Women entrepreneurs need digital empowerment

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock


A digital gap highlighted by the covid pandemic must be bridged for progress to be made on entrepreneurial gender parity

Encouraging women to initiate and sustain enterprises could play a pivotal role in uplifting India’s economy and bring about improvements on various social indicators linked to the quality of life and well-being of families. Being inextricably tied with caregiving roles at home, like caring for children, preparing food, etc, also means that women tend to prioritize the well-being of their families and therefore spend a considerable portion of their income on ensuring better education for their children along with the health and nutrition of family members. The Landscape Study on Women Entrepreneurship by EdelGive Foundation shows that women entrepreneurs spend most of their income on food (65%), children’s education (53%), clothing (51%) and health/medical facilities (24%), which results in better educated and healthier generations. Moreover, past studies have indicated that promoting women’s participation in employment and entrepreneurship in India can potentially increase the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) by $0.7 trillion by 2025 . Yet, despite the positive impact that women’s entrepreneurship has on societal development and women’s empowerment, the contribution of women to India’s GDP is estimated at 17% as compared to the global average of 37%, with the share of women-led micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) being a meagre 14% .

A part of this low participation in the workforce and entrepreneurship can be attributed to such underlying causes as a deep-seated patriarchy which dictates that women be relegated to household chores rather than engage in income-earning activities. As a result, women entrepreneurs must often contend with a lack of information, technical know-how and access to technology, which adversely impacts the sustainability and scalability of their startups. The covid pandemic has exacerbated their low access to resources and affected gender parity through the adversities women faced in having to spend more time at home. Of the ones covered in the Landscape Study, 57% of women entrepreneurs reported that their businesses had deteriorated and 68% attributed this to a reduction in market demand, while 56% reported reduced availability of raw materials and 38% reported problems of transportation.

As women-owned micro-enterprises faced the brunt of the pandemic, much of it had to do with little or no access to digital information and platforms that could sustain their businesses. In India, digital penetration in terms of mobile-internet usage by women was likely to be 33% less than that of men. Even among families that do own smartphones or have internet connections, male counterparts are usually in possession of these digital resources instead of women. Only 54% women have a mobile phone that they use on their own. Since the pandemic resulted in a precipitate shift to internet-based solutions for reaching out to both consumers and suppliers, low internet usage by women for business purposes meant they had very limited capacity to make a quick shift. One of the most common factors behind the reported deterioration in business was related to difficulties in collecting payments from clients (69%) and the disbursement of payments to creditors (52%). Prolonged covid restrictions enforced during successive waves of infection meant that a digital pivot was effectively a precondition for an enterprise to function.

Gender equality and digital development are intimately linked, making the adoption of digital solutions by women entrepreneurs imperative. It needs an impetus, however, before we can achieve gender parity on this. With the advent of e-commerce, the digitization of all processes from sales to product development, etc, along with the emergence of e-learning platforms, there is a dire need for women entrepreneurs to gain access to such tools. The Digital Development Global Practice adopted by the World Bank recently focuses on these five pillars of women’s digital empowerment: digital infrastructure, public platforms, financial services, businesses and skills.

The government, corporations, financial institutions and non-profit organizations could play a key role in bridging the prevalent digital gap. Various initiatives of the government—such as the Digital Literacy Mission, Pradhan Mantri Grameen Digital Saksharta Abhiyan, Aadhaar-enabled payment systems and Digi Dhan Abhiyan, among others—have focused on this aspect as a tool for empowerment. Niti Aayog’s Women Entrepreneurship Platform has also proven helpful as a one-stop-shop for women entrepreneurs to access information, learning modules and also loans, support and mentorship digitally. In addition, corporate-led initiatives such as Google Internet Saathi, EdelGive Foundation’s UdyamStree campaign, Facebook Pragati, etc, have worked to bridge gaps in internet access and generate awareness among women entrepreneurs. Banks and other financial institutions have also conducted ‘going-digital’ camps aimed at helping micro-entrepreneurs gain access to digital financial means. The FICCI-FLO Empowering the Greater 50% mission also lays a special emphasis on the digital inclusion of women. With digital access as a priority, it also creates a conducive ecosystem for women’s empowerment by enabling self-reliance, independence and agency, while also boosting their awareness of rights and responsibilities. On the flip side, lack of digital access could lead to lapses that might result in losses on account of lost opportunities in aspects of business like networking or collecting and disbursing payments. The implications of delayed adoption of technology are almost obvious—especially in situations of a public emergency like the covid pandemic. In this scenario, it must be acknowledged that there will be little empowerment of women without digital inclusion.

With the involvement of the government, non-profit agencies and banks, an ecosystem is being created that offers opportunities for digital literacy and skilling, apart from accessible financial products for women. However, there needs to be a better adoption of these initiatives at the grassroots level in order to empower women entrepreneurs across the country. Not only must they have access to digital technology, they should also feel confident of using it to conduct their enterprise operations.

Therefore, digital technology must henceforth be an integral part of all entrepreneurial development programmes for women. Digital education along with access to devices—especially smartphones— would be instrumental in supporting the sustainability of women-run enterprises. As smartphones can prove to be expensive for micro-scale firms, awareness of financing options for smartphones is paramount. With proper networking and use of digital products, women entrepreneurs can not only sustain but also scale up their businesses and potentially contribute significantly to India’s GDP over the years ahead. If the country is to realize its vision of achieving a $5 trillion economy, we must provide the enabling infrastructure for women’s participation in entrepreneurship with technology adoption at the forefront of the exercise.

With the budget of the government for 2022-23 focusing firmly on women’s empowerment, we must leverage all that we can to ensure nobody is left on the wrong side of our digital divide. Digital inclusion could have a major impact on India’s social and economic progress.

Naghma Mulla & Anandi Iyer are, respectively, CEO, EdelGive Foundation; and director, Fraunhofer Office, India, and chairperson, Women in Science and Entrepreneurship Council, FICCI

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.


Switch to the Mint app for fast and personalized news - Get App