What if we innovated the traditional “women-owned” business certification process to leverage consumers, not quotas, to help women-owned small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) to grow?
The traditional road to women’s economic empowerment is arduous: it takes decades of concerted efforts to reform policies, laws and statutes, not to mention generations of changing minds and prevailing cultural and social “norms.” But nowadays there are a number of opportunities which mean that if we are strategic, and act quickly, we could use an innovative approach to bring substantial impact in women’s economic empowerment in developing countries.
Are you familiar with products that are certified organic or fair trade? You probably are. But you might not have come across the women-owned business logo that is being rolled out in 18 countries by WE Connect International. This logo was developed in partnership with Walmart, and is issued to women-owned companies that are independently verified to be at least 51% women-owned, controlled and managed. Once verified, a company is licensed to use the label in packaging and promotional materials, and are eligible to compete for lucrative supply contracts for big corporations and governments under special terms and conditions which give them a comparative advantage (over non-verified companies).
This is a commendable approach, and plays a pivotal role in enabling medium sized women owned companies to expand and scale as they receive contracts. But as the standard minimum procurement contract is around US$100,000, the vast majority of women-owned businesses are too small to qualify.
So, it’s time for a bit of fresh thinking. Instead of viewing women-owned labels as a way for big business and governments to gain branding and customer loyalty benefits, perhaps they can be used as a way to build a consumer movement to support smaller women-owned enterprises.
Let’s recap. Problem: smaller women-owned companies have less access to resources, training, collateral and opportunities to grow. Most of them are stuck at income-generating or subsistence level.
And here’s my simple solution:
- Step 1: Develop a simplified, more cost-effective way to verify those smaller women-owned companies and implement it.
- Step 2: License the verified SMEs to use the logo and incorporate it into their packaging and promotional materials (web sites/ store fronts, and marketing materials).
- Step 3: Roll out a consumer campaign to raise awareness and recognition for the logo and its meaning, and increase consumer demand for verified goods and services.
- Step 4: Provide technical support and services to assist these SMEs to meet increasing demand and find a sustainable, leveraged growth path.
- Step 5: After piloting this programme and improving the model, scale up and repeat it across different developing countries.
This innovative women-owned SME empowerment model is now being piloted in Zimbabwe, in collaboration with the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce. It is early days yet, but we hope that it will lead to a tangible impact. If successful, it should lead to business growth among women-owned SMEs which will be a significant milestone for women’s economic empowerment in the country. If you’d like to know more, please contact the author.
Juliet Le Breton is a global changemaker working to empower women in Southern Africa. @Juliet_LeB