From 2000 to 2019, Africa experienced a surge in population growth, adding a total of 505 million people to the landmass. Although the continent saw a decline in its poverty rate from 48% in 2000 to 34% in 2019, the massive growth in population ultimately beset this figure, making Africa home to the world’s most disadvantaged countries. In sub-Saharan Africa specifically, women continuously face a lack of access to technology, resources, services and opportunities, limiting economic growth for women in Africa.
While women control 80% of food production, they do not usually hold ownership tiles to land or assets. A lack of financial freedom, which includes the fact that men are typically the breadwinners, often means women must shoulder the burden of household responsibilities and have little to no say in important decisions. Since women are routinely disadvantaged, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Women’s Economic Development Initiative seeks to rectify this inequity and bolster economic growth for women in Africa.
Bloomberg Philanthropies seeks to increase female autonomy by creating direct opportunities for women to act on their own financial endeavors. Beginning in 2007 in Rwanda, the program worked to provide women with the skills to earn a sustainable income. As the program got its start, women enrolled in the initiative became participants in a series of classes relating to health, hygiene, nutrition, maternal health and financial savings. These classes, which taught essential life skills, only served as a preliminary step. The second round of classes, specialized and tailored to specific regions, focused on vocational practices, including culinary arts, agrotourism, hospitality and health care.
As more women received access to individual training, they also received personal lessons relating to their health and financial independence. With guaranteed training and further investment into the initiative, women in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Nigeria and Sudan began to organize and control their own businesses and become economically empowered and independent.
The program continued to grow in Rwanda, with more women able to access individualized training for the growth and processing of coffee. Although conflict in Sudan and Nigeria led to the elimination of the program in those countries, the success of Rwandan women in their coffee growing and export practices demonstrated the initiative’s continued investment in expanding economic growth for women in Africa.
The Women’s Economic Development Initiative has operated for the past 16 years, with more than 724,000 women receiving access to educational and vocational programs. The program received funding and support from Women for Women International and Sustainable Growers Rwanda — two organizations that raised awareness about Bloomberg Philanthropies’ project and attracted 360,000 women to the cause. A commitment to growing this initiative will continue to expand economic growth for women in Africa.
Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) evaluated the success of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ initiative from 2008-2018, noting the various improvements and developments rippling throughout the African continent. In general, the Women’s Economic Development Initiative provided women with essential skills, including how to earn an income and access financial networks. With this, women were also able to exact control in their households and have a say in financial decisions.
In fact, as more women participated in the program, their individual incomes greatly increased. Rwandan women earned a monthly income $4.17 greater than before. Similarly, in the DRC, women’s monthly income rose by $16.47.
As women came to earn their own money, without help from their husbands, some felt inspired to work on their own and invest. Some graduates ended up opening largely successful businesses, running for political leadership roles and advocating for female financial health.
A program graduate from the DRC noted that she “underestimated [herself]…but for the moment [she] is recognized as a member in the AFDC political party…involved in promoting the activities of the youth and faithful mothers of the party.”
Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies, reflected on the success of the program, noting that “As women’s income and assets increase, so does their decision-making power and their ability to invest in themselves and their families.” Echoing this sentiment, as the program continues to expand throughout the continent, there will be more opportunities available to increase economic growth for women in Africa and bolster women’s rights.
– Maddy Grieco