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14 Jan 2016

Women as Inclusive Business partners: How companies benefit from engaging women

‘Women as Inclusive Business partners’ is an initiative by BoP Innovation Center and its strategic partner ICCO Cooperation. It is built on the recognition that there is a business case for the private sector to actively engage low-income women in their value chains; as producers, processors, employees, distributors or consumers. Such business can be profitable and contribute to a company’s overall objectives, and at the same time help to meet the needs and serve the interests of women in the base of the pyramid. Nelleke van der Vleuten was project leader of the initiative.  This blog was earlier published by The Practitioner Hub, an online platform for practitioners and facilitators of inclusive business.

To support strategy development for the private sector, 15 good practices of Dutch and international companies have been analyzed.  They include SMEs, cooperatives, as well as multinational corporations. The practices illustrate ‘the secrets’ to build a successful business case which benefit both companies and women. The cases of these frontrunners are meant to inspire other entrepreneurs towards ‘smart inclusion of women for smart economics’.

What’s in it for business? What skills and capacities of women are valued? What are the benefits of engaging women in inclusive business?

Cases of agricultural production, manufacturing, and processing highlight that:

  • In production and processing, women at large are recognized for skills such as eye for detail, hygiene, organization, productiveness, and design, which are particularly important in processes for which safety and quality are key;
  • Women are often found to be loyal and reliable employees, largely because, compared to men, they feel more responsible to provide an income for their families;
  • In cooperative structures, women are found to excel as cooperative leaders and achieve better business results;
  • Gender diversity across the organization and the value chain contributes to better business performance, as women offer new perspectives and ideas.

In short, it helps companies to become more competitive and develop new markets. Respecting the human rights of its workers and recognizing the added value of women in agricultural production, manufacturing, and processing, enables businesses to strengthen women’s capacities and qualities. This in return results in better productivity, effectiveness, and efficiency for the company.

The case of Eosta

“The female employee union has helped us in many different ways. It guarantees income, educates us on how to protect ourselves legally. An additional benefit is that it brings all of us closer,” says Ms. Guo who works for Eosta on a production facility in China. Eosta is one of the largest importers and distributors of organically grown fresh produce in the Netherlands. They serve major retailers and natural food stores in Europe, North America, and the Far East.

Eosta buys its products from around 200 producers across the globe. The fruit and vegetable sector employs women largely at the production side of the value chain, especially in quality and selection processes. Eosta is well aware that at production locations it is common practice not to respect women’s rights. For the company however, gender and women’s roles and rights are an integral part of the business. The increasing customer-focus on positive social impact, besides organic aspects, gives Eosta a strong market position in their segment. To do this they promote non-discrimination practices among their suppliers, e.g., through the certification programs Fair Trade and Fair for Life, that include a focus on gender aspects, such as supporting establishing the female employee union.

Women in marketing & distribution and as consumers

As household managers, agricultural producers or being in their reproductive age, many women lack sufficient affordable or accessible products and services. Innovative companies can get access to new markets with relevant new or adapted products or models for ‘last mile distribution’.
The cases highlight that

  • ‘By women for women’ is a smart business proposition as in many cultures women, rather than men, are better able to reach female customers, they understand their needs and interests and are able to discuss sensitive issues such as sanitary pads or the use of tractors with potential customers;
  • Close contact and trust between sales agents and customers enables better awareness and information exchange, strengthens customer loyalty and provides information on required design adaptations;
  • Female salespersons can break gender boundaries and reach out to male customers or to male family members who influence buying decisions;
  • Women often are good or even better salespersons, can secure markets and are more reliable than men as they tend to go for income security, rather than short term income maximization; assumingly because women foremost seek financial stability to meet their basic family needs.

The case of Basic Water Needs

Basic Water Needs (BWN), a Netherlands based SME, produces and distributes water filters in BoP and middle income markets in over 30 countries. Their factory in India does not have a specific policy to hire women, but for them this is ‘simply good business’. Women, on the assembly line and in leadership positions, prove to be very reliable and loyal compared to men. For BWN it is logical to provide good working conditions, and offer benefits such as a staff-nutrition and training facilities to increase employee loyalty. Since local women often need permission from their relatives to work in a factory, BWN invites them to join a job interview and to experience that BWN is a safe and reliable place.

In addition, BWN provides training to an emerging group of women at the BoP aimed at micro-entrepreneurship for social marketing and sales. BWN trains women living in Delhi-slums to become micro-retailers, who sell water filters. Because it is the responsibility of women in these communities to provide water at household level, women salespersons are well positioned for social marketing. 

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