This blog was originally posted on Business Fights Poverty. It is based on the findings of the Strengthening the Dairy Value Chain project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and implemented by CARE International Bangladesh and US.
Debate on the possibilities at the base of the pyramid (BOP) is ubiquitous; nonetheless, too often regulated to a post-script is that frequently when we refer to the BOP what we actually mean is women at the BOP. It’s time to stop discussing the BOP as a single, homogenous entity and start looking more specifically at what it will mean to engage with women as producers and as consumers.
Apart from some notable exceptions, the most oft-cited evidence for the business case for gender equality tends to focus disproportionately on large, western companies in the formal sector. Far less visible are examples that demonstrate why companies should-or how they can- act on Women’s Empowerment Principle 5: “implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women.”
This is a huge gap, both in terms of advancing gender equality and in terms of sourcing from or selling to women at the BOP. After all, how can any company get the most out of its supply chain if it ignores half of its labour force or potential market?
The business case for empowering women producers
CARE International has taken a first step to fill this gap through an analysis of the business benefits of empowering women producers. Research from Dr.Kevin McKague, “In Profit and Out of Poverty: The Business Case for Engaging with Poor Farmers in Bangladesh’s Dairy Sector” demonstrates that an explicit gender focus in companies’ BOP strategies can have direct business benefits along the length of a supply chain.
The rationale is fairly straightforward: In Bangladesh, since women overwhelmingly care for (if not formally own) cows, as well as carry out the majority of dairy-related activities, any improvements to the dairy industry at the supply level, such as increased milk production or quality, depend on women. Facilitating access to training, inputs, or veterinary care for women led to an exponential increase in milk production and helped women double their dairy-related income.
Empowering women brought just as many advantages for the companies processing milk and selling dairy products. Benefits ranged from the tangible outcomes of growth, improved product, and reduced costs, to the less tangible but no less significant outcomes of reduced risk and uncertainty and increased product innovation. Dairy processors partnering with CARE saw a 30% increase in milk quality and a 500% increase in milk deliveries. These improvements allowed them to capitalize on growing demand for dairy products in country.
All of this came from empowering women dairy farmers. Of course, opportunities will vary across different sectors, but the overall trend is consistent; for example, speaking at a recent event on gender and responsible business, Dr. Stephanie Barrientos pointed out that West African women were responsible for activities, such as drying, that most influence the final value of cocoa beans (and give us our best chocolate).
What does this mean for your BOP strategy?
It might be tempting to equate sourcing from the BOP with empowering women, but a gendered BOP strategy means much more. A good strategy means specifically designing policies and supporting initiatives which acknowledge the unique challenges women face and seek to change them.
There are substantial implications to this approach. It implies that companies need to hire sourcing staff with a strong understanding of gender dynamics. It implies a re-evaluation of where growth opportunities sit: for instance, research with the global telecommunications industry found that ignoring women at the BOP represented a $13 billion missed market opportunity. Most notably, it implies a need to explicitly acknowledge influences limiting women’s ability to productively engage the supply chain, such as assess to vocational training or asset ownership.
This may seem like a radical change, and in some ways it is. However, CARE’s experience in the dairy sector verifies that it is an investment with a definite return. At the end of the day, working to empower women is an acknowledgment that when you engage the bottom of the pyramid, you are engaging women.