How the United Nations is empowering women through technology transfer

by Ludger Kersting

Vanessa Völkel and Jessica Neumann, from the UNIDO-ITPO office in Bonn, on the promotion of women in developing countries.

Work and career opportunities for women do not look too bright: On a global average, only 27.1 percent of all management and executive positions are held by women – a figure that has hardly changed over the past 30 years. More than 1.3 billion women do not even have a bank account, despite the fact that extreme household poverty is reduced, if women have access to capital and become self-employed.

In view of such sobering figures, Vanessa Völkel of the German UNIDO Office for Investment and Technology Promotion (UNIDO ITPO Germany), is quite rightly proud of the Boreal Light Ltd. water kiosk in Burani, Kenya – a project that was realised with mediation from the Bonn office. For a year now, a machine installed there has been producing up to 20,000 litres of water daily – a resource that is particularly rare on the continent. But it is not only the bubbling blue gold that makes the economist happy but equally that 13 of the 18 positions created were filled by women.

Speaking to BUSINESS & DIPLOMACY, the UNIDO employee and her colleague, Jessica Neumann, demonstrate how long and rocky the road to gender equality still is. But also, how the United Nations can contribute specifically to the advancement of women.

Since 2017, the team in Bonn has been connecting mainly small and medium-sized companies and start-ups from Germany and Europe with potential business partners in developing and emerging countries. The ITPO office has set the objective that at least 40 percent of the project work should benefit women. A quota which should already be integrated when ITPO Germany arranges a delegation of entrepreneurs for a business trip. Völkel: “Smarter decisions are made when women and men come together at the table and thus create a wider horizon”. In addition, gender diverse teams strengthen the innovation potential – a critical factor for companies aspiring successful business abroad

A plastic recycling work­shop on the Galapagos Islands

The professional development of the two UNIDO women themselves, both in their thirties, is crowned with success thanks to their high levels of commitment and good training. Vanessa Völkel previously worked as a project manager on several international assignments and spent almost three years advising the Georgian government on economic policy affairs. Since 2018, she has helped to establish the Bonn ITPO office, for which she has just been promoted to deputy head.

Jessica Neumann has had a classic UN career and will soon be completing her Junior Professional Officer Program (JPO). This program, sponsored by the German Foreign Office, enables German junior staff to significantly increase their competitive chances for a job in international organizations. In the case of Neumann, this worked out: in future, she will support companies’ business activities in developing countries as an investment and technology promotion expert in the ITPO office.

The two would like to pass on their success to other women by focussing even more on companies and projects run by women. Both are currently playing a major role in the development of an online training course on “Gender Lens Investing”. The core idea is to base investment decisions not only on classic credit-rating criteria and cash flow analyses. In the future, data on gender equality in a company’s management positions should also play an important role. Such conditions help to generate returns while improving the lives of women and girls. Neumann cites an example of gender discrimination in access to capital. Experience has shown, that when presenting new business ideas female start-up entrepreneurs face doubts regarding their likelihood of success more often than their male counterparts.

Neumann, who studied international development in Vienna, emphasizes that the exclusion of women’s perspectives has consequences for the applicability of a technology for the different user groups: “The best language assistant software will not serve any woman if the Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not able to understand women if it was programmed with a male default. If programmed with a specific male perspective, the huge data sets used to train AI already contain prejudices.” She is therefore committed to account for women’s special needs when selecting technology projects worthy of funding.

Völkel also refers to UNIDO’s vision of eliminating gender inequalities in industry, exploiting the full potential of women as leaders and entrepreneurs, and breaking down gender stereotypes. When she thinks of successful female company founders from the tech sector, the Austrian founder Raphaela Egger immediately comes to her mind. This summer, Egger and her start-up Plasticpreneur took part in a global competition, organized by UNIDO, in which innovative ideas and technologies to combat COVID-19 were submitted. Egger and her team won one of the five awards with their business idea to use plastic waste in Uganda to produce face shields that are in demand in the German gastronomy and retail sectors. 1100 ideas from 108 countries were submitted.

Prof. Dr. Rolf Steltemeier, head of the UNIDO-ITPO office and jury member at the UNIDO Ideas Competition, expressed his satisfaction that the company from Wiener Neustadt with co-founder Egger did so well. “It is just as pleasing that this idea from a small team, born out of a crisis situation, has created 100 new jobs locally”. Whether it is the manufacture of Covid-19 protective shields in Uganda or the production of drinking and process water in Kenya – these projects encourage Jessica Neumann and Vanessa Völkel to commit further to the advancement of women in developing countries.

Vanessa Völkel

Deputy Head

Jessica Neumann

Investment and Technology Promotion Expert