African telcos: driving social impact while embracing gender diversity

6 min read 31 Jul 23

Sustainable and impact investors can encourage positive outcomes by directing capital towards companies tackling environmental and social challenges, such as inequality and exclusion. In this article, we consider how several African telecommunications companies (telcos) are helping to address gender inequality and promote greater social inclusion, both within their industry and in wider society.

Women face financial, communications and employment barriers

Financial exclusion is often seen as one of the most harmful societal barriers that disproportionately affects women worldwide. The problem is particularly acute in underserved regions in emerging and developing economies, where access to banking and financial services can be severely limited. Equally harmful, but perhaps less in the public conscious, is the issue of communications barriers, where vulnerable groups are excluded from telecommunications networks, rendering them unable to carry out basic transactions such as mobile payments. Again, sadly, this barrier is one that disproportionately affects women in these communities.

Of course, there also remains the issue of gender inequality in the workplace. In the adult population, 72% of men participate in the labour force, compared to only 47% of women, while women make just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. Looking at the telecommunications sector specifically, and according to a GSMA survey, women account for less than 40% of the global workforce across three-quarters of telecommunications companies surveyed. Female workforce representation ranges from as low as 10%, to some companies reaching a gender balance at 52%.

Providing solutions for the informal sector

Investors looking to make a positive impact in this area can seek out both diverse companies with inclusive work policies, and those driving social inclusion through their products and services. When it comes to the latter, African telcos have an instrumental role to play by providing mobile, data and financial solutions in underpenetrated regions, reaching millions of underserved people. Women especially benefit from these solutions, with almost 60% of women in sub-Saharan Africa financially excluded and therefore, reliant on mobile payments solutions and connectivity to transact and bank.

This is especially vital when you consider that close to 90% of women in Sub-Saharan Africa operate in the informal sector. Therefore, whilst African telcos or towers companies have been key to driving social inclusion among women and underserved populations in their communities, they also have a role to play in driving greater gender inclusion in an industry that continues to be dominated by men.

Improving representation by tackling barriers to safety

 In Africa, low gender representation has been driven by factors such as low female participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degree programmes, and a lack of female leadership and mentoring opportunities for entry-level and emerging talent. Safety also remains a significant constraint in the telecoms sector, with major risks including driving and working at height. However, outside of this, safety when travelling to and from worksites and working in remote areas is also a risk for women, which has created barriers for them in this space.

As a result, several major telcos and towers companies in Africa have been playing an increasingly active role in driving greater gender diversity, by providing training and improving safety measures. This has not been limited to board-level gender representation, but also down to the workforce, which should create a strong pipeline of emerging female talent and leadership for years to come.

Industry trailblazers

Safaricom, a telco held in our public equity impact funds, has made great strides in driving gender diversity, with 35% or more female representation in board and senior management positions. Safaricom is also one of few companies that have reached a workforce gender balance. This stems from its significant efforts in providing access to educational opportunities, investing in women within its supply chain, and providing a strong pipeline of talent through robust training and mentorship programmes.

Another impactful investee company, African mobile towers business Helios Towers, has solid board-level gender diversity at 40%. Management and workforce female representation is relatively lower at 24%, although the company aims to get to 30% workforce gender diversity by 2026, through similar efforts and a focus on improving safety measures and training for field-related work. However, it is worth noting that, as Helios operates in nine markets with a range of cultural differences, driving greater gender diversity across its African operations can be more challenging versus those with more concentrated markets. Furthermore, the mobile towers space has a different set of safety and physical challenges for women.

However, while direct comparisons cannot be made, it is encouraging that both companies have committed to enhancing or maintaining high levels of diversity. It is positive to see them taking their role in driving social inclusion within their communities seriously, while doing so in a more gender-inclusive way.

By Thembeka Stemela Dagbo

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