Hacking the Gender Gap: A Gradual Shift in North African Women and Tech Entrepreneurship

Introduction: From informality to formality—the need for women to be empowered as entrepreneurs

Women in the Maghreb have become more and more involved in entrepreneurship, whether informally, to overcome the challenges of chronic unemployment and support their families, or by choice, to create a formalized structure (Mohammed and Mohammed, 229). Yet, from Algeria, to Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia or Libya, women entrepreneurs remain a minority. In Morocco, for instance, only around 12% of women are entrepreneurs, while 34% want to start their own business (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, 35). In Algeria, women entrepreneurs were estimated at 150,000 out of more than 1.96 million entrepreneurs in 2018 (El Watan).

Awareness should be raised to democratize women’s access to entrepreneurship, especially in fields such as tech, which is still dominated by men. How, then, can we transform our perception of female entrepreneurship so that women become a major force of the digital revolution in the Maghreb? This article highlights local initiatives to inspire and encourage women entrepreneurs in the Maghreb through a cross-country comparison.

Mauritania: An entrepreneurship journey with women and for women

In Mauritania, the Young Chamber of Commerce, founded by Aïssata Lam, supports many women entrepreneurs and raises awareness among young Mauritanian women to increasingly get involved in entrepreneurship projects (Gillon). In recent years, positive initiatives for women entrepreneurs have blossomed through locally organized competitions, such as the “Marathon de l’Entrepreneur,” a flagship competition in Mauritania organized in partnership with the World Bank that aimed to develop the abilities of young entrepreneurs, promote entrepreneurship in Mauritania, and reward the best business creation ideas (Gillon; World Bank, 11). Additionally, this competition has developed a gender-sensitive strategy to attract more female candidates and to keep them in the race until the end of the competition. For instance, 60% of women who applied in 2019 reached the final stage of the competition (World Bank, 23). To reach this figure, the organizers carried out a field survey to understand why women had dropped out and realised it was essentially due to a lack of support and credibility (World Bank, 55). This work is also enabled by other players in the Mauritanian ecosystem, such as donors, since promoting female entrepreneurship can only become sustainable by combining efforts from all the actors involved.  

Morocco: Connecting women entrepreneurs through networking and storytelling

In Morocco, several local initiatives have also emerged. As a result, many women are leading investment funds and support associations, such as Leïla Doukali, the current national president of the Association of Women Business Leaders of Morocco, an organisation founded in 2000 and currently counting 200 members (Anouar). This is also the case of Meriem Zairi, managing director of SEAF, a growth fund with US $25 million in committed capital, focusing on investments in innovative start-ups led by women (Morocco Now). In addition to these women donors and decision-makers, public policies designed for women entrepreneurs and government programs are keys to overcoming the challenges of entrepreneurship, especially taking the first steps, as pointed out by Jamila El Moussali, Morocco’s Minister of Solidarity, Social Development, Equality and Family (Maroc.ma). Indeed, on average, only 13% of companies in Morocco were led by women in 2019, a figure that could be significantly higher if women received proper and targeted support from the government (Mouline).

In terms of technical players promoting female entrepreneurship in the country, the Technopark, a science park dedicated to assisting the creation and development of companies in the information and communication technologies (ICT), green tech, and cultural industries in Morocco, plays a structuring role in supporting entrepreneurs (Menara.ma). Over nearly 20 years, this major player in Moroccan tech has shown that the trend of female entrepreneurship is improving. Among the start-ups founded thanks to the Technopark, 15% are by women, and out of 2,500 collaborators, 40% are women (Menara.ma). At the same time, the Technopark promotes actions dedicated to women, such as coaching, mentoring, or access to finance. For International Women’s Day 2021, the Technopark published profiles of women entrepreneurs on its social networks, giving their success stories some visibility (TechnoPark Maroc). For women entrepreneurs in Morocco, support, whether technical, institutional, or social, remains an essential factor.

There is also a real need to challenge women entrepreneurs and to make them feel less isolated through initiatives such as networking and storytelling. ESPOD, standing for Start Point Space, is an example of this. ESPOD is the first Moroccan network for women entrepreneurs, founded by Sabah Chraibi, which promotes women to leadership positions through networking from the beginning to the end of their entrepreneurship journey (El Jai). Another example is Impact LAB, which supports women entrepreneurs in remote areas (Siham).   

Tunisia: A legal framework to support women in tech

The ICT sector in Tunisia represents no less than 1,200 companies, 100,000 jobs, and around 7% of GDP (Galtier). However, women’s access to entrepreneurship in this field is still unbalanced. According to national estimates, women run 23.6% of businesses and 11% own a company (Ben Mansour). In addition, only 4% of tech start-ups awarded the “Startup Act” label were founded by women, while 28% were co-founded by women and men, and 68% were founded by men exclusively (Ben Mansour). The country has been actively working to develop a value proposition specific to women by encouraging young people and women with limited financial resources to become entrepreneurs in tech as part of the Startup Act of 2018. The general aim of the Startup Act is to turn technology into a cornerstone for the Tunisian economy, which means involving every possible actor in tech, including women (Startup Tunisia). Even though the Startup Act still needs to be improved to lead to a concrete change, it does provide a legal framework to support women’s entrepreneurship and therefore appears to be a key tool for women’s empowerment in the field of tech.

Algeria: Restoring women’s confidence to overcome the weight of traditions

In Algeria, incubators are progressively dedicating their services to female entrepreneurs. However, the share of funding dedicated to women largely varies depending on the project sector, which is influenced by cultural and traditional norms. Care-related entrepreneurial activities, including health, education, food, or culture are better accepted. This is illustrated by the Kyto Prod, a biotech project created by Dr. Olfa Kilani, which offers a wide range of products and superfoods with multiple uses in food, cosmetics, textiles, food processing, and paramedical industries (Ben Yahia). In Algeria, the lack of female entrepreneurs in tech does not only come from societal barriers but from women themselves, as they tend to be reluctant to innovate and get involved in tech, or because they are worried about the amount of investment required (Adil). However, thanks to nationwide entrepreneurship challenges, such as the “She’s IN TECH Challenge,” women entrepreneurs in tech are empowered to promote their work and share their stories to empower other women. Another challenge to tackle in Algeria is that even though the country has the highest rate of female engineers according to UNESCO, very few of them become entrepreneurs (Allesandro, 12). The objective is therefore to restore women’s confidence and push them forward to overcome societal and individual barriers.

Libya: Women prized for defying instability through “Tech for Good” initiatives

Libya, along with the International Trade Centre and Expertise France, set up a program in 2018 to support women entrepreneurs and enable them to access financing solutions through online training courses (International Trade Centre). The pandemic and the unstable political context have demonstrated that women in tech can make a difference, as seen in Wafeda APP, an application created by Amira Khaled Khalifa during the pandemic that connects job seekers and recruiters (Emerging Mediterranean). Thanks to her innovative app, she became one of ten finalists at the Emerging Mediterranean 2021 pitch, an acceleration program designed to enhance Mediterranean “Tech for Good” start-ups. Despite unstable circumstances, women are able to overcome challenging situations if empowered. 

Conclusion: Hacking persistent challenges with the help of public and private cooperation

While female entrepreneurship increasingly appears to be the new driver of the digital revolution in the Maghreb, women entrepreneurs continue to face great difficulties in obtaining financing, credibility, and visibility. Governments and investors have a major role to play in the development of women’s entrepreneurship by offering a favorable framework through start-up financial support, providing tax exemptions, creating incubators dedicated to women, promoting access to capital, and communicating more about dedicated support programs. The examples mentioned above highlight recommendations inspired by struggles specific to each country involved. Women can tackle the challenges of female entrepreneurship by finding inspiration from each other and connecting through solidarity networks.

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mathilde aupetit

Mathilde is a press and political affairs officer currently working in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with a background in international relations, social science, and humanities. She graduated from King’s College London and Cambridge University and worked in London for an international communication and public policy agency where she worked with global philanthropic foundations and start-ups incubators. She is interested in writing about politics, women rights, philanthropy, and microfinance.

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