Small farms are plentiful in Hà Giang, a province in the forested hills of northern Vietnam where Luu Thi Hoa started Po My, an agricultural cooperative that sells peas, leafy greens and honey from local farms.
Hoa’s business not only supports her family — it also provides sustainable livelihoods for her community. But like many local business owners, Hoa took a major hit when the COVID-19 pandemic brought tourism in Vietnam to a standstill.
Hoa considered herself fortunate. She had access to programming through CARE, a global humanitarian organization that created the Ignite program to help build entrepreneurship among underserved micro- and small-business owners. She credited the program, supported by the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, for boosting her financial management skills, which helped her refine her business operations and achieve a better-work life balance. But not all women entrepreneurs can get this kind of help.
All across the globe, women seeking to achieve economic empowerment often face three major obstacles: income inequality, digital inequality and information inequality.
Income inequality is an ongoing problem that was only exacerbated by the pandemic: 90% of women who lost their jobs became economically inactive, pushing men and women further apart on the already inequitable economic spectrum.
In today’s world, digital inequality makes it even harder for women who remain in the workforce to obtain income parity. More than 50% of women are offline, and women are 20% less likely than men to own smartphones. Without access to the full power of the digital economy, female entrepreneurs cannot integrate digital technologies into their businesses to reach new customers or reap the efficiencies that technology affords.
That lack of digital access also creates information inequality, in which men have more access to data and analytics that can take a business to the next level.
A Citigroup analysis earlier this year found that gender parity in business growth could increase the global GDP by as much as $2 trillion and generate between 288 million and 433 million jobs. Given that, it’s clear everyone would benefit from building an economic future that works for women. Here are three principles that guide our work:
Act with gender intentionality
We need to think about the specific barriers that women face when we design products, services and programs to deliver the best outcomes.
In Pakistan, the Center is working in partnership with CARE to ensure that financial service providers are designing financial products with women entrepreneurs in mind. For instance, UBank offers a loan product that accepts nontraditional forms of collateral like gold jewelry. Its financing includes educational programs, such as skills building, mentorship and digital tools.
Make data work for women
Data can serve as a powerful ally in the fight for greater equity. By collecting, analyzing and using good-quality disaggregated data, we can improve our existing products and services to suit women’s needs — or spark innovative new ways to better serve women.
Through Data.org, the Center has supported Women’s World Banking to explore how AI-based modeling and credit scoring can assist female entrepreneurs in India, Mexico and Nigeria. The initiative assesses how algorithms in digital credit applications can increase lending to women borrowers, studies other ways to apply machine learning and AI and explores the challenges facing digital financial services as a result of COVID-19.
Reimagine cross-sector partnerships
Instead of falling back on traditional models of philanthropy and public-private partnerships, we must think creatively about how to effectively deploy our assets, including human capital, aggregated data and technology. That means rethinking how we structure partnerships with corporations, nonprofits and government entities.
For instance, we teamed up with global sustainability organization BSR and Levi Strauss & Co. to create a digital payment system that gave garment workers in Egypt — half of whom are women — more control over their income. At the Center, we worked with an NGO to teach garment workers how to use their new digital wallets while our brand partner, Levi’s, harnessed its factory network, brand influence and philanthropic foundation to get factory management on board with the plan. Now we’re working to scale that program to nine more factories supporting global brands.
The world has never offered women a smooth road to financial empowerment, but we can ease their journey, from factories in Egypt to farms in Vietnam and beyond. We are working to equip women like Hoa with the knowledge and technology they need to take charge of their future — and to ensure the future is ready for them to succeed.