Ten years ago I had a moment of disillusionment with the charity sector. I was working on the intractable conflict in Sudan: progress was slow, and I’m not known for my patience. I began to feel that traditional models of aid had limitations and decided it was time to explore different routes to tackling poverty.
My family in Ghana have a history of successful entrepreneurism, so I was drawn to the role business can play in ending poverty. After all, as we know, every poor woman or man is a producer or consumer in some way. Enterprise is the best route out of poverty for most poor people.
And so my journey began. My time working for Cards from Africa, a fabulous Rwandan enterprise Rwanda, showed me the value of creating meaningful employment for marginalised people. The question was: could my employer, Christian Aid, really change lives of the world’s poorest people at scale by incubating one business at a time?
I soon discovered the charity’s leadership were on the same journey so as an organisation we explored our options. We looked to our long, ongoing history of work on resilient livelihoods; our role in helping to establish the fair trade movement, our investment in Divine Chocolate, our record of passionate campaigning for justice on issues like trade and tax.
We looked at our footprint – we work in 40-plus countries, in extremely marginalised rural communities. We were convinced that whatever route we took, we could not compromise on who the main beneficiaries of our markets work would be: it had to empower marginalised entrepreneurs. So many already have the energy to succeed, but the dice are stacked against them.
As a result of this journey, Christian Aid has been developing its inclusive market development approach since 2001 (you can read more about it in this set of impact case studies) – we have joined other organisations who are taking a market systems approach. We understand markets as dynamic systems and believe that only by working across these systems, targeting interventions at key blockages and opportunities, can we make markets more inclusive and deliver wide-ranging impact.
Every market where we work – whether it’s cocoa value chain in Nicaragua or dairy in Bangladesh – is unique. However, there are common reasons why poor entrepreneurs are excluded from these markets. To help overcome these obstacles, we developed a set of approaches that can be tailored to the context. We focus on improving market access, enabling access to goods and services, and using evidence-based market advocacy, in-country, to change the systems and structures that keep producers poor.
We build up enterprises in these market systems, providing them with business analysis and technical assistance, and have developed specialist mechanisms for enabling access to to affordable loan and equity investment. We can only deliver this unique combination of approaches meaningfully in local contexts because we work with expert partners based in-country.
Christian Aid believes that for long-term change to happen, we need to shift the balance of power in favour of marginalised market actors: for us, how we do things is as important as what we do. We invest a lot of time in helping extremely marginalised market actors to build their understanding, confidence and ownership of their market, enabling them to be better entrepreneurs who can engage and influence powerful market stakeholders. When they are confident, we bring them together with other market actors from across the private sector, encouraging them all to be part of the solution, owning the issues that prevent their market from achieving its potential.
Christian Aid wants whole markets to function better, but we aren’t ashamed to say our priority is to ensure that marginalised people get to thrive as a result of this. It’s high time markets got less exclusive and more inclusive, and we are proud to be playing our part.
As you can imagine, our approach to inclusive market development has changed us. Our longstanding partnership skills have supported our transition into becoming market facilitators. We’ve honed our business mind-set and skills: I often joke that our market officers are frustrated entrepreneurs, that’s just how their minds are wired.
The thing I’m most proud of is that we’ve never compromised on who we serve. Our impact case studies tell stories of marginalised forest producers in India accessing new markets for honey, of 20,000 rice farmers in Malawi having a voice in policies affecting their sector, of the first ever Fairtrade-certified hibiscus in Zimbabwe. We have stories of empowerment, ownership and participation – impact way beyond income.
Making whole markets more inclusive has an exciting potential to deliver the holy grail of poverty eradication – impact at scale. Christian Aid is open to partnering with others to realise this potential. We invite you to join us on this journey.