Are Inclusive Businesses Targeting Enough Women?

Indian spice company Akay helps open up income opportunities for smallholder farmers, many of them women.
Indian spice company Akay helps open up income opportunities for smallholder farmers, many of them women.

By Isabel von Blomberg

Inclusive business firms need explicit strategies to empower women, so exceptions like Hippocampus can become the rule.

Women are overrepresented among the poor; inclusive businesses are supposed to integrate the poor. So why has an independent survey of over 100 of these firms found that only 13 of them specifically target women’s empowerment? And what can be done about it?

Hippocampus Learning Centers is by some measures a model inclusive business, as it is a commercial enterprise that integrates low-income people into its core operations as consumers, producers or employees. Moreover, Hippocampus is also a women-inclusive business. It has an explicit strategy to empower women. The company employs unqualified women from Indian villages and trains them to teach pre-school children and manage its learning centers. The company’s mentor system provides career advancement for women, and they are regularly to improve their professional skills and learn from each other and expert trainers.

As a result, low-income consumers receive education hitherto reserved for the urban middle classes, while low-income employees get a new source of income. Hippocampus, meanwhile, benefits from a low-cost workforce culturally attuned to caring for small children.

Sadly, our research shows that Hippocampus is an exception to the rule.

Out of 104 inclusive business investments supported by ADB, the Inter-American Development Bank and International Finance Corporation, just 13 explicitly target women as beneficiaries. Three-quarters make no mention of women at all.

This is despite women being disproportionately afflicted by poverty, discrimination and exclusion, despite the international community’s high-level focus on empowering women, and despite evidence that business benefits from the inclusion of women:. But we want women to be included because they already are an important part of the value chain for instance in agricultural production and garment manufacturing, and represent a growth market for businesses such as hospitals that focus on reproductive health.

Women should thus be a core constituent of inclusive businesses. So why aren’t they at the forefront of inclusive business thinking? We identified 4 key constraints on women’s empowerment in inclusive business: multiple commitments, gender-based expectations, lack of women’s rights and agency, and a lack of education and skills. If inclusive businesses do not factor in these constraints in their strategy, they risk missing out on the benefits – both for women and for business.

One good example of a company adapting to gender constraints is Pakistani agribusiness Engro Foods. It trained female dairy farmers to collect fresh milk from their communities in cooling canisters. This requires women to travel to other villages by motorbike, an uncommon practice in Pakistani society, where women are expected to stay at home and are not allowed to interact with men from other villages. Engro discovered that when women converted to a family business model, they could move around the villages with husbands, fathers or brothers, and their work was no longer considered unacceptable.

We reviewed the 13 inclusive businesses with explicit strategies to empower women. On the basis of this research, we make several recommendations that could help turn exceptions like Hippocampus into the rule:

  1. Companies should ease the multiple-commitment-burden on women. Sri Lankan MAS Holdings, for example, offers onsite healthcare and childcare facilities to its female employees. Understand your target group – Life Spring hospitals understands its female customers’ needs in order to provide them with quality reproductive healthcare.
  2. Investors should incorporate gender-sensitive indicators into investment screening.
  3. Policymakers should set incentives for inclusive business and women’s empowerment. The Government of the Philippines is working on an inclusive business accreditation scheme, which could include gender-specific indicators. Foster dialogue and exchange.
  4. Development partners should coordinate and strengthen the ecosystem, acting as financiers of smaller and more innovative women-inclusive business.
  5. Knowledge agents should integrate gender into their analyses, and develop assessment tools to help set standards in women-inclusive business.

And last but not least, let’s coordinate our actions.