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‘Digital Her’ conference calls time on the gender-gap in Sierra Leone’s digital boom


The tech sector is growing faster in Africa than any other region. The Digital Her Conference (21 March 2024) asks how can we ensure Sierra Leonean women share fully in the opportunities facilitated by the digital economy as creators, consumers and beneficiaries?

 

Sierra Leone is on the brink of a transformative digital explosion with the potential to enhance financial inclusion, access to information and services, job creation and economic growth. But, as digital technology becomes ever more integrated into everyday Sierra Leonean life, a growing digital gender divide means that women are in danger of missing out on many of these opportunities unless we act now.

 

The country has plenty of reasons to be pleased with its recent record on digital development. Mobile internet penetration increased from about 13 percent in 2014 to about 27 percent of total population in 2019 (GSMA, 2020), making us one of the most improved countries, and is estimated to have reached 30 percent in 2021. The latest data shows Sierra Leone’s continued expansion in the number of internet users (2.4 million persons in 2021), the number of persons using social media platforms (850,000 people), and the number of mobile connections (equivalent to 100 percent of the population). Sierra Leone is also rapidly adopting digital financial services (DFS), from about 9 percent of adults using a DFS account in 2017 to about 30 percent in 2019.

 

As with other nations, COVID-19 accelerated Sierra Leone’s adoption of digital technologies. In the face of lockdowns and travel bans, both the public sector – led by the Directorate of Science Technology and Innovation, and the business sector found innovative ways to deliver goods and services. The launch last year, of the Ministry of Communication, Technology and Innovation to harness digital tools to leapfrog the country into middle income status is a clear signal that Sierra Leone is serious about building on its progress.

 

Despite our progress, there is still a long way to go if we are to catch up with other countries in the region.

 

Around 1.5 million Sierra Leoneans live out of reach of mobile signals and still do not have access to mobile broadband services. Also, although mobile connectivity is broadly in line with the regional average, it is below the regional average in terms of individuals’ use of the internet. Mobile broadband services remain more expensive than in most African countries. According to the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), Sierra Leone ranked 68 out of 72 countries in the Affordability Drivers Index 2020 and broadband remains expensive as Sierra Leoneans are paying 9.86 percent instead of 2 percent of their monthly income to purchase 1GB equivalent of mobile broadband data.

 

Nowhere are these opportunities and challenges more profound than among women who are disproportionately excluded from the digital revolution. A recent study by UNICEF found that boys in developing countries are 180 per cent more likely to own smartphones than girls. UNICEF’s research also shows that in Sierra Leone, young men are twice as likely as young women to have digital skills and 11% of young men use of the internet compared to only 9% of young women. Furthermore only 17 per cent of women use mobile phones for financial transactions, compared to 30 per cent of men.

 

The various barriers to women’s inclusion include the cost of devices and data, inequalities in education and digital skills, social norms that discourage women and girls from being online, and fears around privacy, safety and security.

 

The danger is that, without equal access and skills, this digital revolution will exacerbate existing inequalities and reinforce traditional gender hierarchies, instead of improving accessibility and expanding opportunities. Tackling this now, with a better understanding of the barriers to access, more inclusive public policies and to leverage the strength of public-private partnership, is essential.

 

‘Digital Her’ an upcoming conference (21 March) from Elba SL Ltd – a multi-sector investment firm promoting private sector growth in Sierra Leone – looks at some of these issues and asks how women can position themselves to close the divide and really seize the opportunities.



Edleen Elba, Managing Director of Elba SL Ltd, explains that the one-day conference, which is sponsored by Africell, Ecobank, Sierra Leone Commercial Bank, PCS Group, and Rokel Commercial Bank, is intended to create a platform for people in the industry to network, as well as provide business and professional development: “Digital Her is a day to support women to unlock their potential, empower women’s innovation and continue the process of bridging the digital divide. There are many inspiring examples of Sierra Leonean women who have stepped boldly and wholeheartedly into the digital economy. Their unique innovations have given them a distinct business advantage in their sectors. We hope their stories and experience will serve to encourage others,” she says.

 

“We have an outstanding line up of national and international speakers from the public and private sectors. We will hear how Government is using technology to enable women’s entrepreneurship; explore how digitisation can help grow Sierra Leone’s economy and discuss how and where to acquire the essential digital skills for business and professional success,” she continues.

 

The conference has attracted two high-profile leaders from the world of African tech and innovation.

 

These include the Keynote Speaker Efe Ukala, who has just been named one of 'Africa's 50 Power People who embody resilience, leadership and advocate for women's empowerment and inclusion in Africa' by Eloy Foundation and the Africa Women CEOs Network. Efe founded ImpactHER, an impact driven organisation targeted at bridging the financing gap for women-led small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Africa through investor-readiness training, mentorship, market access, and other support.

 

Guest speaker, Nkemdilim Uwaje Begho – the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Futuresoft, one of Nigeria's leading IT and digital solution providers, has been recognised as an Obama African Leader, Forbes’s Top Ten Female Tech Founders in Africa, Global Digital Women top 10 Most Inspiring Women in Africa, Lionesses of Africa top 100 Women and Ventures Africa 42 most Innovative Africans.

 

She draws on her commitment to bridging the digital divide and transforming Africa by harnessing the benefits of technology for her talk - Digital Transformation in Africa: Strategies for professional and business development for women, and says: "Embracing digital transformation is not just about technological advancement; it's about fostering a culture of inclusivity where women in Africa can thrive, excel, and contribute meaningfully to the digital economy."

 

Edleen concludes: “Africa has the highest proportion of women entrepreneurs - a quarter of all businesses are started or are run by women who demonstrate every day, their willingness to seek out and accept challenges. We also have the fastest-growing youth population, and the fastest-growing market for mobile phones. Bringing all these strands together is a win-win for women, the government and for the economy. I hope that Digital Her helps women in business understand the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, and how best to move forward together.”

 

To attend Digital Her: Digital transformation for the elevation of women

21 March 2024, 10am-4.30pm

 

Register here

 

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