“Empowerment Means Business”
Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is my pleasure to be here this afternoon to talk about a topic that lies at the heart of what the International Trade Centre (ITC) does – empowerment and business.
For those of you who may not know the ITC, we were set up 50 years ago by the United Nations and the World Trade organisation to help businesses in developing countries connect to global markets. To help them trade and invest. In light of our development mandate, our main focus has been on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) given that they account for over 70% jobs in developing and developed countries alike. SMEs also offer a huge potential for socio-economic gains, particularly since smaller firms do tend to employ more vulnerable groups within a society, such as women, youth and the poor.
The theme “empowerment and business” resonates very well with me as I am a firm advocate for the position that private sector, governments and consumers can do “good” while doing business.
Socio-economic boosts and profits can and should go hand-in-hand. Connecting to and competing in world markets can help deliver both. This is the case for countries like Finland and Sweden which do well in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index and go on to also score well in its Global Competitiveness Ranking. Fast-growing Rwanda also ranks in the top ten of the latest Gender Gap Index and scores very highly in competitiveness.
The International Labour Organization estimates that 865 million women around the world, sometimes referred to as “the third billion”, if better supported could be contributing more robustly to the generation of business and the prosperity of their countries’ economies.
Meanwhile, global growth has been sluggish over the last few years. This is where supporting and empowering women, even in small ways, is an obvious and underutilised lever to boost competitiveness, accelerate business and sustain growth.
This is especially true for countries, like Germany, facing demographic declines and a shrinking labor force. The OECD estimates that closing the gender gap completely in labor market participation could add over 11% to GDP in Germany. Women’s economic empowerment is about fairness but it also means business!
For us the economic empowerment of women means reducing extreme poverty. Through our Ethical Fashion Initiative, we have empowered thousands of mostly female artisans in extremely poor and marginalized communities in Kenya, Mali, Burkina-Faso, Haiti or Palestine. Because it is possible to connect women in urban slums and poor rural areas to some of the biggest names in the international fashion industry. It requires providing skills training and other forms of capacity building to ensure that market and consumer expectations on delivery, quality, and fair labour standards are being met.
This was not a purely social endeavour for well-known buyers like Vivienne Westwood, United Arrows or Stella McCartney. This was just as much about doing business as it was about doing “good”. Hundreds of orders were made and successfully satisfied. This is not charity. It is simply a job. A decent job which helped these women moved from earning less than $1 per day to now earning even $12 per day. Because it has to be about respecting fair labour conditions.
The business case of ITC’s Ethical Fashion Initiative has been confirmed by a group of Kenyan impact investors, who have bought into the Initiative’s Nairobi hub and transformed it into the successful, privately-owned operation. Today the company and its network of micro-producers – several cooperatives representing over 1,000 artisans in Kenyan slums and rural areas – are poised to become the first African network fully integrated into the international fashion supply chain.
For us the empowerment means sourcing from women vendors, whether through public or private procurement. It is one of the most direct ways to promote women entrepreneurs while ensuring a mutually beneficial business outcome for the seller and the buyer. But it is also beneficial for society since a woman would reinvest 90% of its earnings in her family and community.
However, when we ask leading corporate buyers about the challenges they face in sourcing from women, they say the single biggest problem is finding eligible women-owned businesses.
This is why earlier this year ITC, together with Google and a big Brazilian tech firm CI&T Brazil launched a tech challenge for developers to create a digital platform and app that registers women-owned businesses and increases their visibility to potential partners.
The winner, a small firm led by two young Kenyan women will help us launch the app in Nairobi during the upcoming WTO Ministerial Conference. Because for us empowering women also means thinking technology, IT, digital, e-commerce.
Many of you are already doing a lot to empower women economically. For those of you looking to do more or to identify practical and simple ways of empowering women business leaders – I invite you to join ITC’s Call to Action to help bring one million women-led businesses to market by 2020. The Call to Action provides you with very firm and operational ideas in eight key areas from data collection, to financial inclusion, ownership rights or helping address supply side constraints. Each of us, each of you, can engage, empower and promote women in business. And, in doing so you can contribute to a fairer world and to stronger economies, key ingredients to reach the Global Goals by 2030.