Women and their role in the agricultural value chain. Image: Oxfam
Women and their role in the agricultural value chain. Image: Oxfam

Day 2: The Potential of Women Suppliers

20 November, 2012 | Food and Gender: Online Discussion

Food system transformation will require the engagement of women suppliers along entire agricultural value chains. Women need to shift out of labour into business ownership, and women suppliers need to get organized to have access to actual buyers.

By Elizabeth Vazquez, CEO of WEConnect International

Food system transformation will require the engagement of women suppliers along entire agricultural value chains. Women represent half of all farmers in the developing world, but they rarely own the land or other means of production needed to create real wealth and prosperity for their families and communities. What can be done to ensure more women suppliers of all sizes can contribute to and benefit from local and global food systems?

Women creating shared value

If women business owners have better access to critical resources, not only will they be able to produce more food, but the way they do business will also have a positive impact on food systems.  Women are especially aware of how important it is to have safe and reliable sources of food, water, and fuel because their availability often has a direct impact on how women spend their time each day. When women business owners are successful and have more resources, they are in a better position to develop and implement innovative solutions to the challenges of local food production because of how they experience the problems first hand. 

"When women business owners are successful and have more resources,
they are in a better position to develop and implement innovative solutions."

Women sit in the middle of families and communities as connectors and caregivers across generations, and they are particularly good at creating shared value. The central premise behind shared value is that the competitiveness of a company and the health of the communities around it are mutually dependent. 

One example is the new International Women’s Coffee Alliance. With a mission to encourage and recognize the participation of women in all aspects of the coffee industry, and to empower them to achieve meaningful and sustainable livelihoods as suppliers, the Alliance creates opportunities for women to work together to connect to global markets through trade missions, trade shows, fair trade distributors and buyers. The women leading this initiative are committed to women in coffee, who in isolation many not compete as well as they can together, under one system and one brand.

Individual women entrepreneurs such as Zhena Muzyka, the founder of Gypsy Tea, are also making a difference in the lives of women farmers and their families. Zhena’s Gypsy Tea doesn't just market products; it markets meaning – teas with a commitment to social responsibility, sustainability and the well-being of others.  As a community minded, pro-active multi-million-dollar fair trade company, Gypsy Tea works directly with small growers and out of the way tea gardens to effect change by providing the workers with fair pay, healthcare, guaranteed maternity leave, childcare, literacy, and better working conditions.

These examples of more inclusive business models in the beverage industry prove that women can work together to create shared value and reach greater scale. Women who want to grow a business and collaborate with other companies, especially in fair trade, have great potential to deliver new and more sustainable business models that take into account both the social and environmental needs of families and communities.

How to engage women as suppliers

Not enough girls or women aspire to become business owners, especially if they do not know or have not heard about strong businesswomen role models. Sharing stories in the home, school, and general public about successful women business owners is one of the best ways to inspire girls and women to build companies that can give them more control over their future. When talking about women suppliers supporting the food system, it is particularly important to focus on how women can shift out of labour and into ownership of a business and land or other means of production

Sharing stories about how information technology makes it easier for women food producers to launch and grow a business is a good place to start. Women who have access to the Internet can study weather trends, infestations, industry requirements, business innovations, market shifts, funding sources, etc. Women tend to share interesting information with other women, who may not have the same access but will also benefit from the intelligence. Social media tools will only expedite the knowledge sharing.

The growing availability of mobile technology that does not require a high level of literacy is transforming the lives of women farmers and distributors. Access to real-time market information is making it easier for women to negotiate the same rates and terms available to larger competitors, yet access to the right networks continues to be a major hurdle to business growth across industries.

Why buyers should engage women 

Retailers know that women make the majority of purchasing decisions for their families, especially when it comes to food.   These corporations have significant economic incentives to engage women suppliers who can help them anticipate and meet female customer needs. However, there is a gap in information to anticipate and meet such customer interests.  In a recent Institute for Supply Management study on corporate supplier diversity, 71.8 percent of corporate respondents agreed that their biggest challenge was finding quality diverse suppliers, including women suppliers to meet their sourcing needs.

"Corporations have significant economic incentives to engage women
suppliers who can help them anticipate and meet female customer needs."

For the first time ever, large corporations are starting to assess how many women suppliers support their value chains at the local and global level.  Corporations such as Walmart Stores and The Coca-Cola Company are in the process of developing global supplier diversity and inclusion programs to identify women-owned businesses that can supply relevant products and services, at all levels in the food system.

It is really important for women suppliers in agricultural value chains, including women in food production, processing, packaging, distribution, and retail to get organized and join networks that give them access to actual buyers. I co-founded the global non-profit WEConnect International to make it easier for large corporations to source more from women-owned businesses. WEConnect International corporate members control over US$700 billion in annual purchasing power, and they are committed to helping develop the capacity of women business owners to compete in local and global markets. 

WEConnect International works with partners all over the world to find growth-oriented women-owned businesses and help them get self-registered or certified as women suppliers. We then feature them inside a single global database used by buyers seeking qualified suppliers. This is a unique model in economic development work that targets women because it focuses equally on the demand and the supply side needs of traders, which is critical for creating real business opportunities for women.

Call to action

Corporations can do more to work with governments, multilaterals and NGOs to develop the capacity of women business owners who want to transform ideas into the solutions that will create a more sustainable and just food system for us all. 

"Consumers can also play a critical role in this movement
by buying from women directly."

Corporations in the food system can sponsor any number of enterprise development initiatives that work with women in target markets. For example, they can launch mentoring programs dedicated to working with up and coming women suppliers seeking industry knowledge and introductions to buyers and prime suppliers.

Consumers can also play a critical role in this movement by buying from women directly, asking retailers to stock products made by women, or doing business with corporations that buy from women.  How we spend our money matters, especially as it relates to food.

Download: The Potential of Women Suppliers

Do you have examples of women making a difference in the supply chain? Please share them below!


Great start to online discussion

The online discussion got off to a great start yesterday. Thanks to all who posted insightful comments – and please keep them coming!

The arguments Nidhi Tandon made yesterday about global agricultural supply chains being inherently exploitative resonated with many of you. Several people pointed out that women farmers are at a stark disadvantage when trying to compete in global markets, and that the short-term benefits of participating in global value chains are often outweighed by increased vulnerability.

However, many also cautioned against characterizing rural women as a homogenous group, and were wary of a “romantic” portrayal of local food systems and women’s traditional roles. And some noted that income can give rural women more negotiating power and greater access to essential services, such as healthcare and education for their children.

A comment that came up repeatedly during yesterday’s discussion was the importance of women coming together to defend their interests collectively. Many of you spoke of the importance of rural women building their own agenda, raising their voices, increasing their negotiating power and making their own informed decisions about how to engage in the food system – whatever those decisions may be.

Today, Elizabeth Vazquez makes the case that women food producers need to shift out of labor, build their own businesses, and enter into global supply chains. And she argues that the best way to do so is for women to organize collectively to access buyers directly.

What do you think? Is this a key to better livelihoods and greater empowerment for rural women?

Changing the way we behave as a customer!

I really like the last sentence of Elizabeth Vazquez: "... How we spend our money matters, especially as it relates to food..." 

We need to be more responsible like global citizen. We need to be also aware of what are good foods and, why good food is so important for our overall well being. For many years, we have left the big food companies decide for us. It is time to take the lead of our food sovereignty!

This will be an interesting challenge in a society where food (or some sort of foods) can be really cheap and where people waste on average 40% of the food they buy. On the other hand, a lot of families are struggling to reach their basic needs because of a too low income ... The good food like vegetables and fruits, or fair trade products are not part of their daily menu. For a lot of people, this is a luxury!



This essay completely ignores the evidence from the North.  Farmers whether they be male or female in the north are often business owners and landowners.  Those that have organized collectively and used systems of supply management are under constant attack until they are killed by the corporate thieves.  Cooperation between small women farmers and corporations is like a mouse cooperating with a cat. 

Women food producers

It is wonderful to see so much being done to support women in agriculture, the database described I am sure is being supported by a lot of advocacy work, plaudits to those who set it up. I would like to see more on the suite of services that accompanies such registration processes - i.e. to become viable and sustainable businesses for women, they will need support in business management and skills either as indiividual or cooperatives. Is this part of the gender equality programming approach?

No Silver Bullets

Hi All,       

Thanks again for a thought-provoking piece. Elizabeth Vazquez' practical experience makes this contribution especially interesting.       

I agree that finding ways to improve women's position in value chains is an excellent form of economic advancement for those women. And, when it is collective, all the better as we are less likely to create a new exploitative class (because of course women entrepreneurs can be as exploitative of other women as men can be if power goes unchecked). Also, when women are advanced in value chains, they provide role models for other women and success stories for society which opens people's eyes to such opportunities.       

Following on yesterday's discussion, we are in danger of being the agent of corporations who may not be concerned with the welfare of women and men producers lower in the chain, and women intermediaries may be used as a do-good placebo effect. Not that this is what Elizabeth is advocating or that all corporations would behave in this way, but a definite risk of not entering such partnerships/models lightly. Further, lead firm models are risky because they do not build a redundant resilient system, and are open to suffering from market failure and exploitation. However, again, this does not mean we avoid them, but we understand the risk.       

Elizabeth suggests that fair trade can be an avenue to ensuring producer well being. I also agree that fair trade is an excellent model, and a growing one, but still involves a very small percentage of producers.        

Creation of collectives, develpment of the goveranance of those collectives, advancement of skills such as negotiating, etc... can of course mitigate many of the risks. Like unions, marketing boards, trade associations - group action can help level the playing field and tip the power balance in favour of producers. They can also allow for economies of scale, bulk buying, diversification of tasks, etc...       

I am very impressed by what Elizabeth is doing and wish her great success - my comments are really meant to add to her article which had to be limited in length.      



women in agriculture value chain

The roles that women play as producers, processors and traders are well known But it is crystal clear that they do not benefit equitably from their involvement in the VC. The cultural, socio-economic roles that women play have NOT been to their direct individual benefit as human beings.

One of the key steps is to increase their agency at family & community level and increased control over productive resources and benefits.

 The essay is well written and I agree with most views and insights.



women food producers need to shift out of labor

Thank you Elizabeth for your presentation which articulated a lot of issues. The fact that women farmers should shift from being labour providers into accessing markets is quite noble and is a fact that is well over due. While we agree that they are the ones who provide labour and therefore are the producers, we should then look deeply into why they are finding it difficult to get into the value chains and access the markets. Women have had many constrains in their social life as compared to male counterparts and that begins with lower level of education, limited exposure, little time to socialise, and network and hence not exchanging information, and besides there are also cultural barriers to accessing information, for example not being able to network freely with male counterparts who may have more exposure. We need to categorise women farmers and empower them taking into consideration the said constrains,  start working with them in groups and you will realise some will rise as individual bussiness persons, while for some it might take them a little while to rise. 


Next steps?

I want to thank Oxfam for hosting this very important conversation about food and gender and what we can do together to create more opportunities for women to contribute to and benefit from food system transformation.


I greatly appreciate the valuable insights shared by those who took the time to read the post and then share your experience and insights into the very real and substantial challenges that women working in the food system face today.  


What is particularly encouraging to me is your clear interest in working together towards solutions that will result in more women entrepreneurs owning more assets and having the money they need to create quality jobs and deliver innovative solutions to the problems we face.


Please feel free to encourage the women business owners you know to register for free at: 



For now, I look forward to learning more from each of you about practical next steps that will make a positive difference!

I agree with Elizabeth

I agree with Elizabeth Vazquez as her article advocates to promote and nurture women's skills, expertise and knowledge into business ventures by connecting them to local, national and international markets as suppliers.  However, we learnt from yesterday's article by Nidhi Tandon how globalized agro businesses can make the producers, in this case suppliers vulnerable and impoverished.  I would raise similar words of caution and concerns that unless better practice and ethic standards are mandated for global food corporations, linking  small food producers (women or men) to be suppliers to them will increase their vulnerabilities, exploitation and without much protection.  We need to work towards creating alternative market chain for food producers / suppliers that is based on fair trade principles and practices as well as have respect for ethics and standards in businesses.  Elizabeth Vazquez's own organization WEconnect appears to be an organization that is very well placed to connect women suppliers with alternative ethical businesses.

Another point of view

I dugg some of you post as I cerebrated they were very beneficial very useful

Opportunity for women to support other women's businesses

In addition to the positive impact of having corporations work to include more women-owned businesses in their global value chains, there is a tremendous opportunity for women-owned businesses to buy from other women's businesses. Women that register or become certified with WEConnect International have access to a database of women's businesses that they can source from or potentially partner with, increasing the impact in developing economies.

women in different circumstances need different kinds of support

The author makes some valuable points but just to add -

Anyone who has travelled in Africa or Asia has seen the huge number of women at roadsides and in local markets selling a few local vegetables, wild food plants and other products.  For these women access to basic literacy, some market infrastructure (like toilets) and protection from the elements but also a level of security and protection.  This would already be an improvement and a place to start to bring them into the formal market system where they would then have a chance to earn a decent daily wage from their labour.

Helping women to scale up

I think it should also be noted that WEConnect International plays an invaluable role in helping women owned businesses to scale up their operations.  As Anymous "women in different circumstances need different kinds of support" pointed out, not all women and not all circumstance are the same.   WEConnect International is particiularly adept at helping women owned busineses become more compeative suppliers regardless of location or size.  Furthermore being a part of the WEConnect story, I have had the privledge to see first hand how WEConnect, its network and opportunities have helped women owned businesses to scale up their operations and expand their business with MNC members.  This has increase their scope and capacity, further empowering them and their business in the national supply chain.  We look forward to helping women owned businesses take these success to the next level by promoting increased trade, scale and growth.

Empowering Women in the Supply Chain

Great work that WEConnect does to empower women and not exploit them in the globalized food supply chain. Elizabeth answers some of the questions and concerns that Nidhi raised in her article. 

Women should form these supply groups and networks at their local communities, towns, cities, states, districts, country, regional levels to influence the supply chains at every level. Governments should as a policy demand that these women suppliers should as be responsible for meeting a higher percentages of the market demands, and incentives provided from buyers who buy from them.

This way women have influence and control over all the resources of food production, supply and the rest

great commentary - more questions

I also thank Elizabeth Vasquez for her important work with WEConnect and women-owned business models.I think it is extremely valuable.

One concern I would raise has to do with scope. For example, I disagree that inserting women supply chains in companies like Coca-Cola and Walmart is the missing link to development. Large does not always equal better though these days some of the larger corporations are focused on this approach to agricultural development. Coke is known for its groundwater depletion and pollution that led to thousands of villagers to organize to protest.  In this case, it is not about sourcing, but shifting away from harmful practices entirely. Walmart too is known for the way in which it invests in rural areas and undermines local businesses who can't compete and promoting precarious kinds of employment. And how about how it's policies of locking in women nighttime workers throughout the U.S. to keep them on the job? This wasn't that long ago... In other words, a strong women's rights agenda has to be linked to the full spectrum of human rights and environmental stewardship. 

I also think that fair trade is a positive tool, but it has its limits, especially when the global food market has left so many countries as net-importers and undermined women farmers' livelihoods.

So, I am most interested in learning about what SMEs can do to support to support women throughout local and regional supply chains as producers, processers and consumers who haive bargaining power and the ability to design their own agenda.  As the poorest of the poor living in remote areas, women are left out of most investment equations. Real investment in their community-led production models for local and regional consumption is particularly compelling.

Change the system, don't try to fit women into it

Working to fit women into a flawed global agro-food industiral model is not the solution and it is naive to think that some women in it who want to expand their own business is going to change that system. The CEO of Pepsi is a women originally from India who is doing very well selling more snacks loades with salt and fat and soft drinks full of high-fructose corn syrup into the developing world where more and more children of families who can afford these highly marketed products are becoming obese and far too many children are stunted as they can not get adequate nutrition.

We need a totally new food system and yes it should have be much more owned by women, the mass of rural women, not an elite group of business women. It must be much more shaped by the values of rural women. It must be owned by autonomous producers much more closely linked to, or in part owned by consumers. Not owned and controled by large corporations whether these have more women in them or not.


Women make great suppliers!

Thanks for this interesting article!

Whilst there are things that 'should' happen, I think it's also a good idea to start where things 'can' happen. This means looking at the cases where change is occuring (albeit slowly and incrementally) and pointing and saying, yes, that right, there is an opportunity for women to empower themselves! and yes, that right there is what can make change happen on a global scale!

One of the many ways that we can do this is by understanding the different work that women do all along the value chain.

I did some research with the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED) talking about this issue: From a business perspective, how can we describe and showcase the inherent opportunities in being concerned with women in international supply chains? How can we be practical and talk a similar language?

Have a look at the different ways that this was analysed.

 On balance, there's a lot of great work going on and amazing models that have achieved some level of change. I suppose the next step is to identify the clear pathway towards adoption so that women-ready supply chains are the rule and not the exception.


Potential of Women Suppliers Great Article!

As a business owner and volunteer for the International Women's Coffee Alliance (mentioned by Elizabeth) I see first hand the great potential and rewards in engaging women in supply chains. As women shift into business ownership support systems must be in place to help sustain and encourage others.  Great article and I agree with Elizabeth's perspective throught the article.

supply chain management


Thanks a lot for this contribution! It's been very useful for me. Everything is very open and represents very clear explanation of issues.  Really blogging is spreading its wings quickly. Your write up is a good example of it. Your website is very useful. Thanks for sharing.


supply chain management


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