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MEDA gender pilot helps firms do well by doing the right thing

By Mike Strathdee

As Printed in The Marketplace – March/April 2018

When businesses in developing countries think about social responsibility, consideration of gender equality doesn’t always make it on the list.

MEDA is working to change this situation by helping businesses consider gender issues as part of their investment decision-making.

“The private sector is interested in gender mainstreaming,” says MEDA’s Devon Krainer, who served as project manager for MEDA’s Gender Equality Mainstreaming (GEM) pilot.

“They do understand that it has a business benefit.”BB6 Photo 5The GEM pilot helped workers master soft skills.

MEDA’s concerted effort to put gender issues in the forefront came out of its Impact Investing in Frontier Markets (INFRONT) project, which ended in December.

INFRONT, which was viewed overall as a successful initiative, focussed on supporting companies in Latin America, Africa and Asia to access investment capital while improving their environment, social and governance (ESG) practices.

MEDA uses ESG as a lens for creating value at the company level. That goes farther than the approach taken by some firms who use ESG as a risk mitigation tool to ensure compliance with environmental regulations at a local level, for instance.

Only two or three of the 31 firms involved with INFRONT applied for support specifically around gender equality when they sought sustainability innovation grants, said Krainer, who served as monitoring and evaluation manager for that project.

“The company manager’s perception was that environment, or supply chain management without a gender lens would create financial value and be something that they could sustainably take forward after the grant program ended.”

Recognizing a lack of awareness of gender from both a social and financial perspective, MEDA developed the GEM Framework as an opportunity to bring gender into all ESG conversations.

The GEM pilot focused on two Asian countries. Those choices were helped by the fact that funding from the pilot came from the USAID Asia and Middle East Economic Growth Best Practices Project. Additionally, Sarona Asset Management, the private equity firm which grew out of MEDA, had significant investments in India and Indonesia.

Both India and Indonesia rank relatively poorly on the gender gap index published annually by the World Economic Forum. Indonesia ranks 84th of 144 countries, India 108th. “Relatively speaking, there’s a lot of room to improve,” Krainer said.

Happily, both private equity firms and the companies they held investments in expressed interest in participating in the GEM pilot.

Portea, a leading health care provider in India, was one of the beneficiaries, and subsequently a champion, of the gender mainstreaming focus. Portea is a rapidly-growing, four-year-old firm with 4,000 employees. The company delivers healthcare services, including eldercare, prenatal and post-natal care, specialized services such as counseling, physio and other forms of support in people’s homes. These services relieve some of the burden on the public hospital system.

“Women in India carry a heavy burden of work, and a cultural expectation that they will be the ones to look after not only the children, but the parent and their spouses’ parents, which can limit them from entering the working economy.”

pORTEA HAPPINESS PICMany Portea workers are women or youth from rural areasOver half of Portea’s employees are low-income women or youth who come from rural areas and face a lot of prejudice.

Portea is recruiting nursing attendants from rural areas, bringing them to an urban context, and giving them decent, well-paying, full-time work.

MEDA helped develop training in soft skills for these nursing attendants. Portea had done well in technical training, but less in areas such as self-care, confidence, how to negotiate and communicate well, or managing personal finances. “All of these are pieces or building blocks to empowerment.”

Through the Happiness training initiative, 2,252 nursing aides and nurses, about two-thirds of them women, were trained in these areas in a four-week period.

“The results we found from this pilot were immensely heart warming and clearly demonstrated short term how the nursing attendants benefited from it.”

The business case for the effort is that “if staff are happier in their job, they will stay longer and deliver better patient care, leading to better patient satisfaction scores, higher client referrals, and ultimately impact their top-line growth because their revenue is going to be boosted.”

Portea has continued to deliver the training after MEDA’s support ended.

The success of the Portea project raises the question of why more of this work hasn’t been done more widely already. There still is a lack of data around the business case for gender mainstreaming in emerging and frontier markets, Krainer said. “Data drives decision making in this world.

“Even just framing gender as a business opportunity is still a novel idea, and it’s not easy.”

MEDA is facilitating a behavior change process, challenging a lot of gender norms in the process.

Krainer hopes MEDA’s learnings and successes will be shared broadly within the industry.

To that end, MEDA is launching an open source, self-assessment tool on the web to help companies see how they are doing. This tool includes a score and suggestions on how to improve.

Efforts also continue to ensure gender considerations are part of other programs. MEDA is now using the GEM framework in five projects, including its new Trading Up program. Trading Up, a collaboration between MEDA, funding partner Global Affairs Canada, Sarona Asset Management and the University of Waterloo School of Environment, Enterprise and Development (UW-SEED), seeks to provide trade finance, technical assistance and measurement of the impact that investment in small and medium-sized businesses has on individuals.