I have worked in the Inclusive Business field for around four years now in Malawi, so when I was asked to write a blog on empowering women through Inclusive Business I thought I would be able to find some practical examples from my experience to draw on. I was surprised to find that between myself and my colleagues we could not think of one successful example! So now the question we must ask ourselves is why?
I believe that one reason is that Inclusive Business is a relatively new approach in Malawi. As business becomes more competitive, especially in terms of sourcing raw agricultural produce for agro-processing activities, companies are slowly beginning to rethink the idea of investing in their supply chain. As incorporating the poor directly into business models is in its infancy, and because it is challenging, many companies are simply learning how to engage with the poor in general and are yet to form strategies about how to specifically incorporate women into this, especially if there is no obvious commercial advantage in doing this.
So why is it that when inclusive business opportunities present themselves in Malawi, women are not naturally in the segment of the poor that a business engages with? This is very much to do with the cultural nature of value chains in Malawi. In nearly all aspects men dominate and hold the power in poor households, particularly in the smallholder farmer context. Women, being responsible for the household and for raising the family, are extremely disadvantaged in their access to education and this continues into all aspects of household decision making, financial management, and income generating strategies. Although women are mainly responsible for growing crops, they very seldom undertake any marketing activities. It is therefore expected that when a business engages with a poor household, whether procuring from a producer or selling to a consumer, it is the man that they will deal with.
There are some examples of businesses, mainly social enterprises or small-scale ethical businesses, which specifically target women. These are mainly handicraft type enterprise that supply a high end market and therefore struggle to achieve scale or widespread impact. Other companies target female employees, such as the tea sector, because they see women as more diligent, honest and committed to their roles. But these examples are in the minority and there is yet to be any changes see in the dominating commodity markets.
So looking to the future – is there any hope? I propose that gender change in poor households can happen in two ways: firstly, through a generational change in perspectives towards the role of women that can only be driven through improving access to education; and secondly, through women in the middle class and upper class driving change in business. More women in decision-making roles in business will allow the generation of flexible working models, and pro-female business models, so that when inclusive business opportunities are presented they are structured in such a way that women are able to take advantage of them!
A few months ago I met a female informal trader, Angela Kazembe. Angela had started her career with a job in Government but then started her own small business importing and exporting maize. She has since expanded and is now dealing in large contracts, some over 10,000mT. It is women like this, who understand the demands on a poor rural household, but who have a motivation to try and impact on women, who hold the potential for inclusive business to empower women.
This post first appeared on the Inclusive Business Hub website.