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Why Investing in Female Entrepreneurs Is the Best Way to Eliminate Poverty

On a recent trip to the Chibombo District in Zambia in April, I met Salima Lungu Nosiku. Salima is a highly successful Zambian entrepreneur working in agriculture. As we sat together in her shop, she shared her entrepreneurial journey with me. She started small. She rented a shop where she sold seeds, fertilizers, and agricultural equipment to farmers in her district. Although her dreams were big, her sales were not. Sleepless nights followed slow sales days. Knowing there could be more, Salima sought support. She invested her time in business and agricultural extension training from iDE. Armed with her passion, business acumen, and the new skills gained over the next five years, Salima grew her business from just one to three agro-supply shops in the district, serving more than 5,000 farmers.

Salima’s businesses grew due to her deep understanding of the challenges her clients faced. She provided extension support (recommending products to her farmers that would increase their yields), and she shared harvesting techniques to lower post-harvest losses. She helped her fellow farmers — especially women — to gain access to better market prices by serving as an aggregator. And she paid them cash when they deposited their crops with her. Salima built trust with her clients. She invested her time and talents with them. And their farms, businesses, and families flourished.

So why does Salima’s story matter? Because we are still off track as a global community to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations by 2030. The advanced, unedited Global Sustainable Development Report released on June 14, 2023, calls out lack of progress and slowing of progress across several key indicators, including food security, climate action, and protecting biodiversity, among others. In fact, the report shares that “we are more off track than four years ago.” The 2023 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index highlights that of the 1.1 billion people living in poverty, 84% live in rural areas and more than half are children under the age of 18. Recovery from the pandemic has been uneven, with women and children facing higher levels of food insecurity, malnutrition, and poverty. The need to invest in improving gender equity is one avenue highlighted by the Global Sustainable Development Report to tackle the interconnections between poverty, economic recovery, and improved well-being for women and children.

Salima Lungu Nosiku at store

Salima Lungu Nosiku

The evidence for investing in women is clear. Gender equality is directly linked with higher food and nutrition security. Countries with high gender inequality are more food insecure and nutritionally vulnerable. Evidence from a range of countries shows that women invest their earnings in their children’s health and education at a far greater rate than men, improving their own children’s prospects while expanding the human capital in their countries (WeFi).

Even more compelling is the evidence for investing in women entrepreneurs and women led-businesses. Women-led businesses play an essential role in creating jobs, raising living standards, and boosting inclusive growth (WeFi). Women-led small and medium enterprises employ six times more female employees than those that are male-led (WEF 2019, We-Fi 2022, World Bank 2019). And, because women-led businesses also tend to employ more women, investing in women entrepreneurs spurs job creation for a broader swath of women. Finally, innovations pioneered by women entrepreneurs tend to disproportionately target and benefit other women, who are often poorly served by solutions designed by and for men (WeFi).

By investing in women entrepreneurs like Salima and Alice we can accelerate our progress toward not only achieving the SDGs but also dismantling multidimensional poverty.

Let’s look at investment. According to Women’s World Banking (WWB), “nearly one billion women around the world are unserved or underserved by the formal financial sector and unable to reach their full economic potential.” In developing countries, there are millions of micro-entrepreneurs in the informal sector who also struggle to access capital to grow their businesses. By unlocking and deploying formal and informal capital for women entrepreneurs at a rate equal to men, “$12 trillion could be added to global annual GDP by 2025” (WWB). As we know from the prior evidence, women invest their profits back into their businesses, their families, and their communities, proving that financial inclusion and investment in women entrepreneurs is a catalyst for profound inclusive growth.

Salima Lungu Nosiku in front of her business

Salima Lungu Nosiku in front of her business

Another powerful argument for investing in women and women-led businesses is mentorship. Women entrepreneurs inspire and mentor other women to become entrepreneurs. In Salima’s case, one of the farmers she worked with, Alice Zulu, followed in Salima’s footsteps. First, Alice applied the agricultural training she received from Salima to increase her income. Then, Alice invested her profits back into her business and her household. Alice expanded the land she was cultivating and diversified her crops. She then decided, like Salima, to also invest her time in becoming a Farm Business Advisor. Alice now serves multiple farmers, the majority of whom are women, in her community. As Alice has expanded her business, she has built a new house for her family and is in the process of building an additional house near the main road to rent out as a secondary income source. And like Salima, Alice is inspiring a whole new community of women to think bigger, invest more, and improve the lives of their own families.

Learning from Salima and Alice not only inspires me to share more about how they thrive on their own terms, but I also find that their experiences and efforts provide both hope and a blueprint for how our global community can make a dent in eliminating poverty in an inclusive and sustainable way. By investing in women entrepreneurs like Salima and Alice, and organizations that work alongside them, we can accelerate our progress toward not only achieving the SDGs but also dismantling multidimensional poverty. Globally, we have the resources required to end poverty in our lifetime. It’s time now to put them to use in the best way possible — investing in women.

Lizz Welch has been the CEO of iDE since 2019 after spending five years as the organization’s COO. She is an expert on gender-empowerment, monitoring and evaluation, finance, and economic growth and has more than 20 years of experience with designing solutions for challenging markets in Asia, Africa, and the ... Read more
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