Encouraging women to start and maintain businesses could play a pivotal role in boosting India’s economy and bring about improvements on various social indicators related to the quality of life and well-being of families. Being inextricably linked with home care roles, such as caring for children, preparing food, etc., also means that women tend to prioritize the welfare of their families and therefore spend a considerable share of their income to ensure a better education for their children throughout their lives. with the health and nutrition of family members. The landscape study on women’s entrepreneurship carried out by the EdelGive Foundation shows that women entrepreneurs spend most of their income on food (65%), children’s education (53%), clothing (51%) and healthcare/medical institutions (24%), resulting in better educated and healthier generations. Additionally, previous studies have indicated that promoting women’s participation in employment and entrepreneurship in India has the potential to increase the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by $0.7 trillion by 2025. . Yet, despite the positive impact female entrepreneurship has on societal development and women’s empowerment, women’s contribution to India’s GDP is estimated at 17% compared to the global average of 37%, share of micro, small and medium enterprises led by women medium enterprises (MSMEs) being a measly 14%.
Some of this low labor force participation and entrepreneurship can be attributed to underlying causes such as a deep-rooted patriarchy that dictates that women are relegated to household chores rather than engaging. in income-generating activities. As a result, women entrepreneurs often face a lack of information, technical know-how and access to technology, which negatively impacts the sustainability and scalability of their startups. The covid pandemic has exacerbated their poor access to resources and affected gender parity through the adversities women face in having to spend more time at home. Among those covered by the landscape study, 57% of women entrepreneurs said 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 transportation problems.
As women-owned micro-enterprises faced the brunt of the pandemic, much of this was tied to limited or no access to digital information and platforms that could support their businesses. In India, digital penetration in terms of mobile internet use by women was likely to be 33% lower than that of men. Even among families that own smartphones or have internet connections, male counterparts typically own these digital assets instead of females. Only 54% of women have a mobile phone that they use alone. As the pandemic resulted in a hasty shift to internet-based solutions to reach both consumers and suppliers, the low use of the internet by women for business purposes meant that they had a very limited ability to perform rapid change. One of the most common factors behind the reported deterioration in business was related to difficulties collecting payments from customers (69%) and disbursing payments to creditors (52%). Prolonged covid restrictions enforced during successive waves of infection meant that a digital hub was effectively a prerequisite for running a business.
Gender equality and digital development are intertwined, making the adoption of digital solutions by women entrepreneurs imperative. However, momentum is needed before we can achieve gender parity in this regard. With the advent of e-commerce, the digitization of all processes, from sales to product development, etc., as well as the emergence of e-learning platforms, there is an urgent need for women entrepreneurs to have access to such tools. The World Bank’s global digital development practice recently focuses on these five pillars of women’s digital empowerment: digital infrastructure, public platforms, financial services, enterprises, and skills.
Government, businesses, financial institutions and non-profit organizations could play a key role in bridging the prevailing digital divide. Various government initiatives such as Digital Literacy Mission, Pradhan Mantri Grameen Digital Sakharta Abhiyan, Aadhaar and Digi Dhan Abhiyan compatible payment systems among others have focused on this aspect as a tool for empowerment. Niti Aayog’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Platform has also proven useful as a one-stop-shop for women entrepreneurs to access information, learning modules, as well as loans, support and digital mentoring. In addition, initiatives by companies such as Google Internet Saathi, EdelGive Foundation’s UdyamStree Campaign, Facebook Pragati, etc., have helped bridge the internet access gap and raise awareness among women entrepreneurs. Banks and other financial institutions have also organized “going digital” camps aimed at helping micro-entrepreneurs access digital financial means. The FICCI-FLO Empowering the Greater 50% mission also places special emphasis on the digital inclusion of women. With digital access as a priority, it also creates an ecosystem conducive to empowering women by enabling autonomy, independence and agency, while building their awareness of rights and responsibilities. On the other hand, the lack of digital access could lead to failures that could lead to losses due to lost opportunities in business aspects such as networking or collecting and remitting payments. The implications of late adoption of technology are all but obvious, especially in public emergencies like the covid pandemic. In this scenario, it must be recognized that there will be little empowerment of women without digital inclusion.
With the participation of government, non-profits and banks, an ecosystem is being created that provides opportunities for digital literacy and skills, in addition to financial products accessible to women. However, there needs to be better adoption of these initiatives at the local level in order to empower women entrepreneurs across the country. Not only do they need to have access to digital technology, but they also need to be confident that they can use it to run their business operations.
Digital must therefore now be an integral part of all women’s entrepreneurial development programs. Digital education as well as access to devices, especially smartphones, would be essential to support the sustainability of women-led businesses. As smartphones can be expensive for micro businesses, knowing the financing options for smartphones is paramount. With proper networking and use of digital products, female entrepreneurs can not only sustain but grow their businesses and potentially contribute significantly to India’s GDP for years to come. If the country is to achieve its vision of a $5 trillion economy, we must provide the enabling infrastructure for women’s participation in entrepreneurship with the adoption of technology at the forefront of the exercise.
While the government’s budget for 2022-2023 is firmly focused on empowering women, we must leverage everything we can to ensure no one 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 and Anandi Iyer are respectively CEO of the EdelGive Foundation; and Director, Fraunhofer Office, India, and Chair, Women in Science and Entrepreneurship Council, FICCI