COVID 19 has undoubtedly shown Africa and the rest of the world just how quickly an epidemic can incapacitate existing infrastructures. Before the virus took hold in March 2020, my IOHK colleagues and I were about to embark upon a month-long tour of this beautiful continent. Our mission was to meet more African leaders and business people in order for us to learn firsthand about the real-life examples and tangible differences blockchain can make. That trip is obviously postponed for now, but we look forward to returning.
Whilst researching the history of FinTech in Africa, I noted the fact that gender disparity still exists here as in other markets. For example, in Ethiopia there is only one female engineer for every nine of her male equivalents. This situation is reflected in other continents – in the United Kingdom only 11% of engineers are women.
The lack of equal opportunities for women in technology is intertwined with their lack of financial independence; research shows that in sub-Saharan Africa significantly fewer women than men own mobiles or use mobile internet and, globally, men are more likely than women to have a bank account and women are disproportionately affected by poverty. Women are also less likely to own assets and wealth than men – a major constraint for female-owned businesses that need access to credit. Greater digital literacy and technology uptake among women could help to even out these disparities by giving women the ability to access digital financial services and digital identities.
The burgeoning field of blockchain is a key development in improving women’s access to financial services and to employment in fields such as software engineering across Africa. Blockchain offers the ability to extend financial services to remote, rural populations and women with families by enabling people to remotely pay for utilities such as healthcare and energy without banks via cryptocurrencies and cellphones.
Crucially, blockchain can enable peer-to-peer authentication of everything from land deeds to tax records, opening up an ecosystem of financial services such as loans and insurance to people living off the banking grid, the majority of whom are women.
Blockchain offers the possibility of bringing artisan miners, smallholder farmers and rural small businesses into mainstream supply chains by providing traceability and quality-assurance of their produce and products.
Research shows eighty percent of women in Africa live in rural areas, so blockchain has great potential to empower them. Perhaps most importantly, the rising uptake of blockchain across Africa, due to the continent’s widespread use of cellphones and mobile money, creates a substantial demand for new skills which offers an opportunity for women to gain employment and transferable skills from this emerging industry.
Africa is currently actively embracing the upward curve in blockchain’s advancement. As widely reported, the conditions are now right for systems of food production, financial services and governance to be structured and supported by blockchain technology. Done at scale, this opens up a myriad of new opportunities.
For everyone to benefit from blockchain technology, it is vital that women are given equal space in this expanding industry. They need to develop and grow their skills too. Adequate training is essential.
At IOHK, we are committed to improving diversity and inclusion within the blockchain industry. We are dedicated to making improvements and continue to train women – particularly in Africa. For example, in 2019 we trained 23 women from Ethiopia and Uganda as software engineers.
As Africa’s rapidly growing technology industry is already male-dominated, we felt it important that we trained a female-only cohort. We wanted to demonstrate that greater opportunities can lead to greater female representation in the technology industry. 23 students took part in the training course, four of whom travelled all the way from Uganda.
The course was taught over three months and was focused on our high-assurance, functional programming language, Haskell. As this language is used in mission-critical environments, such as space travel and aerospace, this gave the female student skills that were transferable to other industries. Indeed, upon graduation, all 23 women received a slew of job offers, with a number of them now working for IOHK and others working in industries outside the blockchain.
IOHK also recently ran a pilot with the Ethiopian government which enabled users to pay for utilities, transport and healthcare, using a digital version of the Ethiopian currency – the Birr. This allowed for greater remote access to finance and essential services. The digitalization of financial and government services promises financial inclusion, which will particularly benefit women.
The technology sector remains imbalanced, but improvements are being made. To empower women professionally, it is crucial to provide training opportunities that provide the skills to succeed, be that blockchain or the technology industry.
It is exciting to see how women on blockchain, particularly in Africa, will continue to move the industry forward – increasing inclusion and diversity.
- Tamara Haasen is Chief of Staff at global blockchain engineering company Input Output Hong Kong (IOHK).