Women’s Empowerment Collectives are Critical to Reaching Scale
This post is written by Sybil Chidiac, senior program officer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Julia Hakspiel, senior specialist, MarketShare Associates.
Around the world, women join groups or collectives to provide economic and social support for each other. These groups take different forms, but they share common features, including voluntary membership, self-governance, contributions in the form of time, labor or money, regular meetings and the aim to empower and improve the welfare of their members. In rural areas, where access to financial and public services is limited, women’s collectives, such as chamas in Kenya, esusu in Nigeria or self-help groups in India, are critical to improving women’s health, livelihoods, empowerment and financial inclusion outcomes.
Often, women’s collectives are thought of as a critical source of social solidarity and resilience at the grassroots level. But what if women’s collectives could be leveraged to target and help unlock the economic empowerment of rural women at scale? In this blog post, we explore the potential transformative role women’s collectives can play in expediting women’s economic and social empowerment globally, and how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (the Foundation) is targeting these groups to address structural barriers to gender equality.
During the development of the Foundation’s Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) strategy, a portfolio review was conducted of its investments in women's collectives, spanning from 2005 to 2017, totaling over $330 million. The review found that women’s collectives are powerful and cost-effective models to deliver critical outcomes for health, livelihoods, empowerment and financial inclusion benefits to women. The high level of cultural comfort with women’s participation in groups in both Africa and India also means that such groups have the potential to reach more women and achieve greater impact by expanding their programming or linking to services and markets.
While groups are highly prevalent, especially in Africa, low coordination and lack of consistent tracking means these groups are highly fragmented and difficult to access. The Foundation’s analysis of over 50 programs targeting groups in Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda found limited layering of programming or linking to services and markets. Yet the potential for scale is substantial; by strengthening women’s collectives in just four African countries — Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia — 48–70 million women could be empowered. Such scale has already been achieved in India, where the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NLRM) provides a nationwide platform for forming and operating women’s groups, reaching 70 million households and delivering substantial social and economic outcomes. However, to achieve this level of impact, women’s collectives need greater saturation, aggregation and comprehensiveness to attain what the Foundation is calling Women’s Empowerment Collectives (WECs).
What are Women’s Empowerment Collectives?
What differentiates traditional groups, such as chamas or savings and credit cooperatives (SACCOs), from WECs are five critical elements that come together in a comprehensive manner to build women’s human, financial and social capital. The initial two elements are: pooled savings and risk sharing to provide opportunities for saving and internal lending; and group solidarity and networks to build on and expand women’s existing social networks and foster trust and social cohesion. These two elements already form the basis of many WECs in Africa in the form of savings groups. The additional three elements are also prevalent, but in a fragmented manner. However, they are critical to realizing the full transformative potential of such groups, in terms of women’s social and economic empowerment. They include:
- Participatory learning and life skills to allow members to engage in practical, relevant trainings in health and agricultural practices and services.
- Critical consciousness of gender to empower women by discussing rights, inequalities and gender norms.
- Access to markets and services to enable members to participate in agriculture, enterprise and health market activity by reducing transaction costs.
The role of WECs in inclusive economic empowerment at scale
Women’s collectives are a cost-effective way to scale women’s empowerment. These groups have long been a source of capital, resilience and social solidarity for women in rural areas. Farmer groups have been leveraged by many programs as an effective way to improve agricultural productivity by promoting uptake of improved inputs and farming techniques. There is also a long history of women in rural communities organizing themselves to protect their rights and promote collective economic advancement.
Various organizations and programs have successfully leveraged women’s collectives as a cost-effective method to create impact at scale. For example, the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere's (CARE’s) Pathways Program, funded by the Foundation, engaged more than 3,000 village savings and loan groups, self-help groups and producer groups in Mali, Ghana, Tanzania, Malawi, Bangladesh and India to deliver transformational results in increased access to credit, expanded adoption of improved agricultural technology, increased agricultural productivity, increased income, improvements in women’s leadership and women’s decision-making at home for more than 65,000 women and 100,000 individuals. Through strong linkages with the private sector, the program was also able to connect these groups to sustainable output markets, leading the PepsiCo Foundation to invest $18.2 million to carry the Pathways model forward in four countries, calling the new program She Feeds the World.
CARE’s Pathways Program demonstrates that many self-help and producer groups already have key elements of the WECs that can be leveraged by the public and private sectors. When transformed into Women’s Empowerment Collectives, these groups can play an even more pivotal role in inclusive agricultural transformation at scale in terms of both breadth and depth of economic empowerment impacts.
Overcoming systemic barriers to scale
Not only are WECs an effective way to reach a substantial number of women, but they also have the potential to help overcome some of the systemic barriers standing in the way of achieving WEE at scale, such as the challenges women face in relation to financial inclusion, household decision-making, unequal power relations and gender norms. By providing women with access to informal or formal credit, these groups can enable women to invest in inputs or mechanization services. By addressing challenges relating to gender norms and women’s agency, they can enhance women’s role in decision-making over production decisions. WECs can also provide women with critical access to services and markets and, in the face of climatic and economic shocks, support their economic resilience. Evidence from 13 USAID focus countries that measured the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) found that low prevalence of group membership, alongside the lack of access to and ability to make decisions on credit and workload, were among the top three constraints to empowerment facing women farmers. This impact is also borne out in the Foundation’s project experience.
The role of development actors
The public sector has a central role to play in building WECs, as only once economies of scale are created are WECs able to participate in the formal markets that enable them to scale. For example, for groups in rural and remote areas, market linkages only become viable when there is aggregation and groups are accessible and large enough to be a viable customer base. Moreover, several of the elements of WEE and scale are public goods that are not profit generating. Because of this, as demonstrated by CARE’s Pathways Program, groups often require public investment to reach this critical mass. Once they’ve reached this level, banks, fintechs, agricultural input distributors and offtakers can engage with them through digital innovations and approaches.
Finally, WECs are not only critical to achieving scale in terms of long-term efforts to promote women’s empowerment, but also in terms of more immediate response to shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic that threaten global progress on gender equality. The Foundation, MarketShare Associates and the Small Enterprise, Education and Promotion (SEEP) Network have partnered on the delivery of the Women Saving for Resilience program to consolidate evidence and support group-based innovations for improved, gender intentional COVID-19 recovery efforts in Africa. Now more than ever, scaling women’s economic empowerment is critical to advancing national economic growth and all development goals, and WECs can be a key element of efforts to build back better.