Women’s economic empowerment in rural value chains: The role of the private sector

by 22nd Sep 2015
Participants in a Farmers Field and Business School in Tanzania, part of CARE’s Pathways to Empowerment programme Participants in a Farmers Field and Business School in Tanzania, part of CARE’s Pathways to Empowerment programme

The private sector is a main actor involved in women’s economic empowerment in rural value chains: large traders, retailers or manufacturers often hold the keys to improving women’s access to extension services, financial services, input provision, market information and technology. They also have the negotiating power to help put gender equality on the agenda of producers’ associations and cooperatives.

Important progress on gender equality has been made during the past 10 years, and the business case for women's economic empowerment has become increasingly clear as a number of companies have been adopting the Calvert Principles, followed by the UN women’s empowerment principles. Gender analyses of specific value chains like cocoa (often said to be a ‘male crop’ in Ghana and India) have shown that women play an important role in cocoa production, as part of a farming family, as wage labourers or as farmers themselves, and that women are particularly engaged in those aspects of production that are critical for attaining quality.

Considering these elements, one would expect that companies are investing huge amounts of money and effort to improve their competiveness by promoting women’s empowerment in their supply chains, with large-scale impacts. This is partially true. Many large companies are investing in social projects that benefit women in their respective value chain(s), and are trying to project the image of a gender-sensitive (or transformative) company.

On the other hand, the reality and research from rural areas tells us that changes in access to resources and training are still reaching a relatively small number of women. In addition to this, according to Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign, of the 10 largest food companies, half of them score poorly or very poorly in their commitment to fight gender discrimination.

The reasons for this idiosyncrasy are multifaceted; their roots lie both within and outside of these companies. I sketch out some of these challenges below, based on CARE’s experience with programmes targeting women in rural value chains.

  • While there is an overall understanding within the private sector of the importance of gender equality in the supply chain from a social and brand perspective, its impact on key business drivers like agriculture productivity and quality of production still needs a tighter analysis for specific crops and contexts. Most companies would not object to adding gender equality as a cross-cutting element of their extension work, financial services or other business development services. However, investing resources to specifically target women in a differentiated manner requires more buy-in.
  • Gender inequality also builds upon power relations inside households and communities, and upon a gender division of labour and benefits in the society, whose root causes are only partially understood. These structural aspects take long-term efforts to be changed and we need strategies that target cultural norms and informal institutions. Several interventions targeting extension services or other business development services fail to address important systemic elements of discrimination and their impacts end up being short-lived.
  • Changing women’s role in the society can carry real risks for women that need to be considered. For instance, increased mobility for women in some contexts increases the risks of gender-based violence. This risk might dissuade companies from hiring female extension officers, unless provisions are made to mitigate this risk (eg women are accompanied when working). The longer term benefits can outweigh the associated financial costs of this, but more research is needed to define or quantify the gains. CARE is facing the specific challenge of advocating for more female extension officers in our coffee value chain programme in Papua New Guinea.
  • The capacity of many private sector companies to mainstream gender equality in their businesses and in their supply chains is still a work in progress, in need of external support—particularly at the community and vulnerable groups levels. Partnerships with civil society can play a key role in overcoming this challenge.
  • Local governments in many countries are important providers of rural extension services and run their own rural development programmes. Therefore any strategy to empower women in rural value chains needs to include and consider these important stakeholders. This presents clear opportunities but also specific challenges for effective partnerships.

The main questions, from a civil society perspective, are:

  1. How we can support and engage with the private sector and other stakeholders in order to overcome these barriers?
  2. What are the risks and how can they be mitigated?
  3. What are the lessons learned and types of evidence that can be shared from the field to help us in this task?

We invite you to join us in thinking through these challenging questions at our session “The Role of the Private Sector in Women’s Economic Empowerment” in the Women’s Economic Empowerment track as a part of the SEEP Network Annual Conference (28 September – 1 October 2015). The session will explore these issues from different angles: the civil society angle (through Oxfam and CARE), the private sector angle (through SAB Miller) and the think tank perspective (through the International Centre for Research on Women).

Gianluca Nardi

Gianluca worked in the Private Sector Engagement team and then the Women's Economic Empowerment team at CARE International UK from 2005 to 2017. Gianluca's main areas of expertise are market facilitation, women’s empowerment, micro-enterprise development, rural development, private sector engagement and working with extractive industries.

He has over 15 years experience working in various management and consultancy roles in Brazil, Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia and Italy, in both the private sector and NGOs. He holds a Masters in International Development from the University of Ferrara, an ILO Diploma on Inclusive Market Facilitation, a diploma in Extractive Industries and Sustainable Development from the Catholic University of Lima, and a certificate from the Advanced Social Management Programme from the University of Cambridge and the University of Queensland CSRM.

One good thing I’ve read

Changing your company from the inside out: A guide for social intrapreneurs, by Gerald Davis and Christopher White. An inspiring guide to making big changes and a social impact by transforming large companies from the inside. It is fascinating to see the many similarities between social movements generating big societal changes and inspiring individuals doing the same in their own organizations.

Twitter: @gianlucabrasil