Ajla Vilogorac and Lewis Brimblecombe - Jun 26 2019
What Women Tour Guides in Fiji Teach Us About Economic Empowerment

Talanoa Treks engages women tour guides from local communities in Fiji. Source: Talanoa Treks

Talanoa Treks is Fiji's only dedicated trekking company. They organise tourist hikes through the Fijian highlands, attracting visitors who want to get off the beaten track - literally - and experience local culture. The company knew that women could be great tour guides but were struggling to attract them and couldn't understand why.

It turns out that there were deep Fijian socio-cultural dynamics at play.

Attracting Women Tour Guides

History in traditional Fijian communities is shared orally, usually from a father to a son in a talanoa ("sharing") session. Men sit in a community hall around a bowl of kava, and talk and learn from one another. Traditionally, women and girls do not participate in these sessions and so don't have the opportunity to learn this history. Without this knowledge. women did not feel comfortable communicating to strangers on the tours despite training in trekking, first aid, and English.

Armed with this understanding, Talanoa Treks changed its approach to attract more women tour guides. Women started following trekking groups, listening to the male guides, and other women asked male elders in the village to share the history of the village.

One woman asked her husband to narrate her the local history; in her words, "I demanded to know, as it is my history too".

Now the number of female tour guides has increased, but perhaps more fundamentally, a restrictive social norm around community knowledge sharing has been challenged.

One of Talanoa Treks' guides is Adi, from the village of Nabutautau. Before becoming a tour guide, Adi helped her family earn money by farming and selling woven mats. Now, she not only earns additional income through tour guiding, but she feeds her passion for adventure and engages with people from around the world.

She says, "Hardly any outsiders came to our village due its remoteness – tour guiding gives me a chance to meet people from different countries… I am now used to these long walks as I get to chat with the tourists and tell them all about our village history and about our lifestyle".

Her village is recognised for being exceptional hosts and introducing trekkers to local customs and foods.

Adi Bera, sitting front left with family at Nabutautau village. Source: Talanoa Treks
Adi Bera, sitting front left with family at Nabutautau village. Source: Talanoa Treks

Women’s Economic Empowerment for Businesses

Across the world, many women are constrained from fully benefitting from economic growth. They face unique mobility restrictions, lack of skills to join formal labour markets, caring responsibilities, and time poverty, which are often entrenched by cultural norms and practices. Women's Economic Empowerment (WEE) is an approach to help reduce these constraints—and ultimately ensure that the women equitably benefit from economic growth.

Businesses are often not ready, interested in, or capable of investing in activities that will deliver positive WEE outcomes. Rather than being presented as an opportunity for clear commercial rationale, WEE is often presented as a 'nice to have' and generates feelings of imposition within businesses. Breaking the mould to better incorporate women may also seem too high an operational and reputational risk. Many in the private sector feel that other actors – like the government or NGOs - are better equipped to deal with WEE issues.

To challenge these preconceptions, businesses need to understand how to better incorporate women and the clear commercial benefits of doing so.

Lessons from Fiji

The Talanoa Treks approach teaches us that WEE interventions must be adaptable and flexible. Programs must build and tailor business cases for WEE based on a continuously updated view of both business drivers and community dynamics. In the Talanoa Treks example, monitoring efforts helped identify a specific dynamic within the community that the private sector partner had not identified. The business was then able to adjust their strategy, ultimately delivering the intended commercial and WEE outcome.

The Fiji experience also highlights the important role that Market Systems Development (MSD) programs can have in delivering depth of change. Typically, MSD programs seek to deliver system wide market change and replicable business innovation. Therefore, changing one small component of gender norms in a couple of villages might seem relatively minor and un-systemic in comparison to holistic approaches (such as incentivising nationwide changes to agricultural input supply or bank lending products). But these small changes have a direct and lasting impact for the women involved, and the opportunity for deep change is potentially limitless.

Palladium manages the implementation of the DFAT Market Development Facility (MDF) in partnership with Swisscontact. For more information, contact Amy Faulconbridge.