Guest Articles

March 6

Sarah Bove / Teresa Oliveira / Julieta Ocampo

Leveraging Market Systems Development for Women’s Economic Empowerment: Four Tools for Designing Programs That Promote a Gender-Inclusive Economy

Around the world, women face numerous obstacles in achieving economic independence, leaving them vulnerable to poverty and discrimination. These challenges are particularly evident in many sub-Saharan African countries, where women are disproportionately engaged in informal and vulnerable employment.

To take one of countless examples, Albertina Chirindza, a single mother of four living in Maputo, Mozambique, was confronted with the limited economic opportunities her city has to offer. Undeterred by these obstacles, she decided to support her family by selling roasted peanuts in the bustling streets of the city. Though she managed to earn a weekly profit of approximately $9, she soon realized that she needed a more sustainable business to provide for her family’s needs.

But like many aspiring entrepreneurs, her lack of capital proved to be a significant barrier. Challenges such as limited access to formal financial products and savings, high account maintenance costs, and even the inconvenience of long lines at ATMs hindered her progress. And she’s not alone: Despite rapid advancements in the digitization of banking across Africa, driven by mobile telephony and mobile banking, only 33% of women in Mozambique had accounts at financial institutions or mobile money service providers as of 2017, compared to 51% of men.

To tackle these challenges in a scalable and sustainable way, global development organizations are increasingly using Market Systems Development (MSD) interventions. These interventions involve getting people and organizations within the same economy to start adopting new practices based on incentives offered from within the local market system. However, since most of these MSD programs haven’t specifically targeted women, there has been little evidence on how to adjust this approach to address women’s exclusion from key sectors of the economy.

That is beginning to change, as the Women in Business program (WIN), an initiative funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and led by TechnoServe in Mozambique, has become one of the first programs to demonstrate MSD’s effectiveness in this context. To share its experience, WIN has developed a set of tools that can be used by other programs that follow an MSD methodology. These tools guide the selection of sectors and partners, and the design and measurement of MSD interventions, to maximize women’s economic empowerment.

Below, we’ll share links to these tools and explain how they can be used to create or enhance opportunities for women entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa and other emerging economies.


Selecting high-impact economic sectors for the MSD interventions

The first tool, “Selecting winning sectors for women’s economic empowerment,” offers a step-by-step guide based on WIN’s experiences — something that can be useful to other organizations that are new to developing MSD interventions. The WIN program was the first time TechnoServe Mozambique had implemented any sort of MSD program — let alone one focused on women’s economic empowerment. We found sector selection to be particularly challenging, since WIN had a very broad focus on empowerment, and we had to learn how to zero in on the sector with the most potential for impact and scale.

In the first year of WIN, we identified several sectors as possible focuses — e.g., garments/textiles, childcare and retail — based on the fact that they tend to include more women workers or entrepreneurs. However, after that year, we realized we would have greater impact if we simply focused on women microentrepreneurs in the informal/semi-formal economy, since this is the sector where almost all women work. Additionally, it became apparent that the limited diversity of the Mozambican economy meant that women microentrepreneurs faced similar constraints and barriers regardless of their sector. Furthermore, there were a limited number of companies and institutions offering solutions to these women — another point in favor of broadening the project’s main target sector to encompass microenterprise.

Once the sector was identified, WIN defined “verticals” as areas where partners could be found and had the potential to intervene. MSD programs like WIN don’t work directly with their target beneficiaries: They work with partners — i.e., permanent market actors like private sector companies or public sector institutions — to support them in optimizing their products or services to reach/benefit more low-income populations. Verticals represent a partner’s service areas, or market functions or influences that impact how well women can perform in the main sector — for instance, their access to financial services, information/training, agricultural inputs, etc. Our criteria for selecting verticals included evaluating their potential for impact and scale, relevance for low-income women, and program feasibility.

Through this process, enhancing access to financial services emerged as a critical vertical, as it addresses challenges faced by Chirindza and many other entrepreneurs.


Choosing the Right Partners for Women’s Economic Empowerment

The second tool, “Selecting winning partners for women’s economic empowerment,” focuses on strategically choosing the most promising partners for collaboration within the selected verticals. This involves conducting research, engaging potential partners in discussions and/or issuing calls for proposals if the sector has many relevant actors. Our key criteria for partner selection included the partner’s alignment with program goals, the relevance of their products/services, and their expected impact on women’s economic empowerment. Flexibility is key in this selection process, allowing for the addition of new partners as interventions progress.

Over the course of the program, WIN developed a reputation as an expert entity in understanding the unique needs of women — something which played a crucial role in attracting interest from potential partners. For instance, in the case of access to financial services, the program recognized Vodacom M-Pesa, the country’s largest mobile money provider, as a promising partner to achieve this goal. We positioned ourselves as an expert consulting team in women’s economic empowerment that could help M-Pesa grow their customer base by designing products or marketing campaigns to reach excluded women. The value proposition of a consulting organization like WIN, with experience advising private and public institutions on how to integrate gender inclusion into their operations, comes into play in this partner recruitment process.

To help enhance its impact on women microentrepreneurs, WIN trained M-Pesa’s field team on how to recruit and manage women agents. Several months into the partnership, we were also given opportunities by the M-Pesa marketing team to provide input on product design and marketing initiatives for different products. This resulted in a series of recommendations that improved product design, promotion and communications, ultimately benefiting Chirindza and other women like her — while also increasing the uptake of M-Pesa products aimed at this market.


Working with partners to design winning MSD interventions

The third tool, “Designing winning interventions for women’s economic empowerment,” emphasizes collaboration with partners to ensure the ownership and sustainability of proposed solutions. Market actors often understand the challenges in engaging women, but may not know how to overcome them. Intervention strategy design aligns the MSD program and its partners behind a shared vision of their potential collaborations, clearly defining roles between the partner and program, and aligning their objectives, theory of change, activities, targets and budget.

During the design phase of each of WIN’s interventions, as part of the strategy we develop with the intervention’s partners, we conduct a brief gender analysis to inform and define how the proposed intervention will support the different dimensions of women’s economic empowerment. We also follow another key principle of successful MSD program design: reflecting each partner’s co-investment in the budget from the outset, to ensure commitment and sustainability.

Once the intervention strategy is developed, WIN presents it to an internal decision-making committee. This committee evaluates the intervention based on its potential to drive impact for the target group, cost-effectiveness, partner capacity, replicability by other actors, and other relevant factors — another approach that’s worth adopting in other MSD programs.


Building rigorous monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) systems for MSD programs

The fourth tool, “Building a rigorous MEL system for a MSD program focused on women’s economic empowerment,” addresses the complexities of measuring the initiative’s lasting impact. This measurement can focus on beneficiaries, market actors, and even changes in the market system, as MSD programs must also understand what market changes can reasonably be attributed to the program’s influence. Many MSD programs such as WIN use the AAER (Adopt, Adapt, Expand, Respond) framework to evaluate changes at both the partner and system levels, observing the market and engaging with partners.

WIN defines women’s economic empowerment as increased income, assets or control over them, and that is the guiding North Star of all our interventions. However, the program also recognizes other dimensions of empowerment, such as increased confidence, decision-making, time and mobility, access to information, and more. At the beneficiary level, WIN’s MEL tool provides strategies for measuring progress across these different dimensions, which include hiring research companies for national surveys, using partners’ field teams, employing in-house interviewers, and leveraging partners’ data.

The tool also describes WIN’s measuring process, which includes detailed MEL plans for each intervention (called Intervention Guides), and tracks relevant women’s economic empowerment metrics and other impact indicators. Additionally, the measuring process covers an overall logframe, with a few key cross-cutting program indicators, fed by data on indicators that are in each Intervention Guide.


Market Systems Development for Women’s Economic Empowerment

The involvement of different market players, including those in media, financial services and distribution, is progressively transforming the perception of women in the economy in emerging markets. WIN’s efforts have contributed to this changing narrative on gender issues, and have helped catalyze gender-responsive actions in Mozambique and beyond. We have seen our partners adapt our inclusive business models and mainstream them into other areas of their businesses, and we’ve gotten interest from companies in other sectors that have heard about our work.

In its first phase, the program forged alliances with 40 partners, reaching over half a million low-income women — and economically empowering 42,050 of them. In WIN’s financial services vertical alone, a remarkable 6,177 women have reported heightened economic empowerment, with over 14,000 women adopting improved business practices, primarily centered around safe savings.

As this impact continues to reverberate, market players are beginning to recognize not only the intrinsic value of empowering women, but also the substantial business opportunities it presents. Take M-Pesa, for example: Following enhancements in product design, promotion and communication tailored to better suit the needs of women microentrepreneurs, WIN’s conservative estimations of the program’s impact on the company revealed a notable uptick in formal savings usage by 1,800 women. Moreover, M-Pesa initiated further self-driven improvements after its collaborations with WIN, creating a new digital financial product called Xitique — which means “savings group” in Mozambique. The product serves as a financial tool for accessible and formal savings, catering to women microentrepreneurs and other low-income populations. Later, a competing platform, Movitel e-Mola, introduced a similar product, incorporating some of the flexibility endorsed by WIN, including multiple options for savings frequency and amounts. These qualitative results validate the relevance of our systemic change model, where starting with a pilot concept can trigger a cascade of gender-responsive actions across a broader spectrum of actors.

Among the beneficiaries of these interventions was Albertina Chirindza, whose enhanced financial situation radiated positive effects on her family’s well-being. After transitioning to M-Pesa, Chirindza signed up for the Xitique savings platform, which integrated with her digital M-Pesa account and empowered her to establish small, short-term savings that aligned with both her business and personal needs. It proved to be a flexible, user-friendly solution, tailor-made for individuals like her.

Embarking on a journey of consistent savings on the Xitique platform, Chirindza gained the confidence to diversify her business. She ventured into selling tomatoes, despite the narrow profit margin, ensuring that she could consistently provide dinner for her children. Over time, her business flourished, and she expanded to selling imported fruits from South Africa, becoming the sole supplier in the area (aside from supermarkets), resulting in a surge in demand.

Now, Chirindza has substantially boosted her income, offering her a greater sense of security regarding her children’s future. She has saved enough to finance her daughter’s college education next year, and to support her son in launching his own microenterprise. With her increased income, she also recently acquired a plot of land, paving the way for her dream of building a house of her very own.

The task of building a gender-inclusive economy is a massive one. To bring about substantial and lasting change, market systems must simultaneously evolve to be both more profitable and more equitable. In this pursuit, a collection of tools — such as those developed by the WIN program — can play a vital role in guiding interventions aimed at achieving these dual goals. By carefully choosing sectors and partners, designing effective interventions, and measuring the impact of our efforts, we have the potential to transform the vision of an inclusive economy into a tangible reality.


Sarah Bove is a Program Director, Teresa Oliveira is a Senior Program Performance Officer, and Julieta Ocampo is a Program Communications Specialist at TechnoServe. 

Photo courtesy of TechnoServe.




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