4.2.4. Key Constraints and Promising Strategies in Applying the Value Chain Approach with Women

Key constraints and promising strategies in applying the value chain approach with women include:

Failure to Understand Target Clients

The specific constraints and needs of target clients are often not adequately understood by practitioners. In many value chains, women’s roles are less obvious (e.g., non-monetary contributions within the household, piecemeal production contracts with traders) and not recognized using standard approaches to value chain analysis. These hidden roles can be positive or negative, depending upon how they impact women's freedom to participate in and benefit from their activities. However, without understanding where and how women are involved, practitioners risk missing value chains with strong potential to benefit women. Potential strategies for identifying opportunities to benefit women include:

  • Gender-sensitive value chain selection. Selecting appropriate sectors for disadvantaged women requires a consideration of cultural and social issues. Some organizations are integrating such an approach into their value chain analysis methodologies. Cardno, for example, did so when implementing its Value Girls project in Kenya. The project originally sought to upgrade the role of girls in the fish sector—one of the only viable sources of income for women and female youth. However, the outcome of the situation analysis and assessment found that it would not be easy or viable for the program to effectively involve young women without causing additional harm and increasing risks to them, the lake and its fisheries resources in general. Over-exploitation of the fishery is already a growing problem, and the exchange of sex for fish is a common practice owing to imbalanced social and economic relationships. The analysis instead advocated support of young women’s efforts to explore alternative economic opportunities. To this end, in collaboration with important stakeholders, the program team conducted an in-depth value chain selection activity that identified poultry and vegetable production as safer alternatives for the young women with high potential to increase their incomes.[1]
  • Gender-sensitive value chain analysis. Effectively identifying actual and potential roles for women within value chains requires the use of tailored research methodologies. Strategies that have found to be effective include:
    • Using female translators and/or researchers as much as possible when working with female respondents.
    • Recognizing that women and men are not homogeneous groups, and therefore surveying members of a broad range of social and other categories.
    • Interviewing women and men separately, particularly in cases where one gender has a tendency to dominate discussion.
    • Avoiding generic terms such as ‘household’ or ‘head of household’ as the unit of analysis. These terms typically obscure who is participating within a household and risk the imposition of staff assumptions in interpreting research findings.
    • Weighing women’s available time to engage in additional or expanded income generating activities against their existing responsibilities.
  • Sensitivity to intra-household relations and resource flows. Cutting across all aspects of value chain programming with women is the issue of intra-household resource flows. Many projects use the household as the unit of analysis and do not examine dynamics within the household. In fact, members within a household often have distinct preferences, interests and needs, and face unequal power and resources.[2] Control over assets within the household affects household spending and investment decisions.[3] The assumption that household members pool their income, assets, knowledge and labor to take advantage of profitable opportunities is often not true; one study in Cameroon has found that women tend to contribute less labor to their husband's rice plots than would be economically optimal from a purely monetary perspective, allocating greater time to their own sorghum plots instead.[4] Such cases have caused many projects to perform more poorly than expected,[5] and practitioners should therefore carefully consider upgrading strategies for women that depend upon intrahousehold contributions.

Limited Mobility and Freedom

In some cultural contexts, there are significant limitations on women's ability to engage with males from outside their family, or even in some cases to leave their own homes. Whether socially or legally enforced, such controls impede value chain participation, particularly in areas where men predominate in the value chain (e.g., as buyers, sellers of inputs, providers of support services). Working through intermediaries (e.g. other family members) often limits the transmission of important market information and consequently the ability to respond to market needs. Potential strategies to overcoming this constraint include:

  • Female sales intermediaries. Support for the development of female intermediaries is one approach to improving market access in contexts characterized by restrictive cross-gender relationships. For example, the Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) and the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Institute developed a sales agent model within the embroidery subsector in Pakistan. Whereas most female embroiderers were selling their products through male intermediaries (i.e., husbands or other close relatives) into local markets given restrictions on their mobility, the two agencies trained female sales agents to link embroiderers into fast-growing urban markets. By providing inputs and services, the model addressed the isolation faced by many of the embroiderers while raising incomes substantially for thousands of disadvantaged rural women.[6] This model has had success beyond Pakistan; another project managed by the NGO Zardozi that has replicated and adapted the approach in Afghanistan has had impressive mid-term project results.[7]
  • Supporting trusted service providers. In areas that limit cross-gender interactions, the absence of female service providers may limit women's access to the support services that facilitate value chain upgrading. One project of the Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) in Afghanistan has addressed this issue by working with female service providers who families are most willing to trust. Recognizing that extension was a key missing support service for most of their clients, MEDA worked to support the development of female para-professional extension officers. These officers build the capacity of lead farmers, who pass on this knowledge to other farmers and often provide other services (e.g., market linkages). The addition of this technical knowledge has contributed to a significant increase in yields.[8]

Unequal Distribution of Entitlements

Research across many countries indicates that women have poorer access to natural, physical, financial and human capital. This gap limits the ability to invest in upgrading but also has negative social consequences: property ownership has been found to be inversely correlated with domestic violence in India.[9] Given the unequal access to educational opportunities in many countries, women's skills are often less competitive. Women's literacy rate, for instance, is 86 percent of that of males.[10] Skill building is consequently important when working to promote women’s engagement in most markets. Promising strategies to address the unequal distribution of entitlements include:

  • Modifying or targeting incentives. Differing access to and allocation of resources within a household may create weak incentives for engagement or upgrading by some members. Reorienting these incentives can strengthen the capacity of the entire value chain to upgrade while also improving women’s relative position. In one case, the Kenya Horticultural Development Program and Mace Foods, an African bird’s eye chili processor, found that supplies of chili were reduced. Analysis revealed that although women were producing the crop, their husbands were selling the harvest and often retaining the proceeds for their own use. To shift the incentives to benefit the female producers, Mace Foods began augmenting cash payments with in-kind payments (i.e., sugar) that it knew would reach women.[11]
  • Work with both genders. Some value chain projects have concentrated on working only with women, rather than with both men and women. While such an approach is often intended to prevent capture of project benefits by men, it can often limit market opportunities and the sustainability of project interventions. After finding that using distinct strategies with each gender was not creating effective results in its programming in Nicaragua, the Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) revised its strategy to work with both spouses through a series of focus group discussions (FGDs). To address the prevailing perception that women do not contribute economically to the household, early sessions focused on calculating the monetary value of the many activities being performed by both spouses. Subsequent sessions encouraged spouses to jointly consider their current division of labor and develop a livelihood plan that better took advantage of the respective skills of both members. Subsequent project monitoring results revealed changes in attitudes and behaviors among households who had participated in the FGDs.[12]
  • Tailor upgrading strategies to resource availability. Weak access to resources may constrain the ability of women to engage in lucrative upgrading opportunities. Intervening agencies need to carefully consider existing and potential sources of financial capital and technical skills. In cases where there is unequal access, projects may inadvertently shut women out of new opportunities and thereby exacerbate gender inequities. Up front research is critical. In West Africa, Action for Enterprise (AFE) targeted the shea butter value chain given its potential for expansion and the heavy involvement of women in small-scale shea butter processing. Once competitive analysis was conducted, however, it became clear that expanding markets required large-scale investments to improve the quality and scale of processing that were beyond what established female processors could afford or access. Increasing the scale of processing was in fact likely to result in a reduced role for women. As a result, AFE decided to target the shea kernel market instead, in which women were able to maintain their involvement and subsector actors could make the required investments.[22]
  • Address systemic barriers to resources. In many contexts, systemic factors constrain the ability of women to improve their entitlements and may need to be addressed before other interventions can be effective. These factors take many forms. Communal land ownership may increase insecurity of tenure among those with less political power - often women - and reduce investments in land fertility.[23]National laws for business start-up and operation may either explicitly pose barriers for women (such as by requiring the approval of her spouse) or implicitly by imposing lengthy and costly procedures that women are less likely to complete. Initiatives can reduce these barriers by reforming policy or building effective support markets. In Egypt, for instance, the government-financed National Council for Women has created one-stop shops that provide workshops on business licensing and registration, among other services.[24]

Time Poverty

The disproportionate responsibility carried by many women for income generation, household and reproductive tasks is commonly described as the 'triple burden of labor' or 'double work day'. These tasks mean that women in some contexts work as much as 50% more hours than do men.[13] This ‘time poverty’ often limits women's capacity to enter new value chains or engage in upgrading strategies that require additional investments of time.[14] Promising approaches to overcoming time poverty include:

  • Investing in labor-saving technologies or processes. Strategies that improve the productivity of women's existing activities generally generate strong interest and high rates of adoption. In Mali, women are involved in both agricultural production and artisanal processing of certain food crops. Abt Associates found that it could improve the efficiency of existing processing technologies to increase women's returns.[15] Motorized equipment for shallot processing increased productivity by at least a factor of ten. Moreover, productivity gains were observed to create beneficial spillovers to other family activities: women engage in certain steps of maize production (e.g., weeding) and were able to devote more time to these tasks.
  • Improve domestic service markets. Improved access to child care, home care and other domestic services facilitates women's entry into value chains. Where there are no available or affordable substitutes for a woman's own time, her capacity for engagement in value chains may be limited. The evaluation of one government program in Guatemala that subsidized daycare for poor mothers without availability of informal childcare found that it had facilitated entry into more formal employment with higher remuneration and benefits.[16]

Risk Aversion

Evidence suggests that women devote a greater portion of their time and resources to sustaining household consumption, despite having fewer opportunities to generate income relative to men. This responsibility puts household members at greater risk if women's income sources are disrupted. As a result, women are at times less likely to make risky investments relative to men.[17] Potential strategies to reduce risk for women include:

  • Savings-led asset mobilization. As for other vulnerable populations, the generation of financial assets is an effective mechanism to support risk mitigation and, eventually, upgrading for women. Multiple agencies target women for their savings mobilization activities. Research has found, however, that facilitating access to finance alone has a weak effect upon disadvantaged women. Attitudes, knowledge and skills are all important factors in sustainably improving economic outcomes.[18] Pact's WORTH model offers one approach to integrating asset mobilization with complementary services. Literacy and numeracy are first added to financial services, and then bolstered with other practical training in business, health and education to create a foundation for future success. An evaluation of the Salvation Army's application of the WORTH model in Uganda found a diverse set of improvements in the lives of its target clients—including strong financial results—and that these extended to the children in their households as well.[19]
  • Horizontal linkages. Forming horizontal linkages is often an excellent strategy for building the confidence of risk-adverse women. They may facilitate manageable risk taking, offer a testing ground for the adoption of new business strategies, improve access to information, and contribute to building economies of scale. In building effective linkages among women microentrepreneurs, it is important to ensure that regulations do not exclude their participation, such as by only permitting one participant per household or requiring members to have legal title for fixed assets (e.g. land, livestock). Other common barriers to participation include inappropriate meeting times that conflict with child rearing and other responsibilities. There is no consensus on whether female-only or mixed groups are more often effective, though one recent evaluation of value chain projects suggests that mixed groups may be better able to access resources and markets while avoiding resentment from excluded males.[20] Another project on Unguja island found that excluding males from producer groups led to both acts of sabotage and additional transaction and input costs.[21] Considering the context is critical to determining the most effective approach. In Uganda, Cardno's COPE project built horizontal linkages between groups of primarily female caregivers of orphans and vulnerable children to begin drying and marketing their fruit. Given the small quantities of fruit produced by each individual caregiver, product aggregation was essential to link with a partner firm, who invested in training and a partial investment in drying equipment. As a result of these linkages, 800 caregivers were linked to the buyer and sold nearly $9000 in dried fruit.[22] Cardno found that although group building was a lengthy process requiring frequent mentoring and follow-up, horizontal linkages were ultimately an effective mechanism for accessing markets.


  1. N. Felton, Early Lessons Targeting Populations with a Value Chain Approach, 17-21.
  2.  N. Folbre, Gender Coalitions: Extrafamily Influences on Intrafamily Inequality, in L. Haddad, J. Hoddinott, and H. Alderman (Eds), Intrahousehold Resource Allocation in Developing Countries: Models, Methods, and Policy, Johns Hopkins University Press for the International Food Policy Research Institute, 1997.
  3. C. Doss, The Effects of Intrahousehold Property Ownership on Expenditure Patterns in Ghana, Journal of African Economies 15: 149–180.
  4.  C. Jones, Intrahousehold bargaining in response to the introduction of new crops: A case study from North Cameroon, in Understanding Africa's rural households and farming systems, ed. J. L. Moock. Boulder, CO, USA., and London: Westview.
  5.  J. Hoddinott, H. Alderman, and L. Haddad, “Testing Competing Models of Intrahousehold Allocation,” in Lawrence Haddad, John Hoddinott, and Harold Alderman (Eds), Intrahousehold Resource Allocation in Developing Countries: Models, Methods, and Policy. Johns Hopkins University Press for the International Food Policy Research Institute, (1997), 135.
  6.  Management Systems International, Report on Evaluation of the Access to Contemporary Markets for Homebound Women Embroiderers Project, (2009), 10-8.
  7.  Mennonite Economic Development Associates, Through the Garden Gate: Integrating Women into Markets, Value Chain Strategies for Integrating Women into Sustainable Horticultural Markets in Afghanistan, Annual Narrative Report, (2009) 35.
  8.  P. Panda and B. Agarwal, "Marital Violence, Human Development and Women's Property Status in India." World Development 33 (5), (2005) 823-850.
  9.  UNICEF, Table 8: Women, undated.
  10.  Development & Training Services, Inc., Promoting Gender Equitable Opportunities in Agricultural Value Chains, (2009), 6.
  11.  B. Fowler and K. Poe, MEDA's Approach to Gender FGDs in Nicaragua, (2009).
  12.  A. Gelb, “Gender and Growth: Africa’s Missed Potential,” Findings No. 197, Africa Region, World Bank, (2001) ----E. Derks, AFE-Mali Case-study: Progression of Facilitation Activities to Promote Business Services in Mali’s Shea Subsector, (2004)
  13.  S. Gammage, N. Diamond and M. Packman, Enhancing Women’s Access to Markets: An Overview of Donor Programs and Best Practices, (2005) 9.
  14.  Initiatives Intégrées pour la Croissance Economique au Mali, Malian Shallot Value Chain Study: Regional Export Prospects, (2008).
  15.  M. Ruel, B. de la Brière, K. Hallman, A. Quisumbing, and N. Coj, Does Subsidized Childcare Help Poor Working Women in Urban Areas? Evaluation of a Government-Sponsored Program in Guatemala City, (2002) 32-33.
  16.  E. Dunn, N. Kalaitzandonakes, and C. Valdivia, Risk and the Impacts of Microenterprise Services, (2005), 21.
  17.  B. Swarts et al, Evaluation of Economic Strengthening for OVC: Using the WORTH Model in Uganda, (2010) 8.
  18.  B. Swarts et al, Evaluation of Economic Strengthening for OVC: Using the WORTH Model in Uganda, (2010) 8.
  19. DANIDA, Gender and Value Chain Development
  20. N. Felton, Early Lessons Targeting Populations with a Value Chain Approach
  21. N. Felton, Early Lessons Targeting Populations with a Value Chain Approach, (2009) 10-12.
  22.  E. Derks, AFE-Mali Case-study: Progression of Facilitation Activities to Promote Business Services in Mali’s Shea Subsector, (2004).
  23.  M. Goldstein and C. Udry, “The Profits of Power: Land Rights and Agricultural Investment in Ghana,” Journal of Political Economy 116:6 (2008), 981-1022.
  24.  D. Rubin, C. Manfre and K. Nichols Barrett, Promoting Gender Equitable Opportunities in Agricultural Value Chains, (2010) 45-46.