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September 12, 2023

Sustaining and Strengthening Women’s Economic Empowerment Through Public-Private Partnerships

By: Abby Attia, GESI and Safeguarding Program Officer, ABA ROLI

Women entrepreneurs in Northern Ghana face complex geographic, economic, and social barriers to starting and growing their businesses. Investment capital and secure places to save are both vital to growing businesses beyond a micro-level, but many women in this region have limited access to formal financial services, like savings accounts, credit, insurance, and digital money transfers.  Heavy household workloads, childcare, traditional gender norms which limit women’s mobility and decision-making power, perceptions that women cannot succeed in business, and gender-based violence further limit women’s ability to succeed in business. Although there are experienced civil society organizations, government agencies, and businesses in Ghana that are working to build the resilience of women entrepreneurs, many of these organizations are working in silos, the services they provide are gender-blind, and/or they have limited sustainability once foreign funding is gone. Partnerships between civil society organizations and the private sector have the potential to create mutually beneficial relationships that improve both partners’ abilities to provide gender-sensitive social and financial services to women entrepreneurs that can help them start and sustain businesses.
The Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE) Consortium aims to build relationships between the private and public sector to further women’s economic empowerment and address the intersections of women’s economic empowerment and gender-based violence. The Women Entrepreneurs in Northern Ghana Gain Access to Integrated Services via Agent Networks (WE GAIN) initiative is one of the four WAGE initiatives that worked closely with private and public sector partners to empower women entrepreneurs to build sustainable and resilient businesses and lives.
The WE GAIN initiative partnered with three private sector partners – MTN Ghana, the largest telecommunications company and digital financial services (DFS) provider in Africa, Bboxx, a company which sells solar-powered household appliances, e-bikes and farming tools, and Microensure, an insurance company. WE GAIN also partnered with three civil society partners – Rural Initiatives for Self-Empowerment (RISE) Ghana, Ghana Developing Communities Association (GDCA), and Health Keepers Network (HKN) who each work to empower women in Northern Ghana. WAGE’s core partners, the Grameen Foundation, and the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) worked with these six organizations to recruit, train, and support 90 women entrepreneurs to start their own businesses as DFS Agents in their communities.
Through the two-year WAGE Ghana project, WAGE established win-win partnerships with MTN, Bboxx and Microensure, addressing their systemic bottlenecks and limited outreach in rural areas while helping support women entrepreneurs. WAGE’s partnership with the private sector partners allowed the program to support rural women to get good jobs in the DFS sector while building the capacity of local CSOs to recruit, manage and mentor women in their local communities to become DFS Agents. The Private sector partners worked closely with WAGE to design and implement a training package for DFS agents and WAGE partner CSOs. A total of 90 DFS Agents were recruited and received training in digital financial literacy, business management and other skills needed to provide financial services on MTN’s mobile money platform, sell insurance policies with Microensure, and sell solar home systems with Bboxx. At the same time, the women DFS Agents and their husbands participated in trainings on gender, power dynamics, and gender-based violence prevention. These sessions were an essential part of the initiative to engage men as a strategy to safeguard the agents as they disseminated gender-based violence prevention information to their clients and their communities, in an effort to shift harmful stereotypes and norms around women’s economic empowerment, and to gain their buy-in and support for the DFS Agent businesses.
Our final event held on August 3rd discussed the key learnings gleaned from WE GAIN’s public-private partnerships and how these partnerships improved the impact and sustainability of the initiative’s work. Representatives from both the private sector and civil society partners spoke on a panel and shared key lessons learned and challenges they faced.
Prior to working with WE GAIN, Health Keepers network operated a network of agents in remote villages across Ghana to circulate health education, while also selling a basket of essential health, hygiene, and other products to the people they educate. WE GAIN scaled this model by training thirty Health Keepers agents to become DFS Agents, and equipping them with information on business skills, digital literacy, and GBV information.  In the event, Health Keepers Network discussed how having MTN train thirty of their female agents to become DFS Agents enabled the agents to reach more women in their communities with reproductive health information and easily register them for insurance. With additional income from operating DFS businesses, the Health Keepers Network agents will be able to sustain their work with Health Keepers Network longer and more effectively.  Through the WE GAIN initiative, the DFS Agents not only financially supported themselves and their families, but they also expanded access to financial, health, and gender-based violence information in their communities including hotlines that survivors could utilize to obtain services. The agents also disseminated educational messages about what gender-based violence constitutes.
The GDCA, another civil society partner of WE GAIN, also discussed how the DFS Agents were meeting a critical demand in their communities which had never had any access to formal financial services. The DFS Agents also trained women’s savings groups how to save their money more securely in bank accounts rather than in cash boxes that can be easily stolen.  Digitizing the groups’ savings also gives their members more transparency regarding the use of the funds, simplifies financial records, and allows the money to earn interest with a bank. The DFS Agents provided the savings groups with training in digital financial literacy which gave them the tools to manage their funds and to prevent fraud.
In Northern Ghana, where the WE GAIN initiative implemented, socio-cultural norms including perceptions about gender roles tend to view the role of women primarily as caretakers of the home. Effective male engagement strategies were critical to the success of the initiative.  One of the key challenges that MTN Ghana discussed was the lack of support for women to become DFS Agents. “In the rural area you see the majority of the women – they are housewives. They are helping their husbands on the farm. With that alignment you have a lot of restrictions on their husbands’ side when we were trying to go into this project. There was a lot of hard work done in order to get their involvement on the project.” Before partnering with WE GAIN, MTN Ghana had very few female DFS agents due to difficulties getting the family support of potential recruits. From the WE GAIN initiatives’ start, the civil society partners intentionally included male community leaders and male heads of households in the onboarding and training of the women agents to ensure their support and buy-in. WE GAIN held trainings on technical topics related to business services as well as trainings on gender and power dynamics. As a result, many of the husbands and male family members began to support the DFS Agents by taking on more household responsibilities, providing financial support, and including them in making more household decisions. MTN stated that “one of the strategies that we want to employ in the future is to try to bring the husbands on board from day one. Those who are married, the husbands need to be part of the [financial] literacy that we are taking the [women] through so that from day one they know what the women are doing and that we can get their buy in”.  The insight MTN gained from WE GAIN regarding the importance of male engagement highlights the value add of programs like WAGE that include private sector partnerships. This important lesson can benefit MTN’s operations including onboarding women DFS agents.
Although the WE GAIN initiative ended in June 2023, each of the civil society partners plan to continue working with the private sector partners to support the DFS Agents.  WE GAIN worked closely with the civil-society partners to create training guides and to train their staff how to monitor agents’ performance digitally, and how to recruit and train new agents. WE GAIN also facilitated each CSO signing separate MOUs with MTN so that they can expedite the registration of new agents on MTN’s platform. RISE Ghana has already received follow-on funding from other international donors to train more women in their community to become DFS+ Agents.

The partnership under the WE GAIN initiative involving MTN, Microensure, Bboxx, local civil society and international implementing partners was the first of its kind within the WAGE Global portfolio. It proved to be a successful pilot that has potential for greater impact if scaled. For example, the linkages to MTN, Bboxx, and Microensure facilitated by the WE GAIN initiative created an avenue for women to scale their businesses, diversify their income, and increase their earning potential. At project end the agents’ household incomes changed dramatically. When the project began only 7 percent of agents reported their households earning more than 500 Ghanaian Cedi (~$43) a month. At the end of the project 34 percent of agents reported their household incomes earning over 500 Ghanaian Cedi per month. This had real positive impacts for their families and their ability to meet educational, health and nutrition needs. Using a combination of linkages and localized approaches, and partnerships that centered local contextual and technical expertise, along with broad stakeholder engagement at the community level, WE GAIN demonstrates promise for improving the outcomes for women.  

Published on September 13, 2023.

*Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Government. 
Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE) is a global consortium to advance the status of women and girls, led by the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) in close partnership with the Center for International Private Enterprise, Grameen Foundation, and Search for Common Ground. WAGE works to strengthen the capacity of private sector organizations (PSOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) in target countries to improve the prevention of and response to gender-based violence (GBV); advance the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda; and support women’s economic empowerment (WEE). In this context, WAGE provides direct assistance to women and girls, including information, resources, and services they need to succeed as active and equal participants in the global economy. WAGE also engages in collaborative research and learning to build a body of evidence on relevant promising practices in these thematic areas. To account for the deeply interconnected nature of women’s and girls’ experiences, WAGE’s initiatives employ approaches that are highly collaborative, integrated, and inclusive. WAGE is funded by the U.S. Department of State Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.

The materials contained herein represent the opinions of the authors and editors and should not be construed to be those of either the American Bar Association unless adopted pursuant to the bylaws of the Association. Nothing contained herein is to be considered as the rendering of legal advice for specific cases, and readers are responsible for obtaining such advice from their own legal counsel. These materials and any forms and agreements herein are intended for educational and informational purposes only.