Photo: Cherie Blair Foundation for Women
2015 will be an exciting year for all those working on the issue of women's economic empowerment. As the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals fast approaches, the world is engaged in debate over what form the next set of development goals should take. Financial inclusion is emerging as a strong theme - and, indeed, as we look ahead to the future, this will be a key priority for the work of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.
Approximately 2.5 billion people across the world do not have a bank account, the majority of whom are women. This means that, all too often, female entrepreneurs cannot access basic financial services - such as savings, bank loans or credit - which are critical to fueling the growth of their businesses.
There are a number of barriers which prevent women from accessing capital. For example, women often have limited awareness of the finance options that are available to them. Women in many parts of the world also struggle to access the collateral needed to secure loans, because of social and legal restrictions around inheritance and land ownership rights. And many women tell us that they simply feel too intimidated to approach banks, which are often extremely male dominated environments. In India, for example, female employees make up less than 20% of the workforce in banks.
Many banks are also reluctant to invest in women entrepreneurs, viewing them as the 'riskier' option. In fact, the opposite is true - women are often the safer bet for investment, since research shows that female borrowers have stronger repayment track records than men. Research also indicates that women are likely to access two to three more financial products from the bank or financial institution with which they are dealing when compared to male entrepreneurs, making them roughly twice as profitable for banks as customers.
Addressing financial inclusion will be a huge challenge, but one our global society must address if we are to unleash the full potential of female entrepreneurship.
At the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, our mission is to empower women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging markets. A great deal of our work is spent trying to break down those barriers which prevent women from accessing capital - whether that's by enhancing the financial skills and knowledge of women themselves, or by working closely with financial institutions to encourage them to extend their services to female entrepreneurs.
Towards the end of last year, for example, we launched an exciting project in the United Arab Emirates, in partnership with J.P. Morgan and PlaNet Finance, to support 100 women entrepreneurs operating micro, small and medium sized businesses. Alongside providing these women with training in core business skills, the project will also forge strong links with key financial institutions and banks in order to facilitate their access to capital.
This project is a good example of how working in partnership is crucial to solving the problem of financial exclusion. Technology is another vital part of the equation - and, indeed, technology is at the heart of everything we do at the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.
In Nigeria, for example, we have partnered with Visa, Youth for Technology Foundation and First Bank Nigeria to deliver an innovative project that utilises mobile technology to extend banking services to thousands of unbanked Nigerians. Our project will provide 2,500 women entrepreneurs with the opportunity to become agents in the retail network of First Bank Nigeria, a leading provider of financial services in the country. These women agents will, in turn, reach 75,000 people living in rural and underserved areas, providing them with mobile financial services.
Our vision over the next five years is to continue developing ambitious and far-reaching projects of this kind, with the ultimate aim of supporting over 200,000 women entrepreneurs by the end of 2019. Enhancing women's access to capital will be a powerful driver of development, boosting the growth of women-owned enterprises and delivering knock-on benefits to their wider communities. After all, women who earn have greater control over their own lives and the lives of their children, creating a brighter future for all.