Want to support women in enterprises in low-income countries? Here’s what Oxfam knows after many years of working with small businesses

Anoushka Boodhna Gender, Private sector, Women's Economic Empowerment

In our final blog around International Women’s Day, Anoushka Boodhna, Tamara Beradze and Anais Mangin set out seven things Oxfam has learned about supporting women in new and growing businesses in some of the poorest countries – and what we need to do differently (Update August 2022: read a new paper on this topic here by the blog authors)

Café Rio, a dairy business in Burkina Faso supported by Oxfam’s Empresas que Cambian Vidas programme. (Picture: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam Intermon)

For over 15 years, Oxfam’s enterprise development programmes have supported entrepreneurs in some of the world’s poorest countries to create and build viable, sustainable businesses. The last few years have brought a welcome focus on gender in this area: with billions of dollars now tagged for Gender Lens Investing that explicitly aims to advance gender equality as well as business development. 

But with this positive shift comes the risk that programmes merely look at traditional entrepreneurship metrics such as women’s access to markets, jobs and incomes without considering the fundamental constraints to women’s meaningful empowerment in enterprise and market systems: gender inequalities that constrain women’s voice and status; unsafe and oppressive working conditions; and the burden on women of unpaid care. This all needs to be considered alongside typical metrics.   

What has Oxfam learned?

So, over the past 15 years, did we always get enterprise development right for women? Not always. Recently, at workshops held with Oxfam teams from across the globe involved in enterprise development, we asked what it will take to deliver a better deal for women in the future. The result was seven broad recommendations that will inform a revamp of our approach to women’s economic empowerment and enterprise development

  1. Collect the right data from the outset to map what is going on for women. That means collecting data from the start which gives a picture of all the diverse aspects of women’s working lives: as informal workers; as employees; as providers of unpaid and underpaid care. This process will include doing gendered market maps and rapid care analysis. This will help to identify and understand gender gaps from the beginning of the project, and is critical for both designing successful initiatives and tracking performance. For example in Bangladesh, a gendered market map for mung bean production revealed that women were heavily involved in drying/cleaning raw materials but their work was invisible – the enterprise now provides data in a new way and can see the value women add to the product.
  2. Work only with enterprises that have clear commitments from management to address gender inequalities. Define goals to do this and develop roadmaps to achieve them. In our programmes, lack of awareness around gender inequalities as well as lack of commitment and ambition from the leaders have limited the impact and sustainability of our WEE interventions.
  3. Adopt a holistic approach that looks at the challenges faced by women not only as workers in the enterprise but also in their roles outside the workplace in their households and communities. For example, women’s intensive workload of unpaid care and domestic work means increasing their participation in economic activities may result in over-burdening, lack of sleep and damage to health and wellbeing. A rapid care analysis conducted with a mixed women and men group in Bangladesh found that female group members were not only involved in unpaid care work but also in the cultivation of food from home gardens for domestic consumption, as well as community activities.
  4. Establish bottom lines for decent work for women in enterprises. That means setting minimum standards in key business areas that have a critical impact on women’s economic empowerment. For instance, compared with peer businesses in the same sectors, our enterprises offer employment contracts with stable and better pay for women, as well as access to social benefits such as medical care. In Burkina Faso, some of our enterprises from the informal sector have also committed to formalise employment contracts, ensuring better social protection for women employees.
  5. Show how focusing on women’s economic empowerment can be good for business. Enterprises may need to make investments that are not immediately profit-generating, so we need to show them how these can lead to increased returns over time. For instance, a safer environment for women workers can lead to improved loyalty and productivity. Perhaps consider a pre-investment stage to test some of the approaches suggested that can help to establish a business case for investing in women’s economic empowerment. For example, in a fish feed business we supported in Bolivia, the involvement and commitment of women leaders in key areas including ownership, management and sales, has been instrumental in the firm’s success and rapid growth.
  6. Use successful examples of women’s empowerment in enterprises to influence peers, promote innovations in women’s economic empowerment and change perceptions about women’s work within the community. For instance, in Nepal, one of our enterprises involved in vegetable production launched a Farmers Credit Card in collaboration with a bank, offering subsidised agricultural credit with higher interest subsidies for women-run farms. Another example is Participatory Learning Centres that increase women’s participation in community governance spaces. Through these, women have been able to influence village budgets allocated to women’s development.
  7. Link with networks or campaigns on women’s economic empowerment. Get involved in local campaigns for gender justice. Identify where investment in enterprises could contribute to broader campaign objectives for women’s economic empowerment. In Burkina Faso, for instance, Oxfam is part of a multi-stakeholder initiative that is influencing public and private sector actors to develop a business environment that supports women entrepreneurs.

Could you partner with us to develop fresh approaches?

Oxfam’s Enterprise Development Programme (EDP) and Empresas que Cambian Vidas (ECV) – or ‘enterprises that change lives’ – have been innovators in the sector achieving results with small and medium-sized enterprises in 22 countries through a mix of finance and technical assistance. These have generated high impact, and good returns on investment Since 2018, EDP & ECV have invested in more than 44 enterprises increasing the incomes of more than 26,500 women producers and creating or sustaining jobs for close to 800 women.

Although women’s economic empowerment has been embedded into objectives to improve livelihoods – for instance, in marginalised, rural areas, improving women’s access to financial resources and training – the time is right to interrogate what it takes to achieve deeper impact on women’s economic empowerment. The seven broad headings above will be a great start as we embark on redesigning how we work.

Meanwhile, we would love to hear about the learnings of others working in this area – and about opportunities to collaborate on innovative approaches. Are you designing women’s economic empowerment programmes? What new approaches are you adopting to bring about meaningful change? Get in touch (edp@oxfam.org.uk) to tell us more and find out about partnering with Oxfam.


Anoushka Boodhna

Anoushka Boodhna is from Oxfam GB’s Valuing Women’s Work (VWW) programme team and is the Inclusive Markets Advisor


Tamara Beradze

Tamara Beradze is from Oxfam GB’s Multi Country Programmes team and is Global Programme Coordinator for Enterprise Development Programme (EDP)


Anais Mangin

Anais Mangin is from Oxfam Intermon’s private sector team and is social impact lead for Empresas que Cambian Vidas (ECV)

Update August 2022: read a new paper on this topic by the blog authors: How Can We Bring About Meaningful Change for Women by Investing Differently in Small Enterprises

You can find out more about Oxfam’s vision for Valuing Women’s Work here.

Do also check out the three other blogs for International Women’s Day on our Views and Voices site for development professionals, subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest posts and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.