In the 2019 Goalkeepers report, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation shared how geography can create hardship for people, noting that the symptoms of poverty are disproportionately felt by women and girls. In vivid language and imagery, it described the severe difficulties a girl born in the Sahel will face in life. For example, a child born in Chad, a country in North Central Africa, is 55 times more likely to die before their fifth birthday than a child born in Finland. If the child happens to survive, and is a girl, societal norms dictate that “her role in life is to serve her husband and bear him children.” The odds are high that she will experience starvation and most likely won’t be able to read or write. She will also probably get pregnant before she turns 20. Life for this innocent girl, through no fault of hers, will be incredibly difficult simply because she was a girl born in Chad.
Image credit: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
How can the world continue to make strides against the vast gender inequality that exists in every country? In addition to implementing better policies that protect the rights of everyone, innovation and entrepreneurship can play a huge role by creating shared prosperity. As I’ve written in the past, market-creating innovations are especially powerful in this regard because of the culture change they trigger. When an entrepreneur creates a successful new market where there was none, other entrepreneurs follow suit, setting off a domino chain of economic activity that leads to more jobs, investments in infrastructure, and much-needed tax revenue for the government to reinvest in its communities. In a similar vein, when young girls see women start and build companies that significantly impact society, it can make a huge difference in their lives and empower them to pursue their own dreams. This begins a virtuous cycle of women empowerment that can change the societal culture of a region.
And so, on International Women’s Day, we would like to celebrate the work of three entrepreneurs who are paving the path for sustainable development by creating new markets in low- and middle-income countries.
Bilikiss Adebiyi Abiola, turning recyclable waste to wealth
Governments in most low-income countries have huge debt burdens and struggle with budget problems. And although many people appreciate efficient waste disposal and recycling, it’s hard for governments in poor countries to prioritize this service when more pressing needs, such as health, education, and basic infrastructure, abound. Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, an MIT Sloan graduate, has developed an innovative business model that addresses the urban waste problem by paying people for their recyclable waste.
Known as Wecyclers, the organization was founded in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, in 2012 when just 13% of the city’s waste was recycled. To tackle this problem, Wecyclers incentivizes low-income communities to recycle by offering rewards, while providing a reliable supply of raw material to the local recycling industry. In order to solve the logistical problem of collecting the waste, Wecyclers developed a fleet of relatively cheap, and locally assembled, cargo bikes called “wecycles” that waste collectors use to pick up recyclable waste from households. The material is later delivered to the company’s collection site for sorting, packaging, and transport to various hubs in the city.
In an interview with Smart Monkey TV, Adebiyi Abiola explained, “Our focus is really on having an impact on people, so we want to create jobs, we want to make life easier for people, we want to take the waste away from the communities and into the recycling value chain.” It seems the organization is on track—to date, it’s signed up more than 60,000 people in 20,000 households, and has recycled more than 12 million pounds of waste. That’s impact.
Gayatri Datar, making floors affordable
If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re standing, or sitting on a chair, that is on a hard floor. Unfortunately, that’s a luxury a majority of people in the world don’t have access to because concrete floors are too expensive. Thankfully, Gayatri Datar, co-founder of EarthEnable in Rwanda, has developed a solution to address this problem.
For roughly $3 a square meter, Datar’s EarthEnable provides affordable hard and earthen floors made from rocks, sand, clay, and water—all locally sourced materials—and sealed with a proprietary oil that hardens to form a plastic-like resin. An EarthEnable floor is 75% cheaper than concrete, making it affordable to millions of people who historically couldn’t afford hard floors. Not only are the company’s products making hard flooring affordable, but it’s having an impact on the health of its customers as 54% of families are reporting positive health differences in the first month after installation. As if that were not enough, EarthEnable is also creating jobs and has expanded to Uganda.
We had the opportunity to speak with Datar about her organization, and she offered some poignant advice that’s especially relevant for tomorrow’s female leaders: “Tell your story and make sure you are highlighting your personal potential. No one invests in just an idea, it’s about whether the person has the grit and the resilience to make the idea a reality.”
Monique Baars, making financial literacy accessible
In 2019, the fintech space in Africa raised close to one billion dollars. While that’s a feat that should be celebrated, what’s often forgotten are the complementary financial literacy skills that many new consumers of financial services need. To that end, Monique Baars’ Fineazy has developed an innovative financial literacy solution. By leveraging artificial intelligence and gamification on a mobile telecommunications platform, Fineazy creates simple, bit-sized pieces of finance content that are easy for users to absorb. The new company is signing up thousands of new customers, including old finance companies and new fintech corporations that are providing loans to new consumers of financial services.
Baars spoke with her alma mater, London Business School, about her decision to launch Fineazy: “I’d reached a time when I thought, if I could apply everything I’ve learnt and spend these hours solving one of the biggest social problems of our time, imagine the impact I could have.” If Fineazy is successful at democratizing access to financial literacy, Baars will not only have changed the lives of millions of people, but her company will also inspire the next generation of female entrepreneurs to believe they too can have such an impact on the world.
The Goalkeepers report couldn’t have done a better job of describing the urgency and severity of poverty and gender inequality. Thanks to the remarkable work of some great entrepreneurs who just happen to be women, the world is slowly addressing these inequities, and transforming into one in which all children can grow up to fulfill their potential.