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Where do women stand in East African public procurement programs?


Advancing women’s economic empowerment is a key lever to achieving gender equality. This economic empowerment requires an integrated approach that touches on every sector and system in society, from households to workplaces to board rooms to government offices. One area that has only recently been in the spotlight is public (government) procurement: the systems and processes governments use to purchase goods, services and works. 

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, public procurement represents 14.9% of the gross domestic product of its member countries and nearly 40% of sub-Saharan African economies. Governments are increasingly using this buying power to advance societal goals such as gender equality.

The Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) – East Africa initiative commissioned an evidence review to analyze the integration of gender in the public procurement systems and processes of five countries – Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia. The review examines the measures taken by each country to achieve that gender integration and the challenges of adopting gender-responsive procurement approaches. It also proposes recommendations to overcome these barriers.  

Research highlights

  • A new evidence review assesses gender and public procurement in East Africa. 
  • These gender-responsive procurement policies are yielding mixed results. 
  • The barriers hindering women’s full integration into procurement systems are structural; legal and policy-related; cultural and societal; financial; and corruption-related. 


East African approaches to include women in public procurement 

Gender-responsive procurement policies in East Africa vary from country to country. In 2013, Kenya was one of the first African countries to target women and other marginalized groups through its Access to Government Procurement Opportunities Program. The program requires 30% of government contract opportunities to be set aside for women, youth and persons with disabilities – stipulating that to qualify as women-owned, a business must be 70% owned by women. Much like Kenya’s program, Tanzania and Uganda introduced a women-owned requirement for a percentage of government contracting. Uganda’s new program awaits the adoption of regulations while Tanzania’s program, introduced in 2016, requires 100% women’s ownership for a business to qualify. 

Rwanda and Ethiopia have opted to take a localized approach, with indirect benefits to women-owned businesses. Procurement strategies in these countries focus on locally produced goods and small and medium enterprises. While women may benefit from this strategy, they still face competition from other local bidders with higher capacities to take on larger contracts.

Barriers preventing women from participating in procurement systems 

While gender-responsive procurement strategies are still relatively new, they have yielded mixed results when it comes to increasing women’s participation within procurement. The evidence review identifies the following five types of barriers hindering women’s full integration into procurement systems: structural and systemic; legal and policy-related; cultural and societal; financial; and corruption-related. 

Structural and systemic barriers relate to the intersecting dimensions of gender and other forms of inequality. For example, access to platforms in which procurement opportunities are publicized may be limited. These sites require access to the internet, financial resources and an understanding of how to navigate complex platforms – all of which can pose challenges to women-owned businesses in rural regions, where education levels are lower than in cities and where information and communication technologies are in earlier stages of development. 

Legal and policy barriers focus on the absence of frameworks with provisions to grant public contracts to achieve gender-equality goals. Without legal frameworks to create such provisions, current practices favouring male-owned businesses will continue to dominate public procurement systems. Unless gender-responsive policies are integrated throughout procurement practices, initiatives supporting women’s economic empowerment in procurement will be less effective at making lasting systemic changes. 

Cultural and social barriers include the biases that affect women’s confidence in their skills and ability to become an entrepreneur. Often coming from discrimination and discouragement from personal networks, women report having reservations and a lack of confidence when engaging in predominantly male sectors. These factors are also conflated with the responsibilities of unpaid care work, leaving women with very little time to spend on businesses and engaging in the competitive procurement environment. 

The financial barriers that pose a challenge to women-owned businesses when accessing procurement opportunities include a lack of liquid assets to be used to honour the tender or when competing against other bidders. Other factors include the lack of available collateral, such as owned property, which could be used to offset any barriers when acquiring loans from banks. 

Corruption-related barriers also limit women’s participation in the public procurement process because they reduce trust in the bidding process and its competitive nature, and consequently discourage women-owned businesses from participating. Corruption is also associated with abuse of power for sexual exploitation. It works as a deterrent for women who fear sexual extortion at any point in the procurement process or the stigma associated with the perception of being sexually compromised or otherwise engaged in corruption. 

Identifying solutions for transformative change

It is clear from this review that there remains much to be done to ensure full participation of women-owned businesses in procurement processes. Proposed recommendations to overcome barriers include simplifying the procurement process, legislating anti-discrimination laws, removing financial guarantee requirements, providing ethical training and incentives for public officials, and many more.

The review aims to inform discussions on how to promote women’s entry into the historically male-dominated space of public procurement. Along with research on women’s unpaid care work, soft-skills development for job readiness and entry into non-traditional economic sectors, GrOW – East Africa supports several projects related to gender-responsive procurement:

By addressing the barriers that women face in procurement processes and systems, transformative change can begin to take root and one day yield an integrated approach to women’s economic empowerment, founded on equity and inclusion. 

Read the policy brief. 

Read the evidence review

Contributor: Annet Abenakyo Mulema, senior program officer, IDRC