© Helvetas

Making Markets Work for Poor Women

© Helvetas

It is often argued that it is extremely difficult to engage very poor people, especially women, in market and value chain development – at least in a manner that brings them dignity and sustainable benefits. The project Samriddhi has tackled this challenge, looking at both key success factors and challenges.


Samriddhi (meaning “prosperity” in Bengali) aimed to contribute to the sustainable well-being and resilience of poor households in selected areas (in Rajshahi and Rangpur divisions and Sunamganj district) of Northern Bangladesh through economic empowerment. It did this through the promotion of specific markets and value chains, alongside human and institutional development (HID). Since 2010, the project has adopted an explicit M4P approach, “Making Markets Work for the Poor”, entailing careful value chain analysis and selective interventions. 
Supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and implemented by Helvetas, both of which have clear organisational policies with regard to the promotion of gender equality, the project has always sought to include women as well as men in its activities. Initially a gender equity mainstreaming (GEM) approach was adopted, aiming to include women in activities and raise general awareness on gender amongst project partners. Later, there has been a deliberate focus on increasing the number of women actively participating in the project.
Given that M4P projects in general have often been criticised for “gender blindness”, the project staff have been interested to contribute to and learn from a joint initiative between SDC, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida, and the UK’s Department for International Development, DfID, on combining WEE, “Women’s Economic Empowerment” with M4P.
© Samriddhi project team
© Samriddhi project team
© Samriddhi project team
© Samriddhi project team

How Samriddhi addressed gender and women’s empowerment

Although Samriddhi began activities in 2010, it built on a history of some 20 years of Swiss engagement in rural development in Rajshahi division. This spanned a Village and Farm Forestry Project, followed by the Livelihoods, Empowerment and Agroforestry (LEAF) and the Sustainable Access to Agroforestry Knowledge, Technology and Information (SAAKTI) projects. Under these projects, poor men and women received capacity building and formed groups to work together for their own development. The result was a significant resource pool of skilled and motivated individuals, open to development opportunities.

Including a WEE perspective from the start

The experience of Samriddhi echoes the wider recommendation of the M4P-WEE guidelines, that it is necessary to make women's economic empowerment an explicit goal in order to make tangible progress in this regard. This means including WEE in the project cycle from the beginning, in the logical framework, the indicators and in the baseline data (ensuring that data is sex-disaggregated). Monitoring and evaluation must then be done in a sexdisaggregated manner. Gender awareness on the part of men and women is undoubtedly necessary in preparing the ground, and its importance should not be underestimated: a focus on women will not be successful if it is opposed by men.

One of the most crucial aspects dictating the involvement of women in a market support project – as clients and as service providers – is the choice of value chain. In Samriddhi, this choice was originally partially dictated by earlier project activities. Thus 12 value chains were taken up, spanning a very wide range of producers – including rearers of livestock large and small, fruit and vegetable growers, basket weavers, and garment manufacturers. An analysis of these value chains reveals that there are major differences between them regarding their overall economic potential – both for achieving added value for the producer and for sustainable growth. At the same time, there are major differences in the level of involvement of women and the extreme poor (inclusiveness).

The graph below makes clear the correlation between financial potential and women's involvement, with women tending to be involved in value chains that have the least potential for added value. Value chains that are considered socially appropriate for women are generally those that

  • are located close to, or at least not far from, home
  • require particular dexterity or patience,
  • and/or include a degree of nurturing

Unfortunately most of these value chains (bull fattening is an exception) are not highly profitable.

From a gender perspective, the value chains on which Samriddhi decided to focus and build the engagement of women were of two types:

  • those generally regarded as “suitable for women”: cotton crafts, medicinal herbs, traditional poultry, ducks and goats; and
  • those in which women have some involvement, and there is potential for women and men to work together: milk production, bull fattening, and fruit and vegetable production.

In the latter case, it is important that women are explicitly supported and trained at the start to ensure that they are able to play an active role that is respected by men.

© samriddhi
© samriddhi
© Samriddhi project team
© Samriddhi project team

The business case for women's involvement

At the time of project design, the business case for involving women rather than men in particular value chains was not specifically argued in the project document. Indeed, the objective was simply to improve the incomes of both poor men and women. However, there are a number of arguments that could be used to favour women specifically, these deserve reflection.

Cheap, willing and flexible labour
Rural women in Bangladesh do not have a huge range of opportunities to earn money, and all the value chains supported by Samriddhi provide a more desirable way to do so than agricultural labour. In many ways, women make a desirable labour force as far as outside companies are concerned (particularly in the garments and medicinal plants sectors), one which is generally compliant, flexible, and inexpensive. There is an obvious downside of this – the potential for exploitation. The important challenge of ensuring that women receive a fair wage for the work they do should not be underestimated.

Specialist skills
Although the skills that women are widely acknowledged to possess – dexterity, patience, care – are not highly valued in financial terms, they can be used to make a business case. Furthermore, given the quite strong gender differentiations in roles in Bangladesh, there is also a preference for women to receive services from other women. In service provision, women report no difficulty in attracting clients or being paid the same for the same or similar services; they consider their specialist skills to be in considerable demand.

In the micro-credit industry, women are known to be more reliable in timely repayments on loans than men. The reliability of women in producing goods or services according to agreed deadlines is probably a business case that could be argued more strongly.

Partnership and capacity development

Perhaps one of the strengths of Samriddhi was the range of support that it offered – in building the capacities of women as individuals and in groups; in strengthening their income generating potential and thus their financial assets; and in supporting them to have a greater voice – indirectly, in the household, and directly.
The selection of partners and market actors can be a further crucial point in project implementation through which women may be either included or excluded. Since women may often face particular constraints in participating in value chain activities, such constraints need to be pro-actively identified and addressed. Concomitant with this is a need to build capacities in the project team, amongst partners and, crucially, at the community level itself, to recognise and challenge gender inequalities.
The greater the scaling up potential for an intervention involving women, the greater, of course, the potential impact on women's lives overall.


900,000 poor farmers have benefitted from the project. with almost 170,000 extreme poor households directly involved.  By including some value chains (medicinal plants, chicken rearing, jute crafts) which are particularly relevant for poor and women farmers, Samriddhi has reached both women (47% of producers engaged) and those who are poor or extremely poor (35%).


Further information

Download these publications and learn more about the scaling up potential of the Samriddhi project, about how to address the constraints experienced by women, about our general findings and the methods applied:

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© Helvetas / Narendra Shrestha

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