The African Development Bank (AfDB) is one of the major financiers of infrastructure projects throughout Africa. Donald Kaberuka, outgoing President of AfBD, elaborates the Bank’s strategy and efforts to maximize the role of African women in strategic decision-making and to boost the benefits they gain from infrastructure investments across the continent.


Gender equality is proven to be integral to sustainable development and an essential ingredient for economic progress. Evidence shows that when women and girls have the means to fully participate and contribute to socio-economic development, its direct and indirect benefits leads to the betterment of societies and nation states as a whole. Increasingly gender equality is recognized as not only a rights issue but also smart economics drawing from the evidence that it enhances economic efficiency, and improves developmental outcomes.

Women constitute knowledge, expertise, talent and powerful energy and “it is imperative they take centre-stage in influencing the decisions and processes that are re-shaping the global economic and financial systems.” The African Development Bank is championing women and girls’ empowerment, so that together with the continent’s men and boys, they share in equal participation, peace and prosperity.

In September 2013, I appointed Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, the former South African Minister and a person with a very good pedigree on all these issues, as the Bank’s Special Envoy on Gender. We needed a Special Envoy, because the issue is urgent for Africa, and a sense of urgency had to be created. Not only inside the Bank, but also within our member countries. Her task is to advocate, to ensure gender equality in the Bank’s operations and its operating systems, and to support our countries, our regional economic communities and the African Union to implement those things on which all of us agree, and I know we all passionately believe in.


The Bank’s Gender Strategy which she oversees sets out clear objectives, directions and measurable targets in many areas but with special emphasis on three areas. First, promoting women’s access to economic opportunities, and access to financial resources in order to maximize their participation in all parts of the economy. Second, closing the gender gap in legal status and property rights. Third, making gender equality a practical reality by access to skills.

What does this mean for the Bank’s inclusive growth agenda? It means at a macro level, sensitizing policy-makers and assisting governments to institutionalize gender equality through, for example, advocacy for reforms to harmonize civil and customary laws. It entails, at a micro level, skills development, creating economic opportunities specifically targeting women, improving women’s access to finance, and enhancing quality of employment. In the area of infrastructure development, it means construction of infrastructure that alleviates the caregiver burden on women, as well as adopting project designs that maximize benefits accruing to women during construction and service stages, and most importantly, in their use after completion, in transforming their lives. ICT for example, has been a key driver in empowering women small businesses, traders and farmers through access to information, money transfer services and ease of communication.

One of the main constraints on structural economic change is Africa’s huge infrastructure deficit, which inhibits Africa’s ability to fully harness her productive potential as a result of limited access to infrastructure services by businesses and households. With electrification rates at just 42.5 per cent, African businesses and households face high energy costs and unreliable supply. Firms are forced to rely on back-up generators, at an estimated total fuel cost of US$5 billion per year. Around 700 million Africans live without clean cooking facilities. The use of biomass — which remains Africa’s dominant energy source poses both health and environmental threats. Foraging takes up a disproportionate amount of time, especially for women and children.

The good news story is Africa has half of the world’s clean energy potential, particularly in hydropower, barely10 per cent of which is currently tapped. Pipeline projects in DRC have the potential to transform Africa’s power supply. Africa is also beginning to innovate with mini-grid or off-grid clean energy solutions. With the cost of solar power falling rapidly, sales of solar-powered mobile phone charging devices are doubling annually, while companies are beginning to develop household appliances able to run on the low voltage direct current produced by solar power systems.

Infrastructure remains our highest priority, absorbing the lion’s share of our resources. During 2014, the Bank invested UA4.5 billion (US$6.8 billion) in key projects and operations across the Continent out of which nearly 60 per cent went into infrastructure underpinning the Bank’s commitment to addressing Africa’s infrastructure gap. Transport is another key bottleneck. High transport costs add 75 per cent to the price of goods. We invest heavily in transport infrastructure, helping to put in place the backbone highway network to link African countries to each other and the feeder roads that link business and households to markets and services. Over the past two years, we have built or rehabilitated over 6000 km of road and provided 32 million people with improved access to transport. Projects like the 175 km road between Wacha and Maji in Ethiopia have dramatically reduced transportation costs for farmers particularly women, raising rural incomes with immediate impact on poverty and food security. New transport projects have been launched in several countries including Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad and Rwanda to improve women’s access to transport and facilitate income generation.

We are also investing in railways, airports and port facilities providing women better access to markets and participation in the Global Value Chains (GVCs). In the energy sector, we have funded over 1.3 GW of new power generation capacity, while providing 10 million people with electricity connections. We are making substantial investments in renewable energy, such as Africa’s largest wind power project in Lake Turkana in Kenya, and we are helping African countries to access international climate funds and leverage private-sector finance for clean energy projects. Our investments in water and sanitation have benefited more than 4 million people, and we have a strong focus on the management of water resources, so as to boost water security. The lack of clean water and sanitation continues to bear major public health threat. It also poses a significant burden on women and girls, who often walk long distances to access water. In sub-Saharan Africa, women spend 40 billion hours a year fetching water.

The African Heads of State and Government have recognized the role of infrastructure as one of the key drivers of Africa’s transformation. It is in this context that at their AU Assembly in Addis Ababa in January 2012, they approved the Program for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA), a strategy to integrate and interconnect Africa through modern infrastructure anchored in the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) within a coordinated continental framework. Inclusive growth requires regional integration, and requires coordinated efforts to facilitate trade, both formal and informal, by establishing strong and balanced institutions and empowering traders with knowledge of transit regulations, among other things. Women and girls in fragile states experience special challenges that must be tackled through both stronger institutions and community-based support.

As the large majority of women in Africa are employed in agricultural production, our projects are supporting women farmers by developing markets, storage faculties and irrigation infrastructure to increase crop production, processing and sales which improves women’s livelihoods and income. Alongside, the development of micro, small and medium-size enterprises in agro-processing providing collateral for credit and enables women to save. Women’s participation in the formal and informal economy is on the rise. Increasing rates of female labor force participation is an encouraging trend but women are more likely to be employed in low skilled and low productivity professions. To address the needs of the region’s growing economies, several of our initiatives are focusing on improving skills for competitiveness and jobs. By strengthening skills of the emerging workforce and improving employability of graduates, these investments are expected to help women transition from unskilled employment to the skilled workforce.

Infrastructure development is a driver of economic growth and employment creation. Women should be enabled through targeted STEM skill development programmes to acquire the requisite high-tech skills needed to access jobs and employment opportunities in the infrastructure sector. Women need representation in infrastructure at the policy level, at the managerial level and at the operational level to shape and drive policy change within key infrastructure institutions to address the needs of women economic empowerment. The PIDA  Steering Committee comprising the African Union Commission (AUC), the NEPAD Agency, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA)  and the AfDB which met in March 2015 in Midrand, South Africa, endorsed the collaboration with the Gender Envoy on mainstreaming gender in PIDA as a means of anchoring gender empowerment on this major continental initiative which offers immense business opportunities for women across the infrastructure spectrum (in consulting services, construction, supply chains, logistics, ICT services, finance and investments and skills training among others).

The infrastructure sector has one of the highest economic footprints across Africa in terms of institutions, ministries, regulatory agencies, public firms as well as private companies and therefore offers immense opportunities to empower women not only in terms of harnessing business opportunities offered by infrastructure, but also importantly, in placing women in strategic decision-making positions at the political, policy, board and enterprise levels so women can start to influence and shape the infrastructure landscape and debate in Africa.

Much more needs to be done to improve gender equality in Africa. Advocacy must now translate into action. Greater commitments are needed from the international community and more needs to be done on the ground. Synergies have to be created across sectors and entities to scale up implementation and generate impact. Women in Africa have come a long way and now when the region is on the brink of unprecedented growth and development, we cannot let them get left behind. Women have to be a part of Africa’s growth and transformation every step of the way.