, but also a means to accomplish other development goals.

In Africa, women provide critical support to their households and communities. In addition to child care and other household responsibilities, it is estimated that they are responsible for 70% of crop production, 50% of animal husbandry, 60% of marketing and nearly 100% of food-processing.3 

Despite these socio-economic contributions, women represent only 38% of the manufacturing workforce in Africa.4 At the same time, in some countries women constitute an estimated 70% of the informal economy.5 Further, women face discrimination in both formal and informal sectors, which persists due to weak enforcement of laws protecting women and to underinvestment in women’s education and health. Enduring prejudice and traditional gender roles are holding African economies back.

The international community repeatedly has stressed the role of industrialisation for women empowerment, especially in Africa. The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the period 2016-2025 as the Third Industrial Development Decade for Africa (IDDA III).6  Gender equality and the empowerment of women are key pillars of UNIDO’s strategy for inclusive industrialisation and are strongly featured in the implementation of IDDA III. In addition, the G20 adopted an initiative in 2016 to support industrialisation in African and least developed countries, which encourages its Members to promote training and skill upgrading for women.7 

So how can Africa’s position at the top of the international development agenda be translated into actions that advance women’s inclusion in its industrialisation?

We need the international community and development partners to back their words with financial commitments and technical support, and build partnerships that will enable Africa to advance its inclusive economic transformation.

African economies must move beyond raw materials and low value addition. Structural transformation can be driven by an increased integration in regional and global value chains. To ensure that women’s potential is realised as part of this process, we must ensure equal opportunities for women and men.

By understanding and building on existing technological innovations, Africa can leapfrog more developed countries and build the capacity to produce higher-value goods. Learning from other countries’ experiences also will help Africa to mitigate environmental risks.

Further, to support the formalisation of African economies, we must strengthen women’s entrepreneurial and technical skills as well as their access to technologies, business support services, advocacy and self-help networks.

Investing in education and vocational training also is imperative for industrialisation to harness women’s potential in the economy. In comparison, half of the economic growth in OECD countries in the past 50 years can be attributed to increased educational attainment, particularly among women.8 

Africa must also recognise the implications of transitioning to advanced manufacturing technologies, which are also known as the New Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0. On the one hand, automation could disproportionately impact roles in which women traditionally represent a larger share of employees, such as office and clerical work. On the other hand, new technologies could facilitate household work and therefore relieve the double burden of working women. African countries could attain inclusive and sustainable industrial development at a much faster speed by mitigating the risks and harnessing the opportunities of advanced manufacturing technologies.

To conclude, the inclusion of women in African industrialisation will stimulate economic growth, contribute to the eradication of extreme poverty and encourage shared prosperity. This is why we need to make it a priority to meet the SDGs.



3. Sandra Zerbo, Olivier Beni, Valérie Traore, Everyday Heroes, (Trust Africa, 2011)






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