The impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on livelihoods, businesses, and trade in least developed countries (LDCs) have been pronounced. LDCs were cut off from markets when borders closed in March 2020. They lost significant export income due to canceled orders. Their tourism industry was brought to a halt and their economic activity suffered a similar stagnation. Their business ties were severed by a lack of connectivity.
This picture of gloom has manifested more gravely for women entrepreneurs who suffered from the distortions in the trade ecosystem arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Trade ecosystem under Covid-19
Business and trade rely on a vast ecosystem involving various stakeholders. For women traders and entrepreneurs in LDCs, the ecosystem will include different participants along the value chain such as suppliers of raw materials, cooperatives, transporters, warehouse managers and airlines, to mention a few. Elements such as customs procedures, banking systems, Internet connectivity are equally vital.
Following Covid-19 disruptions, women entrepreneurs had to devise means to continue doing business while navigating the complexities that arose from closed borders and lockdown orders. Traditional models of doing business involving physical movement of persons to facilitate transactions were no longer viable and e-commerce and digital trade were catapulted to the fore as the most viable means of trade.
Digital literacy remains low in LDCs, especially among women, and the general ignorance about benefits accrued from digital trade is high. Internet connectivity is very expensive. IT infrastructure are not well distributed and as such, once women return to their homes in rural areas, they are unable to continue engaging online. Studies confirm that Internet penetration rates globally are 48 per cent for women, compared to 58 per cent for men. But as more people in developing countries start using the Internet, the digital gender gap is actually growing. In LDCs, only 14 per cent of women use the Internet, compared to 24 per cent of men.
When the pandemic hit, women in LDCs lacked means of digital connectivity. Many women who had been using their mobile phones for daily communications were not using the Internet for business. Important gaps existed in skills such as online marketing.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, sales via digital and online platforms were almost non-existent. Following the pandemic that grounded businesses to a halt due to restrictions on movement, a Jumia e-commerce platform and UNDP partnership was conceived to connect women vendors to online consumers.
Many of the women vendors had little formal education and limited, if any, exposure to online platforms for business transactions. However, their response to the initiative was overwhelming. The initiative started by working with vendors in five markets, but within three weeks, two more markets joined. Each market includes more than 700 women across the agricultural value chain, from producers to wholesalers, retailers and exporters. The introduction of digital platform allowed women to continue earning an income even during the hardships of lockdown.
But not all the women who could have benefited from the opportunity have a smart mobile phone. According to the 2020 Mobile Gender Gap Report, women across low- and middle-income countries are eight per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone, which translates into 165 million fewer women than men owning a mobile phone.
Simple solutions such as ensuring that digital platforms embrace the use of local languages will provide a level of trust for women to gain interest in connectivity. Almost all women traders subscribe to an association or business membership group. The members of these groups will usually possess varying levels of exposure to information technology, with younger women more proficient compared to older groups.
Hybrid strategies combining new digital approaches with traditional approaches should be harnessed and escalated to address present day challenges, particularly for women.
Lillian Olok of Yaa Oils Uganda used the downtime to strengthen her relationship with her customers. She increased communication via WhatsApp and e-mail which kept the orders coming. She did not see a decline in demand for her cold-pressed shea butter, sold in bulk. In the past year, she gained new customers in DRC and Kenya, all via word-of-mouth from her happy customers. She currently exports to Rwanda, Kenya, DRC, Japan, UK and Canada.
The author is a director at World Trade Organisation.