Sponsored | June 20, 2024

Applying gender-smart strategies to change the status quo of business in East Africa

Sawa Nakagawa and Patricia Chin-Sweeney

Get a weekly pulse on news and trends in impact investing with our free newsletter.

*I agree to receive marketing emails from ImpactAlpha, its affiliates, and accept our terms of use and privacy policy.
By signing up you agree to receive marketing emails from ImpactAlpha Inc. and accept our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.
Guest Author

Sawa Nakagawa

Guest Author

Patricia Chin-Sweeney

What if you could boost GDP, double your workforce, and build a competitive advantage in business just by making women a strategic priority?

There’s a growing movement and expectation for impact investors to incorporate a gender lens into their work. Often this manifests in the form of screening templates during due diligence or annual impact metrics reporting requirements among portfolio companies. But what’s missing is greater focus on supporting portfolio companies to identify gender-smart strategies that help them strengthen their overall business or the capacity building support this transition.

AlphaMundi Foundation has focused on delivering meaningful gender-lens impact and other business support since 2018. Through our work with five companies in East Africa, we discovered that gender-smart business strategies can dramatically boost employee satisfaction and worker sense of safety, transform supplier relationships and build business resilience.

With the support of DEG Impulse, AlphaMundi Foundation supported 5 companies in AlphaMundi Group’s investment portfolio to deepen their impact, while shoring up core business strengths. Value for Women’s methodology and team enhanced this work, focusing on three key core business areas where a diagnostic followed by gender-smart technical assistance could be applied: leadership and workforce; value chains; and markets. 

This program implemented over a multi-year period helped companies identify possible strategies for gender-inclusive and business strengthening, then zeroed in on priority strategies to ensure sustainable impact.

Internally focused strategies improved women’s employee satisfaction by targeting workplace culture, policies and practices, while external strategies supported business growth and the well-being of stakeholders. 

Overall, the nine interventions completed with companies reached over 25,000 beneficiaries and consumers, and nearly 1,000 employees.

Gender-inclusive roadmap

Between April 2021 and August 2023, the five companies went through a gender diagnostic process to identify possible gender interventions suitable for each business. 

Next, we focused on action, supporting management and teams to implement the solutions and pilot strategies, then measure the results, such as change in “net promoter scores” among female staff. We also paired this process with trainings for internal champions and groups of employees on the new policies and shifts taking place. 

Finally, check-ins and surveys monitored results.

The nine strategies selected with the companies were based on the following:

  • Alignment with business priorities
  • Potential gender and business impacts
  • Feasibility of piloting the strategy with the time frame of our project

Other factors included were time and cash investment requirements to implement, and how significant the departure from current businesses practices would be.

Follow-ups to understand the sustainability of strategies and their implementation were conducted through January 2024 and shared at SOCAP and Sankalp Africa in-person events.

Intervention highlights

Moko is a Nairobi-based home decor company focused on responsible and sustainable sourcing. While Moko began with a strong female customer base and diverse workforce, the company’s formal commitment to and launch of a new Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy was a strong signal to staff that women and men had equal opportunities and voice at the company. NPS scores hit over 90%.

Mr. Green Africa is a Nairobi-based recycling company that sources its inputs from waste pickers. Mr. Green Africa’s strategic gender intervention had a major shift in its suppliers of plastics, with 50% of its suppliers being female. It also saw an increase in income to female plastic pickers. Women also compose half of the company’s management team. Communications and feedback mechanisms to make women feel safer were also successfully implemented, and the company has committed to continued progress.

Asili in Uganda is a leading employer, investor, producer, aggregator and service provider across the major grain and oilseed value chains in East Africa, focused on tackling food security.  Asili Agriculture increased loans to female farmers, increased the number of women on its permanent staff, and launched two new programs that provided greater support to women farmers, including an MFI-partnership to increase input loans to women, and increased access to extension services.

Lessons for replication 

With all AlphaMundi Foundation programming, we focus on the long-term sustainability and scalability of our work. As such, we convened CEOs and managers of supported companies as well as a group of over 30 additional founders, managers and funders at various project intervals to discuss lessons learned, how to ensure the sustainability of our work, and what comes next. We concluded: 

  • Senior business leadership’s buy-in and openness is critical to driving sustainable results in gender-lens business strategies. Gender-smart strategies for small and mid-sized are most effective when senior management forgoes pre-existing assumptions and embraces a methodical process to diagnose then guide change. With leadership involved and safe, small-group meetings, the best and longest-lasting strategies are realized, “from within.”
  • Trusting outside experts to lead an efficient, results-focused process supports gender-smart business transitions while allowing company managers to stay focused running the business. We partnered with Value for Women to lead the diagnostic and implementation support process with companies. Their process has been applied to over 200 enterprises and 35 investors to factor in potential subjective biases that could affect outcomes.
  • Implement several initiatives at first, rather than a complete gender-lens overhaul. We found that choosing the right timing and phased roll out of one to three gender-smart initiatives was optimal for success, especially for early growth startups juggling many operational priorities.
  • Company-wide training to support sensitization and culture shift. Final surveys among employees indicated that the Value for Women train-the-trainer approach with internal champions, who then disseminated learnings, was effective to shift culture across all employees. This was evidenced by the dramatic increase in NPS scores among women employees at all companies. Internal champions were trained by Value for Women to reach all employees.

In addition, AlphaMundi Foundation has found that pairing solutions with access to capital or funds to support turning discovery into action is beneficial. While the gender-smart technical assistance for these companies did not include any direct financial support, AlphaMundi Foundation’s other programs have provided blended finance solutions. For example, Daraja Impact in Tanzania provides grants and impact-linked loans as well as technical assistance on capital raise for women and youth-focused SMEs. We also recently supported organic fertilizer companies through results-based grants, including many women-led and focused, to strengthen their businesses and reach to farmers through training and investment in scaled production.

Calling all catalytic gender funders

The benefits of women’s economic and business participation are well reported at this point. Studies have shown a correlation between increased female labor force participation and economic growth. Companies with a more diverse workforce tend to be more innovative and successful. And when women earn income, it improves the well-being of their families and communities

Yet, the shift toward investing in innovative, women-focused initiatives and innovation has only slowly gained traction. 

AlphaMundi Foundation’s work focuses on building evidence around blended finance and other targeted support that helps small and mid-sized scale and strengthen their impact, particularly for women and the climate. We are keen to work with other innovative funders, foundations and ecosystem builders with a common vision, especially in the sectors of traditional and regenerative agriculture and the circular economy, which can be powerful engines for women’s empowerment. Join us in driving blended finance and gender-smart technical assistance to build resilience and shift markets. Read more about the Sankalp Africa session take-aways from this project on the Intellicap blog.