Women entrepreneurs could help enrich the world by $6 trillion

Worldwide, there’s a $1.7 trillion gap between the credit women need and what they’re able to get.
Worldwide, there’s a $1.7 trillion gap between the credit women need and what they’re able to get.


  • Women entrepreneurs face funding discrimination and the world’s financial system must reform to remedy it. No country can grow healthier and more prosperous if half its people are left behind.

Every small business owner knows how difficult it can be to access affordable capital. But for many women in the Global South, it’s not just difficult, it’s often impossible. A few years ago in Senegal, I met a woman who decided to do something about that problem. In 2017, Thiaba Camara Sy left her consultancy job and co-founded WIC Capital, an investment fund for women entrepreneurs in West Africa. Since then, WIC Capital has raised more than $5 million and invested in eight businesses run by women who knocked on far too many closed doors before WIC saw their potential.

One of those women, Souadou Fall, co-founded a firm that turns abandoned tires, which would otherwise gather rainwater and breed mosquitoes, into fuel for factories. Fashion designer Safiétou Seck, who’d struggled to find funding despite an MBA and years of experience, was able to grow her business and now has customers around the world. And Isseu Diop Sakho expanded a business that bakes French pastries from native grains, supporting 20 local suppliers and 75 employees.

As inspiring as these stories are, they underscore a big problem: When women entrepreneurs succeed, it’s in spite of the system, not because of it. Worldwide, there’s a $1.7 trillion gap between the credit women need and what they’re able to get. Estimates suggest that by closing that gap, as much as $6 trillion in global GDP can be unlocked. That’s a net gain for the world that we can’t afford to pass up.

A confluence of crises—wars, climate change, covid—has left low- and middle-income countries with sluggish economic growth: 43% of the world’s poorest nations have a lower per-capita GDP now than in 2019. The problem and opportunity are profound in Africa, which has the highest proportion of women entrepreneurs in the world. No country can grow healthier and more prosperous while leaving behind half its people. As leaders gather at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings this week to find ways to accelerate economic growth, they must also seek ways to unlock women’s economic power, starting with access to capital.

After all, while investment funds like WIC Capital can make a difference for a handful of startups, they can’t come close to making up the huge financing shortfall. For that, we need systemic change. Many financial systems simply weren’t built with small borrowers and women in mind. These are rife with bias from lenders who can legally discriminate against women in 96 countries. When a woman walks through the door with a good idea, a smart business plan and a dream to improve her future, lenders too often see only risk. And the women who do get loans often receive far smaller ones than men, even though evidence from M-Kopa, an asset-financier, shows that women are 10% less likely than men to default on their repayments.

Reforms can address the financing gap.

First, governments should remove the barriers facing responsible lenders trying to serve low-income customers while still protecting people from predatory lenders. Capital buffers and compliance burdens can rise along with the lender’s size and complexity. A small microfinance lender isn’t the same as a full-service bank.

Second, the development community should make funds from donor countries available to lenders to help manage risk. If lenders know they’re partially covered in case of default, they’re more likely to invest in a more diverse range of entrepreneurs. This way, donors also incentivize large lenders to loan money to smaller ones.

Third, governments should invest in digital infrastructure so that lenders can add customers cheaply and assess creditworthiness in new ways. Women are less likely than men to have formal credit histories, but they may have informal ones, built by paying bills and saving and pooling money in local groups. With digital tools, lenders can evaluate customers based on less traditional data and share that information securely with other lenders.

Finally, donor countries must fully fund the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA), which must prioritize the lowest-income countries in its efforts to reduce poverty and spur economic growth. By offering loans on better terms, the IDA helps lay the foundation for those countries to build stronger financial systems and aid entrepreneurship.

Getting capital to women is not just the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do. WIC Capital has performed well. A quarter of all African women are entrepreneurs. Imagine if their futures didn’t depend solely on a few visionaries by Sy. Imagine the progress that would be possible—for their families, communities and countries—if those who hold the keys to capital opened the doors to all. ©bloomberg

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