HELSINKI - In 2010, two Kenyan women, Jamila Abbas and Susan Oguya, were angered by newspaper reports about middlemen exploiting small farmers. In response, the two IT professionals launched M-Farm, a company that sends farmers real-time crop prices and market information via SMS, connecting them directly with food exporters and cutting out the middlemen. Now, less than two years later, M-Farm reaches more than 2,000 farmers in Kenya, including many female smallholders, and has won several international awards.
Abbas and Oguya represent a new class of female innovators. They have built a profitable business that empowers women, and that contributes to a more open and inclusive society. It is women like them - entrepreneurs who found companies, create jobs, and lead the way toward gender equality in the developing world - whom we will celebrate on the 101st International Women's Day on March 8.
According to the World Bank's World Development Report 2012, which focuses on gender equality, the world's 3.5 billion woman and girls still face an uneven playing field in education, employment, earnings, and decision-making power.
The report shows that gender inequality comes with a cost, while equality for women can create economic opportunities and boost efficiency and productivity. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that if women in rural areas had the same access to land, technology, financial services, education, and markets that men do, agricultural production could be increased and the number of hungry people reduced by 100-150 million.
There are bright spots on the horizon. Forbes magazine's '100 Most Powerful Women' last year listed its traditional collection of government officials, activists, and business leaders, but it also included a new cadre of women in technology: venture capitalists, start-up managers, and engineers leading technological innovation.
Women entrepreneurs in developing countries face special challenges starting companies in the formal economy and expanding them into firms with growth potential. The World Bank's 2011 report, 'Women, Business and the Law,' noted that women in 103 of the 141 economies that it analyzed still face legal discrimination on the basis of gender. The fact that M-Farm launched in Kenya is no coincidence: according to the same report, Kenya has led the world in gender-parity reforms over the past two years.
New communication technologies help as well, not only as a means of doing business, but also in lowering social barriers. Abbas and Oguya conceived of M-Farm as members of AkiraChix, a Nairobi-based organisation of female entrepreneurs and technologists determined to 'change Africa's future.'
Smart development programs have also played a role. The Creating Sustainable Businesses program, a collaborative effort by the Finnish government, Nokia, and infoDev - a World Bank global partnership - has supported AkiraChix with grants in order to strengthen this model for other women-led business incubators and social hubs.
New technologies can also provide jobs for the world's poorest billion women. People with limited educational attainment can earn an income by performing micro tasks, such as simple data entry. This often requires access to a computer, but an increasing number of applications are distributing micro-work on mobile phones. With 80 per cent of today's six billion mobile phones located in developing countries, micro-work could lead to significant job creation and opportunities for young people, women, and people with disabilities.
With the world population now at seven billion, we need both women and men to provide answers to the defining challenges of our era, including climate change, food security, and sustainable economic growth. The story of Abbas and Oguya in Kenya can be an inspiration to women around the world. International Women's Day is an opportunity to honour women like them - and to remember that, because women represent half of the world's solutions, technology and innovation must be their business, too.
Heidi Hautala is Finland's Minister for International Development and was a member of the European Parliament from 1995 to 2003 and 2009 to 2011. Janamitra Devan is the World Bank's Vice President for Financial and Private Sector Development.