A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
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!