Africa is being described as a new economic frontier, according to recent reports from McKinsey Global Institute and the Africa Progress Panel. The former assesses opportunities for business investment in Africa’s future growth trajectory, while the latter highlights social and developmental issues that need to be addressed to fuel progress. Both reports converge on a central question—what will sustain such growth?  The African Progress Panel underscores one driver often missed by economists, governments, and policy makers: the central role of women in the economy.

In spite of shouldering a disproportionate burden of the continent’s poverty and facing barriers to education, financial services, resources and property rights—the story about African women and girls is not only about vulnerabilities, but also about their agency.

Already, women and girls are at the helm of micro and macro activities that keep African economies churning—collecting water, planting and harvesting crops, as well as buying and selling goods. They spend about 70 percent of their unpaid time caring for family members and keeping the current labor force fed, clothed and healthy. In Africa, agriculture accounts for 24 percent of GDP and is the predominant source of livelihood for millions. Women produce up to 80 percent of all basic food products. Yet, they receive only 10 percent of credit given to farmers and less than 1 percent of total loans to agriculture.

Clearly much more needs to be done to harness women’s energy and skills and bring their capabilities to the forefront of economic agendas. It starts with education and empowerment.

The multiplier effects of educating girls and women are pervasive and transcend generations. One of our partners, Camfed, has demonstrated that educating girls sets in motion a virtuous cycle of change within families and communities. Camfed’s results show an educated African girl will be less likely to get HIV/AIDS, more likely to earn 10-20 percent more income, and have a smaller and healthier family. Perhaps the greatest evidence of the power of girls’ education is their philanthropic investment in other children. Former Camfed-supported girls have galvanized action to support the education of nearly 120,000 vulnerable children. They have contributed to whole communities through their independence, leadership, and status as role models for other girls and women.

Women are contributing to Africa’s growth surge. We cannot afford to overlook their potential and agency. Investing in them will significantly propel Africa towards a more sustainable economic and social future.