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Empowering women-owned businesses in India

May 3, 2016

IDRC-supported initiative helps female entrepreneurs connect to global supply chains

The opportunity to have a secure source of income changed Pushpa Parmar’s life.

The mother of two children in New Delhi, India used to eke out a living by sifting through trash in search of recyclable goods.

“My hands were cut and dirty from picking through rubbish,” Parmar says. “I was bitten by dogs. Men gave me no respect.”

Today, she works for a women-led recycling cooperative, SEWA Gitanjali, which sells stationary items made from recycled paper to global brands such as Accenture, Staples, Goldman Sachs, and Cisco Systems.

“It’s like I have a new life,” Parmar says. “I’ve been able to educate my children.”

Parmar’s role involves training other people who are struggling how to earn a living by making stationary items.

“My job has given me a chance to help others too, who were in the same situation as me, working on rubbish heaps,” she says. “They were toiling all hours, in terrible conditions, and were earning just a pittance. Now they’re employed in hygienic conditions and earning a proper wage.”

Parmar’s employer, SEWA Gitanjali, is thriving because it can access global markets with its stationary products.

They are one of many organizations in India and worldwide benefiting from the work of non-profit WEConnect International to help women-owned businesses connect to global supply chains.

IDRC support is assisting WEConnect International to develop a searchable database of women-owned businesses in India. This will strengthen WEConnect International’s eNetwork, providing tools for businesses to connect with local suppliers, as well as promoting a wider community of practice.

WEConnect International has helped 600 companies register in the database, and 60 are certified to supply large companies. This has helped generate over US$127 million annually and employ more than 4,600 people across India. The plan is to scale up the model by replicating it in another 17 developing countries.

“With generous support from IDRC, we were able to improve and grow a really powerful database of women-owned businesses in 100 countries,” WEConnect International CEO and co-founder Elizabeth A. Vazquez says.

“The database is important to women around the world,” she adds. “Women who own businesses of all sizes urgently need better access to local and global markets.”

There is a growing list of women-owned businesses in India benefiting from WEConnect International’s ability to connect them with global buyers.

Namita Banka is the founder and managing director of Banka Bioloo. Her business builds environmentally-friendly toilets to help end open defecation and improve global health.

“Building toilets is my mission – I’ve found the purpose in my life,” Banka says. “The poor people are the users. The buyers are people like the government.”

Nectar Fresh Foods founder Chayaa Nanjappa is another member of the WEConnect network. She already supplies 200 tonnes of honey, jam, and other products to markets across India. Now she is finding ways to sell her products in Europe.

She founded her business when she had to find a way to support herself after her marriage ended.

“This experience taught me that nothing is impossible” - Chayaa Nanjappa 

“And I’ve been able to help the farmers, and the community, by buying from them.”

Global buyers are also seeing the value in WEConnect International’s ability to help them find local suppliers.

“Socio-economic advancement of women is going to be the game changer, and WEConnect can help make it happen,” says Srikant Rao, the Asia-Pacific procurement managing director with outsourcing firm Accenture. “We can help women succeed in global markets and climb up value chains.”

International giant Walmart is among the global firms using WEConnect International to increase the number of women-owned businesses in its supply chain. The company also promotes a “Women Owned ” logo to help customers identify products made by women-owned firms certified by WEConnect International.

“Empowering women is the right thing to do for the community and it also makes good business sense,” says Jenny Grieser, Walmart’s senior director women’s economic empowerment. “Walmart India’s leadership in empowering women will be an example for other countries around the world.”

Nadir Patel, Canada’s High Commissioner to India and a member of IDRC’s Board of Governors, notes that the Canadian government has prioritized gender equality.

“This project fits squarely under the umbrella of cooperation to which both countries have committed,” he says. “Empowerment of women from a perspective of business is a fundamental element that supports growth of any country.”