Fickle funding for women-led startups hurts femtech

The femtech industry is poised for growth. But, in South Africa and elsewhere, startups using technology to address women’s health concerns tend to be underfunded.

The global femtech market reportedly generated more than $820-million revenue in 2019. 

And researchers have forecast that the industry — currently comprised of more than 200 startups that create period and fertility tracking apps, contraception delivery services and technology that may help with the early detection of cervical and breast cancer — will continue growing. 

In 2018, research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan said femtech was the next big phenomenon in the women’s health market, with a market potential of $50-billion by 2025.

In South Africa, the industry is still finding its feet, with only a handful of brands getting off the ground. This, experts say, likely has to do with a lack of interest in women’s health issues and underfunding.

Software developer Pabi Moloi is the founder of Uteroo, a period tracking app that allows people who menstruate to log their symptoms and better understand their cycles. But Moloi says startups like hers are few and far between. “There is still a lot of opportunities to explore in the femtech space.”

Moloi says the stigma around women’s health issues may be stifling femtech growth in South Africa. “As women, we rarely get to talk about the pain we are experiencing. When we go to the clinic, you feel embarrassed about asking for contraceptives because people might think badly of you for having sex.”

But stigma and other barriers to accessing healthcare are major reasons some femtech businesses exist in the first place. 

Last year Rwandan femtech company Kasha, which delivers menstrual care products and contraceptives to its customers confidentially, secured a $1-million investment from Swedish development finance firm Swedfund.

Despite signs such as this of more investment in femtech startups, the industry still only gets 1.4% of the aggregated capital that flows into healthcare, according to a 2020 market analysis.

Venture capital expert Lwazi Wali said: “For women, it’s a no-brainer: Why wouldn’t these startups be getting funded? It’s a question that a lot of us in the VC [venture capital] space have been asking for years.”

Wali is the founder of HerHQ, which is aimed at connecting women-led startups with venture capital. She explained that it takes a lot of capital to launch health start-ups, especially if they require clinical studies and approval.

But considering the high levels of investment given for the research and development of health technologies founded by men, femtech startups should also be getting funding, Wali added. 

Women, however, face greater barriers to accessing funding generally. She noted that the recent surge in interest in femtech had been partially driven by Glow, a fertility app by PayPal co-founder Max Levchin.

Investments database Crunchbase found that although global venture funding was up 4% in 2020, only 2.3% of this funding went to women-led startups.

“It can’t be that women make up more than 50% of the world’s population, and yet we are the least funded. It’s absolutely abhorrent … And it’s not because we don’t have good ideas,” she said.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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