Business partnerships with women for social and economic change

How can business help turn millions of poorest women into profit generators for themselves, their community and business? By partnering with them, enabling access to education, technology, finance. By helping remove discriminatory social barriers.



A recent report by the OECD Development Centre  concludes that countries which give opportunities to girls and women tend to do better economically, while those that discriminate against women and girls do less well and carry a high development cost.

The Centre’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI), which measures discrimination against women in social institutions across 160 countries, provides evidence that unequal inheritance rights, “son bias”, early marriage, violence against women, unequal land and property rights, lack of access to financial services or a political voice perpetuate gender inequality and hold back progress towards social transformation that benefits both genders. Here is how the report describes the situation of girls in the lower-ranked countries:

“Discrimination against the girl child, such as early marriage, limits her education, increases her chances of adolescent pregnancy, and restricts her decision-making authority within the family and her ability to make informed choices about her income or her family’s well-being. Future development goals, targets and interventions must take into account how discriminatory social institutions interlock and overlap throughout a woman’s life and thus compound women’s and girls’ inability to break the cycle of inequality”

So what can business as a sector do? It can help women fulfil their social potential: it can use its skills, assets and influence to support civil society to establish women’s rights within the family, freedom from violence, access to social resources, as well as civil and political rights. Business can help women fulfil their potential as contributors to economic growth: it can help women get equal access to ICT technology, finance, vocational training and education. More importantly it can go into partnerships with them which create some mutually relevant and beneficial assets.

Access to ICT technology, finance, expertise and knowledge means women have the opportunity to compete like for like with others in the marketplace. But it is not just about equal rights and a level playing field. It is also about the value women bring in creating social and economic stability. Educated, income-earning women connected to the world through ICT can be powerful catalysts for development because they tend to invest more of their income in the families’ health, education and social development over a period of time. They can create economic and social virtuous circles.

Take the example of a rose grower in Kenya where I grew up. Until recently; she sold her roses to a buyer at the farm gate, oblivious of where her roses went and what they were priced at in the shop. Then she buys a smart mobile phone and she is in control. For instance, she knows the wholesale prices for roses being traded in Amsterdam; she has faster access to her packaging and other suppliers, improving both her inventory management and her purchasing; she arranges her own transportation, negotiating a better deal with the air freight company. She adjusts her prices upwards accordingly. Soon she is earning more than she did before. She enlarges her farm, hires more workers, teams up with other farmers to open a school in the village, she contributes to a health outreach programme and a clinic in the village – soon there is a thriving business which not only improves her and her family’s livelihood and life but also of others in the village. She has created an economic and social virtuous circle.

Not a new idea but it does need a different business mind-set

The emphasis on economic empowerment of women is not new. Way back in 1996, my colleagues and I were involved in the Grameen Bank micro-entrepreneurship initiative, looking into how we could develop affordable village payphones around which women could create a business. Since then, there have been several other notable initiatives helping women get access to finance, vocational training and education or to set up micro-enterprises. The Women Zone on the Business Fights Poverty has some good examples.

There is a compelling case for business to create local partnerships with women, especially if initiatives are developed jointly with the women for mutual benefit and make the most of the assets and complementarities of each side.

However, for this to work, most businesses will need to adjust their mind-sets and perceptions. They will need to support and facilitate rather than dominate in the way they behave. They will need to listen actively and not assume that they have all the answers. In fact, some of the best solutions may come from the women on the ground themselves; from women who understand and have been dealing with the problems of food, water, shelter, health, education for a very long time.

Businesses can learn that such women solve their problems by applying common sense: they rely on their innate ‘softer’ skills, their collective memory, ingenuity and creativity. Their nurturing skill means they will be prepared to go for the long haul, not just the short term quick buck. Despite the handicap of illiteracy or little capital and no concept of risk management, they will not be afraid to seize an entrepreneurial opportunity if it means improving the lives and livelihoods of their families.

In fact, there are some compelling examples which show that education need not be a barrier. And that solutions need not be high-tech. Take one particular example – the Barefoot College ( in Rajasthan, India. It has created a formidable cadre of women solar engineers, water hand pump mechanics, and FM radio operators in India, Africa and Latin America. It would be natural to assume that getting solar power to off-the-grid rural communities is a complicated engineering problem best left to highly educated experts. The ‘Solar Sisters’ – all of them poor and many of them illiterate – would prove you wrong. They know how to assemble, install, use, repair and maintain solar units used in lighting, cooking, heating and water desalination. The College teaches them how to build and repair simple solar lamps, right down to soldering the circuits. The ‘granny’ engineers return home with the skills and tools they need to light up their villages at night.

The training programme works because it is rooted in common sense and because it taps into the power of human ingenuity and creativity. The ‘Solar Sisters’ show you cannot necessarily use illiteracy as an excuse for not engaging women in finding perfectly feasible technical solutions to the challenges their communities face. It takes guts – maybe, self-belief coupled with a desire to improve the lots of their communities – that persuades women to leave for the first time not only their village but in some cases, their country to learn a new skill. Their ingenuity means hundreds of households in several communities will reap the benefits of clean, solar-powered energy.

The returns from partnering with women are huge. Companies not only help the women and their communities but also themselves. They can grow their markets; they can work with the women to create better more relevant products and reach markets they wouldn’t otherwise e.g. by making them part of a local distribution chain or part of their marketing channels. Companies can improve the diversity of their workforce. Investing in women’s training and literacy can improve workforce productivity. Investing in their families’ health and welfare means loyalty and retention, less absenteeism.

Business can also help raise the profile of women entrepreneurs from the ‘South’ – especially in those markets where discriminatory social institutions still hold back progress on gender equality and women’s empowerment. It can inspire and build confidence and raise the possibility of being able to pursue own life choices and to fully benefit from practical opportunities for personal, family and community development. Similar visibility in the ‘North’ would stimulate other opportunities for businesses and the movement on women’s economic empowerment would gather pace.


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