Only 1 in 3 African women have access to the internet–compared with half of men. The cost to the continent’s economy could be in the billions

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During a trip to Ghana, Tanzania, and Zambia last month, Vice President Kamala Harris announced more than $1 billion in public and private investments to close Africa’s digital divide–with a particular focus on expanding access to girls and women. That might seem like a niche goal. In fact, it will not only expand opportunity for millions, but also have far-reaching ripple effects on health, growth, stability, and resilience across a region of increasing strategic importance.

Improving women’s access to digital technologies and skills is crucial to ensure they can fully participate in and contribute to today’s economy. Yet, only one in three African women uses the internet today, compared to almost half of men. Women on the continent are also 30% less likely than men to own a smartphone.

This lack of access hinders women’s entrepreneurship and deprives society of their talents and innovations.

The internet, for instance, was crucial in helping Fafape Ama Etsa Foe establish E90 Ghana, a sustainable farm in Accra that uses sawdust to grow mushrooms. Sawdust, a byproduct of the woodworking industry, is typically burned, which pollutes the air and can lead to health problems, including cancer. E90 Ghana uses it to produce healthy and nutritious food instead, simultaneously improving the environment and increasing the local food system’s resilience to climate change.

Ms. Foe, who is locally known as the “Mushroom Queen” and recently met with Vice President Harris to discuss the economic importance of empowering women, told me the internet helped her research mushroom farming techniques, challenges, and opportunities. Today, it also allows her to reach more clients and keep costs down. “I am connected with all my regular clients on WhatsApp and Telegram, where I take their orders and supply them smoothly without delay,” she says. “These digital tools helped me to prevent postharvest losses, which used to account for as high as 25% of annual revenue.”

Ms. Foe believes improving digital connectivity will foster entrepreneurship among women on the continent by expanding access to information and financing opportunities: “Bridging the digital gender gap will help women, especially to market their products and also come out with new innovative products.”

It will also benefit their families, communities, and society at large. Indeed, investments in internet infrastructure grow the economy as a whole. The World Bank estimates that expanding broadband penetration by 10% in low- and middle-income economies yields a 1.4% increase in real per capita GDP. And according to the U.N. Women’s Gender Snapshot 2022 report, women’s exclusion from the digital economy has cost low- and middle-income countries $1 trillion in GDP over the previous decade already–and the cost could grow to $1.5 trillion by 2025 if nothing is done to close the gap.

Whispa Health is another example of a company founded by a woman that would not be possible without reliable internet access. It is a Nigeria-based app that gives users – mostly women and younger people – access to information about their sexual and reproductive health as well as a platform to book appointments with health care providers and buy contraceptives, STI tests, and other health products.

Morenike Fajemisin, co-founder and CEO, told me she wanted to help young women take care of their health so they could stay in school and achieve their dreams. “As long as that woman or young person has access to a smartphone, she has a way to connect with Whispa Health through our app or any of our social media channels,” she said. “Thanks to the internet, she is a few clicks away from finding the shame-free and confidential health care that she needs.”

We need more women entrepreneurs like Ms. Foe and Ms. Fajemisin to tackle some of the biggest challenges we are facing today, including climate change, pandemic surveillance, and democratic backsliding. Closing the digital gender divide in Africa is a crucial first step. It will open the innovation economy to millions of women and girls on the continent. It will give them–and through them, their children and communities–access to knowledge and quality education as well as health care, which in turn will further boost economic development, help build more resilient communities, and strengthen democracies.

The ripple effects will be wide. As Ms. Fajemisin told me, “When girls hear about successful women who come from similar backgrounds or nationalities, they realize that such success is possible for them too.” (Or, as civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman put it, “You can’t be what you don’t see.”)

The Global North should not hesitate when it comes to investing in Africa’s digital infrastructure. The population of sub-Saharan Africa–about 1.2 billion people today–is set to almost double by 2050. And according to a study from the Brookings Institution, consumer spending in the continent is expected to rise to $2.5 trillion by 2030.

More business and philanthropic leaders should answer Vice President Harris’ call to action and join in the effort to promote gender equality and digital access in Africa. We will all benefit.

Michelle A. Williams is the Dean of Faculty at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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