Women’s economic empowerment and sustained employment is widely recognized by governments, international and continental development agencies, and businesses globally as an essential component for human progress and dynamic economic growth. Women’s economic empowerment, and closure of the gender gap in the workplace are key priorities outlined in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, adopted by world leaders at the 2015 UN World Summit and the African Union’s Agenda 2063 adopted by AU member states in 2015.

While economic opportunities have substantially improved over the past decade in many African countries, women have not benefited in equal measure to their male counterparts. In Africa, women face deeply rooted obstacles to achieving their potential at work and in other aspects of life. Not only does persistent gender bias affect women, it impedes economic and social progress in the region.

The NEPAD Spanish Fund has made a significant contribution to the increase in employment opportunities for women across Africa. Over 40,000 women gained employment or were exposed to employment opportunities as a result of projects funded by the NSF. These projects included the provision of vocational, skills and business training; provision of micro financing, seed funding, and enabling access to credit facilities, often at very low interest rates. 

The ENAT bank was established with NSF assistance, focussing on women in business. Female entrepreneurs were supported and helped to identify new business opportunities. Additionally, many women were able to obtain legal, administrative and financial advice on business planning and implementation.  The technical and organisational skills of numerous rural women were strengthened, and the Fund facilitated access to production, processing and marketing resources that assisted development of small businesses for women, especially in the agricultural sector.

Key lessons learned from the projects:

  • Provide financial assistance for women to set up new businesses, or expand existing initiatives
  • Assist women with business planning and support to enhance entrepreneurial capabilities and increase employment opportunities


Promote education and intensify business, vocational skills and entrepreneurship training for women to improve their employment opportunities

Education is one of the key factors in determining women employment outcomes and is highlighted in the AU Agenda 2063 in its aspiration for a prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development. This goal therefore calls for “well educated and skilled citizens” and the “elimination of gender disparities at all levels of education”. In many countries in Africa, women’s lower education levels and lack of skills limit their access to career opportunities and employment security. This is in spite of growing evidence that, when treated equally, women frequently surpass men in both measures of mathematical and scientific skills at a school level. More investment is therefore needed in life-skills, vocational skills and entrepreneurship training for women. The importance of education and training to improve women’s employment prospects surfaced in many of the NSF projects.

The project of the Gambian Women’s Bureau is an example of the important role that education and training can play in improving the employment opportunities of rural women. The Gambian Women’s Bureau established the project to improve the economic outcomes of 100,000 rural Gambian women through education and training, creating employment opportunities, as well as investments in equipment and infrastructure. The training, more specifically, focused on management and processing techniques applicable to the small vegetable farms and the new agro-processing plant that was implemented by the project.

The Federation of Cameroonian Civil Society Organisations (FOSCAM), likewise, realised that an important mechanism to improve the employment potential of women in the Republic of Cameroon was to provide business and vocational skills training. The Employment and Vocational Training Institute (IEFP), again, provided business skills training and business support to enhance the employment opportunities of 75 young women from the Republic of Cabo Verde. This training followed the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) GERME methodology, which focuses on developing small businesses within emerging market economies.

Another instance of the need for training interventions was The Teen Challenge project that helped reintegrate rehabilitated female drug addicts from poor areas of Cape Town in South Africa. They facilitated an employment-readiness course that focused on industry-related soft skills geared to assist women to enter the job market and earn an income. Teen Challenge South Africa (TCSA) further noted that there was an urgent need to conduct additional workshops and training programmes to develop and empower more women in poverty-stricken communities.


Provide financial assistance for women to set up new businesses, or expand existing initiatives

African women, particularly if they are from low-income households, face a range of systemic barriers in Africa, among which are entrenched poverty and poor access to finance, housing, and legal representation. Lack of access to finance imposes a serious negative effect on women’s ability to engage in self-employment, even in the informal sector. Informal employment accounts for a very large proportion of all female employment in Africa, often in the more precarious forms of informal employment. Furthermore, women entrepreneurs in Africa are more likely to run micro-enterprises in the informal sector, thereby engaging in low-value-added activities that reap marginal returns and which have little success of securing financial support from the formal financial sector.

These factors resonate with the views expressed in the report, Mobilizing domestic financial resources for implementing NEPAD national and regional programmes & projects, published in 2014 by NEPAD and the UN Economic Commission for Africa. Furthermore, one of the important goals of NEPAD is to promote the role of women in social and economic development by, amongst others, facilitating access to credit. The need for financial assistance for African women to set up new businesses, or expand existing initiatives came to the forefront in many of the NSF projects and underscores the imperative to implement such assistance to improve their employment opportunities.

For example, the Federation of Cameroonian Civil Society Organisations (FOSCAM), based in the Republic of Cameroon, aimed to reduce the social, economic and political poverty of women in the country. It was realised that to achieve these objectives, they would have to stimulate the employment opportunities for women entrepreneurs through micro-finance initiatives.The micro funded projects included, inter alia, agricultural activities, marketing, animal husbandry, small catering services, hairdressing and homemade yoghurt production.

The Employment and Vocational Training Institute (IEFP), together with the Cabo Verde Women’s Association (OMCV) provided funding to 22 women in Cabo Verde to establish their own businesses. These women all faced problems in obtaining loans from formal financial institutions because of inadequate collateral or not having guarantors. They, furthermore, facilitated the establishment of a business incubator in São Vicente, which provided technical assistance and other support services for start-up businesses run by young women.

The project undertaken by the Promotion of the Angolan Women at the Catholic Church (PROMAICA) assisted in promoting the socio-economic development of women in the rural communities from the Benguela municipality of Angola. To attain these objectives, the project introduced a microcredit component which enabled the creation of SMEs. The extra income generated by economic activities associated with the project was then invested in priority areas such as education, healthcare and further created savings to attend to future needs.

The LIVE-Addis project assisted 41 young Ethiopian women with seed capital to begin their own small or micro businesses in Ethiopia. Most of the women were very poor, single or divorced, had very young children and were supporting their entire family. These self-employed women made promising progress and their livelihoods improved considerably. They could support themselves, their families and send their children to school.


Assist women with business planning and support to enhance entrepreneurial capabilities and increase employment opportunities

For women to effectively engage in entrepreneurial initiatives there is an urgent need to assist them with all aspects relating to initiating a new business. This aspect is underscored by the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the affiliated African Women in Business (AWIB) initiatives that provide policy advice and technical assistance to empower African women entrepreneurs. These endeavours have been conducted within the framework of the UN Agenda 2030 and the AU’s Agenda 2063. It should, however, be noted that in the 2017 report by the United Nations on the progress made on implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, they state that the rate of progress in many areas is far slower than required to meet the targets set for 2030. With reference to achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, they emphasise that more vigorous interventions are required. These arguments harmonize with the initiatives of the NSF projects and the need expressed that women should receive more technical support to set up a new business. The following are examples of the projects that specifically addressed these issues.

The Employment and Vocational Training Institute (IEFP), provided skills training and business support to young women from The Republic of Cabo Verde.The primary beneficiaries of the project were unemployed, young women graduates who aspired to build upon their existing capacities but lacked proper access to training, technical assistance and financing. The young women were helped to produce business plans and those who submitted the most promising business plans were selected for funding to establish their own businesses. These women then received legal, administrative and financial advice on how best to manage the transition from the business planning to the implementation stage.  The IEFP, furthermore, facilitated the establishment of a business incubator in São Vicente to provide technical assistance and other support services for young women wishing to start new businesses.

The LIVE-Addis project focused on the economic and social empowerment of 431 vulnerable, young women between the ages of 17-28 living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Interventions included marketable vocational skills training in a diverse array of industries, ranging from the beauty and wellness industry to the transportation industry. The young women further received entrepreneurial and business skill development training. The women lastly received assistance in identifying marketable employment areas, developing business plans and creating their own income-generating opportunities.

The project of the Gambian Women’s Bureau to improve the economic outcomes of rural Gambian women funded the implementation of small female-run vegetable farms and constructed an agro-processing plant. They further empowered the women by providing training on the efficient management and processing of the gardens, and those women who worked in the plant were trained in the operation and management thereof.  A further outcome of the project was the assistance given to the women with new vegetable gardens to develop and initiate a marketing plan to support the increased production of vegetables.