The International Trade Centre (ITC)’s SheTrades Initiative has received the support of African financial institutions, including Access Bank and Fidelity Bank in Nigeria and Barclays in Kenya.

The SheTrades Initiative was launched in September 2015, and aims to connect 1 million women to the international markets by 2020 as well as achieving global actions to empower women to trade.

The ITC has so far recruited partners ranging from financial institutions to research and multilateral organisations committing to getting 800,000 female entrepreneurs to market by 2020. “We work with a diverse range of partners. What counts for us is that they will be ready to put their commitment in writing and be ready for us to check and monitor that they follow through with it,” ITC executive director Arancha González tells GTR.

In Kenya, Barclays has set up a fund worth US$50mn to lend to women entrepreneurs. They are also investing close to US$1mn in partnership with ITC to train as many as 10,000 local female entrepreneurs in financial literacy and entrepreneurial skills, increasing women’s chances to get funding from the bank. “It is good for their business, but they also see that this business will not materialise unless they put a little bit of skin in the game, and they are ready to [do so],” says González.

The ITC has also launched a SheTrades app, where women from all over the world can register their businesses and match with potential commercial partners, similarly to how LinkedIn works. According to González, 8,000 female entrepreneurs have registered on the app since its launch in December 2015.

“Many companies have made commitment to diversify their supply chains, to buy from women suppliers, to procure from women vendors. What this app gives them is a possibility to find in a fast, smart, targeted way these women that they’d be interested in doing business with,” she says.

The initiative targets female entrepreneurs as women account for only 20% of managers or owners of businesses that export. The hurdles women encounter have to do with a number of factors, including restricted access to finance, trade policies, production capacity and ownership rights, as in some countries women are not allowed to own assets or run businesses without the authorisation of a male family member.

Yet, a growing body of research shows that improving female participation in the economy has long-lasting positive effects on a country. “Having more women participating in the economy is good for the economy, is good for the country and it is good for society. If you put more women in the economy, it will be better for the quality of your growth, that’s the bottom line,” says González.

The ITC director is aware that there are different reasons as to why women are not participating in international trade as much as men, and she hopes that the SheTrades Initiative can offer support in tackling these acting on all fronts: legally, removing legal restrictions; economically, ensuring increasing participation in the economy; and culturally, acting on the stereotypes that in many parts of the world limit women’s participation in the economy.

Financial institutions have a significant role to play in achieving the initiative’s goals: “The more Barclays, Access Bank and Fidelity Bank show it is a business opportunity for them, the more this initiative will be a game changer,” she says.