Women’s leadership will drive inclusive climate action

October 26, 2022

Reading time: 23 minutes

Authors: Éliane Ubalijoro, Pauline Koelbl, Carey Bohjanen, Janet Kabeberi Macharia, Jessica Givens, Rose Mwebaza, Amanda Ellis, Rachelle Fox, and Andréa Ventimiglia.

In 2021, the 1,000 most influential climate scientists in the world were ranked based on publication record and social media engagement. Of the top 20, only one was a woman. (Reuters, 2021). Yet, the first scientist to make the connection between increased CO2 and atmospheric warming was Eunice Newton Foote back in 1856. At the same time, women bear the brunt of the climate crisis — about 80% of people displaced by climate change are women (UNDP, 2016).

The gender divide is also pronounced in the sustainability finance and digital landscapes, two areas influencing society’s ability to achieve climate targets. A 2019 study found that only 3% of climate finance addressed gender equality as a primary target (OECD, 2016; Samuwai & Fihaki, 2019). In terms of global connectivity, men are 21% more likely than women to have internet access, and this likelihood rises to 52% in least developed countries (USAID, 2022). The downstream consequences from this lack of internet access have repercussions both in human rights dimensions and on global economic impacts – with an estimate of one trillion dollars annually left on the table due to women not being able to contribute equally in the digital age (Alliance for Affordable Internet, 2021).

However, despite these inequalities, inspirational stories of hope abound. Women who experience the consequences of climate change are often leaders in developing coping strategies and building resilience (WEF, 2022). As noted at COP26, by the Women in Finance Climate Action Group, “Women are not just victims; given the opportunity they are powerful agents of change” (Reid & Greeves, 2021).

Source: UN Women, Women Resilience to Disasters

The gender climate

For climate action, information is power. We know that climate change is upon us. But we can’t address climate change without addressing gender inequality. We can’t look at gender inequality without understanding climate change. And in the digital age, we can’t focus on either without factoring in the role technology plays. It’s critical the climate community examines these intersections and interlinkages that touch on multiple areas, such as physical health, livelihood challenges, food insecurity, and gender based violence. In this article, we’re going to explore this interconnected space with a particular focus on Africa and how women’s leadership can drive inclusive climate action.

Women are solutionaries. The greenhouse effect was first identified by a woman – Eunice Newton Foote. Today, women are developing businesses and technologies that intercept some of the impacts of climate change, from regenerative agriculture businesses, to 100% reusable makeup lines, to novel ways of integrating carbon sequestration frameworks. In many countries, women’s organizations stand at the forefront of community responses, but they struggle because of diminished funds, increased demand for services, restricted movement, and shrinking civic space (Women4ClimateAction Daring Circle, 2019). The Covid-19 pandemic magnified these issues, causing a disruption to education and health services, a disproportionate loss of employment for women, and dis-empowerment – with World Bank survey data (2022) showing “a majority of respondents thought that Gender Based Violence (GBV) had increased since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.” Nevertheless, across Africa, women and girls continue to play a critical role in climate change adaptation and mitigation, but mostly within key sectors, such as agriculture and through sustainable management of natural resources and conservation of ecosystems.

Sarah Ngwenya from Kalomo Grain in Zambia holds harvested grains in her hand by Kalichi Pictures
Source: Kalichi Pictures. Sarah Ngwenya from Kalomo Grain in Zambia.

Empowerment of women can only occur when women have opportunities to participate in all aspects of development. Of course, the notion of participation is located within the overall framework of democracy, human rights, and gender equality. Central to this is the active and meaningful inclusion of women as full citizens and decision makers in public and private sector institutions in political, economic, and peace processes. Recent research from International Finance Corporation (IFC, 2018) has revealed women in leadership roles in governance, both public and private sectors, are more likely to prioritize climate and environmental issues. When we look at climate change policies and practices, women in office can have a major influence on gender response to public policies. For example, in Canada, the number of women on councils is positively correlated with investment in social welfare programs (Canadian Women’s Foundation, 2021). Women can effect positive change. In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, research shows countries “led by women had ‘systematically and significantly better’ Covid-19 outcomes, locking down earlier and suffering half as many deaths on average as those led by men.” But when we look at gender representation in higher decision making processes, women are still below the parity line for equitable participation (IPU, 2021).

Women across Africa lead but face gender barriers

On the African continent, not only do higher decision making processes lack gender parity, but a biased system prevents women’s full participation in the digital space. According to “The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2022,” while access to mobile devices has increased, only 56% of women in the Middle East & North Africa region and 37% of women in the Sub-Saharan region use mobile internet (GSMA, 2022). When the digital and gender divide collide, it creates a situation where women – who are most responsible for family health, for collecting food and water, for ensuring access to electricity – do not have the required tools to advance in today’s rapidly changing world. Digital technologies allow for leapfrogging for women when it comes to climate change. For example, in the past, women had to exclusively rely on word of mouth to determine if (and when) rains were coming for planting season. Now, with mobile devices, they can obtain the latest meteorological data to ensure an optimal harvest. In many developing countries, food security at the household level is guaranteed by women and girls. So, how can we ride this wave of opportunity provided by digitalization to bridge the gender divide and secure collective access to technology, up-to-date information, and business opportunities?

Source: The Rallying Cry | Speech by Prudence Muchinouta at the UN Climate Change Conference UK 2021

Every day, African women step into gaps in the business market to deliver solutions, against the odds, and often without access to the finance, technology, markets, and networks their male counterparts receive. In 2004, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation Gender Entrepreneurship Markets initiative created the first dedicated lines of credit to banks in Africa to on-lend to women entrepreneurs, so often hampered by legal restrictions – even now in 2022, only 12 countries globally have full gender equality under the law (World Bank, 2022). The data shows there’s still a $42 billion finance gap for women on the African continent (AFDB, 2022). Yet, despite these gender barriers and on-the-ground technological realities, 40% of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) across Africa are already owned and run by women (Witenberg-Cox, 2021). The world could learn from a long list of incredible, innovative, and climate adaptive businesses created by African women, but unlocking these scalable solutions is difficult because of gender bias that prevents women from accessing financial capital. Sarah Ngwenya who runs Kalomo Grain, an outgrower scheme in Zambia, is a prime example of this issue and a perfect example of why it’s paramount we shift global narratives away from viewing women as victims of climate change to being leaders and agents of change.

Sarah Ngwenya has trained and organized into cooperatives over 3500 women to grow a variety of crops using indigenous seeds and climate smart agriculture techniques. Sarah buys the grains and crops from the cooperatives for production into food and edible oils. In order to process the grains and crops near harvest sites, Sarah established her own off-grid solar power generation system. Once processed, the food and edible oils are sold to buyers. Sarah then reinvests most of the profits back into the business. The business is profitable and sustainable. Now Sarah is receiving calls from Europe and South Africa looking for alternative suppliers for products due to disruptions in the agriculture supply chains in Ukraine. This is an opportunity for her and her business, but Sarah doesn’t have access to the capital she needs to expand and grow her production capacity or to automate or digitize more of her processes.

Sarah Ngwenya from Kalomo Grain in Zambia smiles and holds a bottle of edible oil in her hand by Kalichi Pictures
Source: Kalichi Pictures. Sarah Ngwenya from Kalomo Grain in Zambia.

When it comes to digitalization, one major issue across Africa for women-led businesses is the ability to make virtual payments. Sarah has been paying the women in the Kalomo Grain cooperatives by hand because she hasn’t been able to digitize her payment systems. This puts the women’s personal security at risk because they’re forced to carry cash. During the COVID19 pandemic, women from the cooperatives also had to leave the safety of their villages to go to the city to deal with financial issues because they could not access online banking. While there, some of the women were exposed to Covid-19, and tragically, ten died from Covid-19. Digital systems are not just convenient payment gateways. They are also gateways to safer, more secure lives for women.

The Rallying Cry (2022), an initiative to catalyze new leadership and investment approaches to scale private sector climate and gender solutions in Africa, now works with Sarah Ngwenya, and other women leaders like her, to connect them to financing that matches their business needs. The Rallying Cry also works to shift the prevailing negative narratives around women leading businesses on the front lines of climate change. Leaders like Sarah do not want to be seen as charities or beneficiaries when they are the ones bringing solutions – profitable solutions – to market. Sarah has created livelihoods for over 3500 women, established climate adaptive farming practices to produce indigenous, nutritionally superior crops while regenerating Zambian soil for future generations of crops and food security – all powered by renewable energy. What if there were a thousand Sarahs? That would be 3.5 million women with better livelihoods contributing to climate adaptive solutions. What if there were 10,000 Sarahs? We could change 35 million women’s lives and be contributing to climate adaptive solutions simply by building alternative, tailored investment vehicles. This is how women lead, by taking hundreds or thousands of other women and their communities along with them. The world needs to hear and learn from their lived experiences, ground level knowledge, and Indigenous wisdom.

Women from Kalomo Grain cooperatives, Zambia sit under a tree by Kalichi Pictures
Source: Kalichi Pictures. Women from Kalomo Grain cooperatives in Zambia.

When it comes to discussions of capital for sustainable businesses, African women are also emerging as capital providers, offering innovative financing and support models that go beyond traditional debt and equity. ShEquity is a gender-lens investment firm providing smart investments for African women entrepreneurs with a vision to close the gender funding gap in Africa (ShEquity, 2020). In 2021, startups founded or run by women received only 0.95% of actual investment that went to Africa even though investing in women is smart business (Cuvellier & Bayen, 2022). The McKinsey report shows about $316 billion could be added to Africa’s GDP by 2025, if the existing gender funding gap was closed (Moodley et al., 2019). This number is more than the combined 2021 national GDPs of Kenya ($110 billion), Ethiopia ($111 billion), and Ghana ($77 billion), which is $298 billion (World Bank, 2021). Imagine losing more than the equivalent of those three countries’ GDPs due to gender bias from investors who overlook the opportunity linked to investing in businesses run and owned by women?

Beyond just the financial benefits, addressing gender inequality has a positive impact on other key aspects of livelihood, including education, health, food security, and climate change because women reinvest 90% of their revenue in sectors that benefit families, the community, and society as a whole – compared to just 40% for their male counterparts (AFDB, 2022). At ShEquity, women entrepreneurs state their main motivation for creating businesses is to solve a community problem, such as access to clean energy, providing safe and trusted health care services, addressing mobility issues, and more. They focus on current issues, then design marketable, sustainable and scalable solutions. ShEquity, as a gender lens investor, has its own accelerator, ShEquity Business Accelerator (SHEBA) that focuses on creating a solid pipeline for its fund and other capital providers from a pool of de-risked women-led and founded companies in Africa that will contribute to inclusive economic growth with financial, environmental, and social returns. This successful investment formula has led to a number of innovative businesses, including:

1. Kenyan-based Ecodudu, a circular economy business producing bio fertilizer and insect protein for animal and fish feed manufacturers. Ecodudu harnesses “insects (nature’s recycling agents) to address global issues which include waste management, demand for protein and environmental conservation” (Ecododu, 2020).
Source: Ecodudu

2. Shuttlers, a “bus-sharing technology platform targeting working professionals in Nigeria. Shuttlers addresses mobility challenges through its digital ride sharing platform that targets professionals and companies looking for better mobility options for their employees.” The business also tackles CO2 pollution, by reducing the number of commuter cars on the road every day (Shuttlers, 2022).

Source: UN-Habitat worldwide

3. Superfluid Labs, incorporated in Germany, Ghana, and Kenya, offers “a B2B Data Analytics and AI Platform for businesses and organizations to understand and serve customers, predict business events and create sustainable livelihoods.” They support local entrepreneurs, SMEs, and financial institutions to understand local markets and trends using data they wouldn’t normally have access to. This allows for more accurate assessments of startups for investors (Superfluid Labs, 2021).

Source: GSD Venture Studios – Superfluid Labs GSD Labs Demo Day

These examples illustrate the growing number of diverse, sustainable, and profitable women-led business solutions designed by Africa for Africa and the world. Yet, as this Bloomberg article demonstrates, if you are a woman in Africa selling tomatoes, you’re more likely to attract funding than if you create an AI-driven company like Superfluid Labs that empowers other businesses. Why? Because Africa is still viewed as a place where people go to help, rather than as a place to do business, full of innovative solutions from women who generate a triple bottom line impact for people, planet, and profit (Gebre, Genga, Hoije, & Narayanan, 2022).

Climate solutions demand disrupting the status quo

In this era of rapid climate change, the world cannot afford to write-off scalable businesses focused on sustainable development due to gender bias and unfounded negative perceived risks. Investing in women carries no more risk than investing in men. So how can we disrupt the current system to accelerate empowerment of women leaders in the areas of sustainable development, digital innovation, and climate action?

On the business front, blended finance solutions where philanthropy works to de-risk the investment aspects keeping private capital away is key to incentivizing the private sector. The Rallying Cry (2022) and ShEquity (2020)  provide models for how different styles of financing can be successfully leveraged through investing in women and local capital providers who have the solutions, speak the local language, understand the laws, the rules, the cultural nuances, and the operating environment. If both philanthropy and private investors realize they can multiply their money and have bigger impacts by de-risking profitable women-led sustainable businesses, they will begin to seek out these opportunities. There is a need for disrupting the current NGO aid pipelines bringing billions into Africa (Lyons, 2014), to ensure a certain percentage of that money goes towards de-risking small businesses and startups. Such disruption would also contribute to the empowerment of women and the positive impact on the planet.

Identifying and showcasing profitable women-owned sustainable businesses on the global stage helps to change perceptions and negative narratives around women in leadership roles. Arizona State University (ASU) co-convenes the WE Empower UN SDG Challenge, which honors women-run businesses that address the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Arizona State University, 2021).

Group photo from the 2019 WE Empower UN SDG Challenge
Source: Vital Voices – 2019 WE Empower UN SDG Challenge Awardees alongside Co-Convenors, Amanda Ellis (ASU Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, 4th from the left) and Alyse Nelson (Vital Voices, 2nd from right).

The competition was launched at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in 2018 by the UN Secretary General and the Council of Women World Leaders in order to identify women-owned businesses in each of the major UN blocks. The businesses must be solving at least two or more SDGs to qualify. Some examples include: 

1. 412 Food Rescue, co-founded by Leah Lizarondo, works “with food retailers to prevent surplus food from going to waste.” By organizing “a growing network of volunteers, 412 Food Rescue directly transfers food to nonprofit partners that serve those who are food insecure” (412 Food Rescue, 2022). The Food Rescue Hero network prevents methane in landfills equivalent to 26 rocket trips to the moon. Aim is to scale to 100 cities by 2030 (Food Rescue Hero, 2022).

Source: Imagebox – Leah Lizarondo | 412 Food Rescue

2. ECOncrete, co-founded by Dr. Shimrit Perkol-Finkel, creates new kinds of ocean walls that are able to buffer storms and promote ocean biodiversity. ECOncrete is the “only environmental concrete technology that complies with industry standards and provides biological and financial benefits” (ECOncrete, 2021).
Source: ECOncrete Tech

3. Sosai Renewable Energy, founded by Habiba Ali “was set up in the year 2004 with the idea of using market based strategies to address the issues of Poverty and Rural/Community development as regards access to Energy, Clean water and ensure positive livelihoods” (Sosai Renewable Energy, 2022). As a child in northern Nigeria, Habiba Ali grew up with terrible respiratory problems from cooking food to sell on the roadside over kerosene burners. She transformed that problem into a business opportunity that has now helped thousands of women become solar entrepreneurs.
Source: Sosai Renewable Energy

When it comes to the Sustainable Development Goals and gender equity, ASU and the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory are also working on SDG training videos for parliamentarians through a partnership with the World Bank, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and the United Nations. These training videos focus not only on the Sustainable Development Goals themselves, but include the relationships between them. This allows for targeted topics to be addressed, such as: women in climate, gender responsive climate action plans, and addressing legal discrimination against women across the world (Arizona State University, 2022).

On the digital innovation front, access to technology continues to be a major barrier for women, particularly in developing countries. Women need access to mobile phones, the knowledge on how to use them, integrated wifi networks, and online banking options. As previously illustrated, a mobile phone can be a bank, a security device, a source of climate data, and a portal for uplifting knowledge on climate action. Mobile money systems, in particular, liberate women and girls. Of course, to address the technology side work needs to be done in tandem on the major infrastructure issues blocking progress in this area. For Africa, one challenge around mass adoption of digital technologies has to do with energy. Digitization requires access to energy sources on a continent where 600 million people still live without electricity (IEA, 2022). The dream of digitization and the potential it offers for leapfrogging and for climate action then becomes almost impossible – especially for women, whose first priority when they have access to any kind of energy is to provide meals and warmth for the family. So the creation of local, scalable renewable energy solutions must be a priority. The UN Climate Technology Center and Network (CTCN), as a mechanism of UNFCCC, uses artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and big data to work with member states in these areas so they can understand their climate change challenges and optimize existing systems. CTCN identifies and implements the most promising digitally-driven solutions for low carbon and climate resilient development, including accelerating renewable energies, reducing energy demand, improving energy efficiency of buildings, flood risk mapping, intelligent transport systems, relieving traffic congestion in urban areas, monitoring deforestation and forest degradation, creating early warning systems and disaster management plans, and deploying digital technologies to enhance food security and support for the agricultural sector. However, more support is needed from the private sector to scale solutions in Africa and around the world (CTCN, 2015).

Solar panels installed by Sarah Ngwenya at Kalomo Grain in Zambia. Photo by Kalichi Pictures.
Source: Kalichi Pictures. Solar panels installed by Sarah Ngwenya at Kalomo Grain in Zambia for off-grid electricity.

On the climate action front, CTCN, hosted by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), also runs the Youth Climate Innovation Labs. Through this program, young people from all over the world provide CTCN with innovative solutions to the climate challenges their communities face, whether it’s food systems or rolling out access to energy using off grid structures combined with digital technologies (CTCN, 2022). These endogenous (homegrown) technologies, being developed by youth with an in-depth understanding of local cultures and geographies, help to create effective climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. In the context of the digital age, contributions to this program by young women are especially important because technology is not gender neutral. Having women innovate for women to solve climate specific impacts that women suffer adversely in relation to men is critical.

Example for one of the Youth Climate Innovation Labs pitches. Source: Seedstars Programs

It’s also critical to upscale this youth engagement. Across Africa and around the world, young women have emerged to voice their concern with respect to climate change and to propose solutions. At Stockholm+50, the youth message in terms of the top panel discussions was clear: stop talking about policies and theories, we need action. Of course, taking action can take many forms. In an interview with UrbanBetter (2021), Africa’s Youngest Climate Change Ambassador, 11-year-old Ellyanne Chlystun-Githae Wanjiku, leads by example stating: “We should be asking ourselves every day: how do we preserve our health and the environment as a way of keeping ourselves and our planet healthy?” Inspired by environmental activist Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize (The Green Belt Movement, 2011), Ellyanne has already planted over one million trees and founded Children With Nature, an organization that “educates students on climate change, deforestation, plastic pollution and blue ocean economy” (Children With Nature, 2022). Twenty-five-year-old Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate change activist and founder of the Africa-based Rise Up Movement, “speaks out on the climate crisis and its intersection with gender and race, especially in how it disproportionately affects women and girls in Africa. Nakate shares that gender equality is a powerful tool in tackling the climate crisis” (UN Women, 2022). In her interview with UN Women (2022), Vanessa talks about her book “A Bigger Picture,” which touches on “the intersections of climate change with other issues, we cannot have climate justice without gender equality, climate change is disproportionately affecting so many women and girls.”

Representation matters. We need more equal representation for women and girls at global climate leadership forums and events, including but not limited to COP27 (Chiu, 2021). While there are some incredible COP side events, such as “SHE Changes Climate” – who this year will be organizing a virtual, 24 hours long Women’s Leadership Summit – women’s leadership should also be mainstreamed. Frontline women leaders doing important work on climate action should not just be represented on Gender Day, but every day at the forefront of global climate leadership (SHE Changes Climate, 2022). As shown in the Harvard Business Review: “a growing body of research suggests that real progress on environmental sustainability requires solutions that also incorporate social sustainability, and in particular, gender equity” (Gloor, Bajet Mestre, Post, & Ruigrok, 2022).

Source: SRI2022

In short, we need new climate leadership that is inclusive, collaborative, connected to deep collective wisdom and in tune with Indigenous local knowledge. These leaders already exist, they just haven’t been at the table, they haven’t been in the room, on the board, on the investment committees, part of the decision making or the policy writing. It’s time for a multiplicity of women and girl leaders to have seats at the table or when needed to be supported in building new tables.


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