MOST African governments are overjoyed when they discover an unexploited natural resource, such as gold, oil or diamonds, for it means that the coffers will soon be overflowing.
But when the boom inevitably cools, they realise that they have overlooked the one resource that is right in front of them – half their population.
Bringing women into the labour force is probably the single biggest factor that can unlock a country’s latent economic potential, by raising the overall level of human capital, productivity and wages.
The countries that have the lowest female participation in the workforce in Africa tend to be oil rich, and/ or majority Muslim.
Algerian women have an inactivity rate of 82%, the highest in Africa, according to data from the African Development Bank, followed by Sudan (75%), Egypt (75%), Morocco (74%), Tunisia (72%), Mauritania and Libya (both at 70%).
Inactivity rate measures the percentage of the working age population (15-64) that is not working, not looking for work, and not in school or training.
Those two drivers – economic and cultural – reinforce each other to maintain social norms of restricting women to domestic duties, coupled by the fact that national resource wealth is distributed in the form of state grants and subsidies, which means that families have no reason to have women going through the ‘hassle’ of working outside the home.
By contrast, in some countries in Africa, women make up a huge chunk of the labour force, particularly in low-income countries where agriculture is the dominant economic activity.
Especially because agriculture in Africa is still rudimentary, women in Africa are more likely to be doing the farm work than in other parts of the world. Controlling a plough and big animals requires considerable physical strength, that men have a comparative advantage in. But if the agriculture is just using sticks and hoes, there’s really no physical difference between men and women on the farm.
According to estimates from the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), women in sub-Saharan Africa are responsible for 70% of crop production, 50% of animal husbandry and 60% of marketing, though there are variations between and within countries.
It means that the countries with the lowest inactivity rates for women are mostly small, low-income, agricultural economies.
The bottom three are Rwanda (11%), Madagascar (14%) and Burundi (15%), the data shows.
It means that nearly all women in these countries work for money in one way or another, whether it is in a formal job or informal self-employment such as handicrafts or small-scale trade.
In Rwanda and Burundi’s case, the legacy of war has something to do with women in the workplace – civil war and genocide of the 1990s disproportionately killed men, which meant that as a matter of necessity, women had to take up roles that were traditionally the preserve of men.
Even with high participation rates in some small, low-income countries, in the seven largest economies in Africa, the average participation of women in the labour force is 32.7% – mostly because these countries (Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa) tend to either be oil rich, majority Muslim, or both.
It means that just over a third of women in Africa’s leading economies are actively involved in the workforce, leaving a significant group of untapped potential outside the “observable” economy.
The gains are clear – a recent report from Goldman Sachs’s Global Markets Institute calculates that Japan could lift its economy out of the recession by harnessing the eight million female graduates who currently do not work because of family commitments.
Encouraging more women into the labour force has been the single-biggest driver of Eurozone’s labour market success, much more so than “conventional” labour market reforms or policy tinkering, the report states.
And one study carried out by the NIKE Foundation in Kenya estimates that investing in girls would potentially add $3.2 billion to the economy.
Gender inequality in education may have reduced potential annual per capita income growth by 0.5-0.9 percentage points in much of sub-Saharan Africa, meaning that actual per capita income growth has only been half its potential level.