Ajla Vilogorac & Tharindri Rupesinghe - Nov 23 2020
From Coffee to Coconuts: Engaging the Private Sector to Support Women's Economic Empowerment

Source: Market Development Facility 

Across Asia-Pacific, as with much of the world, women are active but less-recognised participants in the economy. But a recent report from Australia’s Market Development Facility (MDF) has found that strategic private sector engagement can support and significantly improve women’s economic agency.

Women’s economic empowerment is key to not only increased gender equality but also inclusive economic development and sustainable poverty reduction.

“An important part of our work at MDF is helping the private sector realise the economic potential of increasing women’s participation in their business models,” notes Paul Keogh, MDF’s Team Leader. “As the new report shows, inclusive business strategies can play a pivotal role in women’s economic empowerment.”

MDF’s report Women at Work examines women’s empowerment through employment and highlights several case studies with recommendations for how private sector businesses can build women’s economic empowerment into their strategies.

Supporting female entrepreneurship in Fiji

Access to resources, information and opportunities give female entrepreneurs the confidence to make better-informed decisions and develop strategies that improve their businesses. In Fiji, MDF worked with the Fiji Commerce and Employers Federation to offer business advisory services for indigenous-owned and female-led businesses through the Fiji Enterprise Engine (FEE) program. Support included mentoring from local experts, classroom sessions and upskilling, as well as networking and information sharing with key compliance organisations.

Stella Tiko Simpson of Pepe & Pepe, a Pacific-inspired fashion and home wear business, shared that the knowledge gained from her FEE coaches enabled her to confidently develop her online presence and grow her business to export and sell online.

Support structures and incentives in Sri Lanka

Working women often lack additional support for domestic duties such as household work and childcare. MDF found that providing incentives and support for female employees led to improved staff retention.

In Sri Lanka, MDF partnered with Coolman Refrigeration and Prawn Ceylon to introduce employment policies and practices that better met their female staff’s needs. From flexible work times to providing transport services, the organisations improved their retention of female staff and created 277 jobs for women in their communities.

Geetha, an employee at Coolman, confirmed this was the first opportunity she’d had to gain formal work skills, and that it had enabled her to become a primary earner for the household. This shift in roles has also improved her decision-making power around the use of household income. “Ever since the factory started running, women in our area have benefitted, and we hope this will continue for the next generation.”

Ensuring equal opportunities in Papua New Guinea

When key economic sectors are male-dominated, women are often unrecognised participants, while men are the perceived decision-makers and key drivers of growth. This is the case with the coffee sector in Papua New Guinea. As the society is largely patriarchal, female coffee farmers have little influence over household decision-making. While coffee farming is a household activity, the male head of the household usually holds farm ownership. As a result, women have less access to and control of the resources, notably the land and capital, needed to function economically.

MDF partnered with Morobe Mountain Coffee Export Ltd. (MMCEL) to support aggregators to source higher volumes of certified coffee from smallholder farmers. Building on the learnings from previous assessments, MDF encouraged MMCEL to hire female extension officers to ensure that the training and disseminated information is offered to female household heads, as their contribution is vital to the success of the sector, despite their hidden roles. With MDF support, the company has now hired two female and 12 male extension officers for its Sustainability Department and recently engaged a woman, Delma, to lead its extension team.

Delma sees herself as a role model for women in the coffee sector. Everyday, Delma challenges the notion of coffee being “men’s business” by leading their extension teams as they work towards their target of conducting practical training for coffee farmers in 23 villages.

MDF’s work in Asia-Pacific is evidence of how access to new employment opportunities and targeted support by businesses can spur agency changes for women at work, particularly in challenging gender norms, and increasing recognition and decision-making power. These non-traditional impacts may not necessarily shift female empowerment throughout the entire society, but they show that change can occur one step at a time.

MDF’s Women at Work report examines the project’s work to empower women through employment. The collection of case studies shows that with strategic private sector engagement, the possibilities for women’s economic empowerment are endless.

MDF is funded by the Australian Government and implemented by Palladium, in partnership with Swisscontact.