Is there a business case for women as part of global supply chains?

By Ida Horner, Ethnic Supplies

Is there a business case for women as part of
global supply chains?

Research commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that many international food companies could improve crop productivity and quality, grow the smallholder supply base and improve access to high value markets when they increase women participation.

However, in spite of such evidence problems for African women in business persist and the same research identifies some of the challenges faced by women in the agriculture sector but these problems could be true for other sectors:

  1. Fewer women are members of company contract farming schemes than men
  2. Many companies source from established producer groups, yet women are typically underrepresented in both membership and governance of these groups
  3. On male owned farms, female family members do much of the work, yet receive little of the income from crop sales, and have little say about how that income is spent
  4. Women are much less likely than men to benefit from technical training and extension programs
  5. Sustainability certification schemes are also less likely to benefit women than men[1]

I carried out some primary research amongst a group of women in Kisoro SW Uganda and what I discovered bears out some of the findings raised above.

Kisoro is a farming community and the two main cash crops here are Coffee and Irish potatoes (there are two kinds of potatoes in Uganda – Sweet potatoes and Irish potatoes- this is the variety that most western readers will be familiar with. In Uganda potatoes generally refers to sweet potatoes).

Through conversations with the women in this village I learned that which cash crop the family business takes on is decided on gender lines.

There are a number of reasons for this.

The disparity between the genders with respect to property rights is huge in particular that, women do not own land and often work as part of the hired help but unlike the hired help women/wives in a family business do not get paid, their skills and labour are taken as a given.

I learned that whilst men prefer coffee as a cash crop, women have a preference for Irish potatoes; this is because as they have no expectations of a cash payment, they take their payment in ‘potatoes’ this means that, they set aside some of the potatoes for home consumption, which guarantees food on the table at the end of the working day. They can’t do this with coffee.

Women are excluded from business negotiations relating to coffee, as well as any coffee related cash transactions, such transactions are handled by men. A woman has no control over what happens to the money either and if a man decides to spend that money outside of the home for instance, it means that the money is not available for family expenses such as health, education, food etc.

I learned that domestic violence is rife and although authorities get involved, resolutions are almost always not to the advantage of the abused woman and that almost always this is due to negotiations pertaining to family income and if a marriage breaks down the woman is expected to leave any children and return to her parents

It was interesting to contrast these views with those of our guide. He is from Kampala the capital city of Uganda, He told us that as far as he could work the lack of education put the women of Kisoro at a great disadvantage as it means that they do not fully understand their rights and as such cannot argue/fight for those rights. He further stated that he would never dream of treating his own wife the way these women are treated and that his wife had rights to buy and own property without his permission.

Faced with such challenges, how then do women, especially those in rural locations become part of global supply chains?

What are the key challenges for MNCs who seek to include African Women in Business in their Supply chains?

What are the key challenges for African Women seeking to join the supply chains of MNCs, where are the gaps and how can these gaps be bridged?

Is there a role for governments, NGOs, donors?

Is there a business case for women as part of global supply chains?

These are some of the questions that will form part of the discussion at the Pre- International Women’s Day event on 2 March 2013 in Kampala, Uganda. The meeting will bring together business executives, women business owners, and experts from the business world and civil society to explore the opportunities that exist for women in business within MNC supply chains as customers, employees, suppliers and distributors of goods. Participants will share practical experiences and deepen their understanding of key challenges to women business owners becoming suppliers to MNCs and what can be done to bridge the gaps and what is needed to bridge those gaps.

Editor’s Note:

This blog was first published on Africa on the Blog, and is reproduced with permission.

The meeting is convened by Ida Horner of Ethnic Supplies Ltd and the Trustees of Let Them Help Themselves Out Of Poverty, a Community Development and UK registered Charity.

The event is sponsored by Business Fights Poverty, Uganda Manufacturer’s Association, SABMiller/Nile Breweries Ltd and is part of a collaborative effort by Center for African Studies at SOAS,Africa on The Blog, Ugandan business networks to rally business energy and expertise around inclusive business models.

To register for this event please visit:

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9 Responses

  1. Ida, I agree there is most certainly a business case for women in global supply chains. WEConnect International was founded by multi-national corporations who are looking for women business owners as suppliers and we are linking these companies with women business owners globally. We provide a certification for the women business owners and then MNCs contact us when they have business opportunities.  There is more information at I hope you have a successful event next week! 

  2. That is an interesting concept Liz, it is a pity you can’t be in Uganda to share that with the delegates.  I would be interested to learn more about what is involved in getting the women ready to supply into these chains. Do you offer a training programme for instance? How do women join your scheme? Are some business types excluded? 

  3. This is a great article.

    I think the issue is that there is so little known about the actual activities being done out there by women farmers already. Half the sky is held up by women farmers!

    Your example of Uganda is a good one. There are other good examples here from Africa, India and  Latin America across coffee, dairy and other sectors too. All of them have a good business case.

    The opportunity here is to build up our experiences of this work and a database of case studies showing the different things being done by women farmers around the world. This kind of work led by practitioners with the hybrid private sector-development background will ask and answer all the right questions so that businesses without that in-house expertise can start to access the right information.

  4. Ida, Great questions. I just sent a friend request with my email so we can discuss the specifics and I can send more information for you women to get involved.  Women can join us for free by self-registering on our network at:

    No industries are excluded and our corporate members buy everything from office supplies, to car rental, to IT staffing and consulting to food and beverage.  The key is scaling the business and securing the necessary quality certifications to present well to a major company. We partner with other organizations to offer those kinds of trainings, as well.  Please get in touch via email at lcullen at  I look forward to hearing from you and can send a fact sheet if that is of interest.

  5. Hi Anoushka

    I agree that we need to build on best practice and the starting point is curating what works  with a view to sharing good practice. I am currently in  Uganda and the farmers out here are very to learn and share experiences from elsewhere.

  6. Great article Ida.  The challenges women face regarding cash vs. sustenance crops is a great example of some of the challenges women face to entering the marketplace.  

    Sseko actually works with women in Uganda and is focused on their participation in the global marketplace.  There is no shortage of challenges, but one of the first challenges is with the potential participants themselves.  Overcoming deeply rooted gender expectations is an important and difficult first step.  

    Unfortunately I am out of country, but some of our employees will attend your event Saturday.  I am looking forward to hearing about it, especially how MNC’s can innovate to help bridge the gaps.  

  7. Thanks Ida.

    It’s also great that we have a forum to share these ideas. On this forum we have people/women working directly either with the women producer groups themselves or at the buyer end, managing the market dynamics so that women producers have a a way of making their work sustainable. I think the fact we are all networked across oceans, cultures, race, geography is an excellent starting point for sharing good practice. Some of my research (here) shows that the ‘value’ of the network is huge and can help businesses start up and grow at a phenomenal rate despite infrastructure challenges in places in Africa. This is something amazing to me!

  8. Thank you all for your contributions to this discussion. The meeting in Uganda went well. I expect to issue the report soon. 

    Emily your example of shear butter is interesting. I would be interested to know which country the scheme is. The Shea butter trees I have seen in Uganda are very tall and due to cultural practices a woman would not be expected to go up such trees, or do they collect the nuts after they have fallen off the tree. 

    The point about women being organised into groups is crucial to bridging some of the gaps for rural women in particular as access to land is still a challenge so is the ability to produce enough quantity to satisfy a supply chain

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