04/11/2014 11:21 GMT | Updated 03/01/2015 05:59 GMT

Zambia at 50: The Transformative Potential of Women

Landlocked Zambia, which sits in the heart of sub-Saharan Africa, celebrated 50 years of independence in October. Despite the country's rich copper-mining industry, more than half of its population lives in rural areas, much of which remains impoverished. The anniversary, then, provides a timely opportunity to take stock of progress made to-date - and to identify where challenges remain.

While extreme poverty in the country reduced from 58 percent in 1991 to 43 percent in 2010, the current figure remains a long way off the UN's Millennium Development Group goal of 29 percent. There's still significant work to do at all levels to help Zambians work their way out of poverty. While there's no doubt the government is working hard to help its people, work at the grass roots of society is where we're likely to see most change.

Microfinancing is a great example of this development in progress. Funding initiatives are making it easier for Zambians to access small, affordable loans to help them to help themselves. The MicroLoan Foundation for example, which I founded twelve years ago, is committed to helping tackle poverty through encouraging independence, rather than dependence. Correctly targeted micro-loans, combined with tailored training, has enabled 28,000 individuals to start their own businesses in Zambia since 2006, allowing them to work themselves out of poverty in a sustainable way.

But education too has an undeniable role to play in tackling poverty. That said, just 31.6 percent of Zambian women were in tertiary education between 2006 and 2012, according to a UNESCO estimate. Despite this - and, as with many countries in Africa - women are often the breadwinners in rural Zambia, reinvesting 90 percent of their earnings into their family and local community.

With limited access to education or funding, women remain on the edge of economic activities with few opportunities to escape the poverty cycle and participate in the country's development. For these reasons, MicroLoan Foundation exclusively provides loans to women living in rural areas of the country. Women are the disruptors of many economies around the world and this doesn't stop at Zambia.

Zambia's women might not be looking to create the next large enterprise, but we cannot underestimate the transformative potential of women for entire communities in Zambia. And this transformation begins with the family. Take Faskani Simbani who sells eggs. Using a microloan, Faskani was able to buy five more chickens, which enabled her to increase her profits - profits which proved vital when her baby daughter Edith fell ill with pneumonia and had to be taken to hospital.

But it's not just in extreme cases where additional revenue has made a difference; Faskani has now been able to build a toilet for the family, making her home a safer, more sanitary environment, particularly in the rainy season when cholera becomes a real concern, claiming 200 lives each year.

By providing the tools to help individuals work themselves out of poverty rather than simply issuing hand-outs, two benefits are created. Not only does this approach advance the agenda for change and sustainable investment, it gives individuals a sense of pride and motivation to continue working to improve their standard of living.

Zambia's challenge for the next 50 years is to use its mineral wealth to support its women, providing them with an education - the first step in the journey out of poverty. Coupled with vital grassroots developments including access to pro-poor microfunding, Zambia can look to the next 50 years with hope as it learns to protect and foster the transformative potential of its women.