Women are at the heart of African cities. The continent needs urban policies that empower them

Women in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: Getty.

An International Women’s Day Special, from Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, Jennifer S. Musisi and Astrid R.N. Haas.

Women have always been essential to the urban fabric of African cities. Their economic, social, and political engagements have been key to driving both productivity and liveability for our cities. As researchers, policymakers, and above all, African women, we are paying tribute to the role that women have in shaping our cities on this International Women’s Day.

Women’s centrality to African cities is not only anecdotal: there is growing evidence to support it. Collectively, we need to target our urban policies so they empower women to continue to be agents of positive change, creating more inclusive African cities in the process.

The economic woman

As the sun rises over Kampala, Nakato, carries her two youngest girls and unlocks her small shop in Naguru Go-Down, one of Kampala’s informal settlements. Her shop is small, but every space is filled with everything from small packets of washing powder to popcorn and stock cubes. She is not alone, all around her many other women are opening their small shops too.

This predominance of women in the informal service sector of the city economy dates back to colonial times. While men were able to find work in the mining and construction sectors, women were excluded from these jobs. They were compelled to earn livelihoods in other ways, many congregating in cities and towns to commercialise their domestic skills.

This feature of African cities still remains today, with women making up the majority of the informal economy. In Kampala, 70 per cent of single-person businesses, like Nakato’s shop, are led by women. Despite this predominance, men are still more likely to have larger business operations, which hire more employees and engage in trade. Our challenge is to harness the dynamism of women-owned businesses and bring them into the formal economy so they can grow and benefit from scale, specialisation, and innovation.

Policies that can be targeted to support these firms include skills training and provision of seed capital. This has been one of the focuses of the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA): since 2011, over 10,000 youth and 65,000 community members have received business skills training and benefitted from start-up capital in the form of loans and agricultural inputs for urban farming projects. KCCA also has targeted programmes for women. For example, they have female adult literacy programmes, as the illiteracy rate for women in Kampala is significantly higher than for men (49 per cent compared to 23 per cent), as well as leadership skills training.


The social woman

Part of building more inclusive cities means addressing social norms that often push women into more traditional roles. This may both confine them to the non-tradeable services sector and increase their time spent on household activities, diverting time and capital away from their businesses. In addition, many women are the primary caregivers within the home, leaving them less time to work in formal jobs, which can result in gender gaps in productivity.

There is growing recognition that women are able to push back against these social norms as they gain bargaining power. Cities themselves can intrinsically support this transition: evidence has shown living in dense, vibrant, and dynamic urban spaces can significantly impact gender inclusion. There are various reasons for this: for one, cities simply expose women and men to alternatives to what may be prevailing norms, and can thus empower them to challenge the status quo. Cities also offer women a more diverse set of opportunities in employment and public services, including, for example, child care options that allow them to work.

The political woman

For cities to play an empowering role, policymakers need to design them to adequately take into account women’s roles and needs, to actively encourage women’s agency and progression. However, to date most cities across the globe have been designed and shaped primarily by and for men. In part this stems from the lack of female political representation: currently, fewer than 5 per cent of city leadership roles globally are actually held by women

In Africa, Sierra Leone is one country that has been progressive on political representation, with a long legacy of having women in leadership positions. For example, Madam Ella Kobolo Gulama, a Paramount Chief in Sierra Leone until her passing in 2006, led the way for female political representation across the continent: she was the first elected female Member of Parliament in all of sub-Saharan Africa. This legacy of female leadership has also been mirrored at the city level with Constance Cummings-John becoming the first female mayor of Freetown in 1966. Cummings-John, who also co-founded Sierra Leone’s Women’s Movement, was instrumental in the country’s struggle for independence. Since then, Freetown has been led by three more female mayors.

Growing evidence suggests that when women serve as political leaders, governments are not only more inclusive but also better at delivering public services. When women are represented in local government, they are also more likely to ensure topics important to women are actively considered. For example, Florence Dillsworth, a previous mayor of Freetown, launched a number of projects both around education and income generation specifically for women.

African cities, like Kampala and Freetown, are currently undergoing immense changes in their economic, social, and political fabric. The positive role women play in Africa’s urbanisation process is clear and evidenced. We need to continue fighting for women’s voices to be heard and ensure that they can reach their fullest potential within our cities.

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr is the mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Jennifer S. Musisi is city leader in residence at the Bloomberg Harvard City Initiative. Astrid R.N. Haas is manager of Cities that Work at the International Growth Centre.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”