Changing business culture and practice – WEE in sustainable value chain development

The origins of the sustainable value chain approach can be traced back to the fair trade movement. After 2000, public-private-civil society partnerships for sustainable value chain development emerged to address social and environmental concerns in global value chains.

The Initiative for Sustainable Trade (IDH), founded in 2008, has been the main vehicle for MFA’s support in this field. From 2016 onwards it added gender equality and women’s empowerment as its fifth cross-cutting impact theme.

The origins of the sustainable value chain development approach

FAO defines a sustainable (food) value chain as a value chain that (1) is profitable throughout all of its stages (economic sustainability); (2) has broad-based benefits for society (social sustainability); and (3) has a positive or neutral impact on the natural environment (environmental sustainability). The ILO also strongly believes that, when well done, value chain development can bring about economic, social and environmental upgrading. Proper value chain development supports the creation of more and better jobs. In line with especially social sustainability, sustainable value chain development should also contribute to gender equality and women’s (economic) empowerment.

Around 2008 the concept of sustainable value chain development became part of MFA’s policies for development through the private sector. MFA’s approach built on earlier experiences of MFA and others in rural and agricultural development, fair trade and certification, inclusive business, public-private partnerships, and environmental protection. It focused mainly on global value chains in agricultural products. Such value chains involve and affect women in all four categories of the women’s economic empowerment (WEE) framework: women in agriculture, informal work, formal employees, and women-led enterprises.


Fair trade and certification schemes

The fair-trade movement was possibly the first to take value chains as their entry point. In the Netherlands the first fair trade label for coffee, “Max Havelaar”, was created in 1988. Since then many labels for many products have followed. Important fair-trade principles are fair wages and fair prices, gender equality and safe working conditions. Dutch development cooperation provided support through various programs, such as in the 1990s to FNV (Dutch Trade Union Confederation) working on the cocoa value chain; in later years MFA supported Solidaridad, an INGO fostering more sustainable supply chains. As to WEE, gender equality was not a prominent feature of most fair trade and certification systems, despite the fair trade principles. A positive exception is the Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance certification system that contributed to women’s empowerment in the tea sector in Kenya (IOB 2015). Solidaridad, founded in 1969, only developed its first gender strategy in 2009, as recorded in its journey to gender inclusivity. For more information on Fair Trade, see NICC’s timeline on Fair Trade. 


Public-private partnerships and inclusive business

In the early 2000s development actors began to shift their view of the private sector. Companies were no longer only considered as part of the problem, but also as a necessary part of the solution to poverty and exclusion. Within the private sector, concerns were rising about sustainability issues. In 1995, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) was established, as a platform for business to respond to sustainability challenges that were just beginning to break the surface of collective business consciousness. NGOs like ICCO and SNV took a leading role in linking development and private sectors. SNV coined the term ‘inclusive business’ and started exploring partnerships between NGOs and businesses, together with the WBCSD. From 2002 onwards, ICCO started exploring collaboration with the private sector. Both ICCO and SNV developed programs for international and local value chains, in which they also paid attention to the role of women, especially as producers, thus aiming for their economic empowerment.

The establishment of the Partnerships Resource Centre in 2009 by the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, with funding from MFA, marked MFA’s shift towards public-private partnerships (PPPs) as a means for engaging the private sector in development cooperation. As one of its activities, the Partnership Resource Centre researched value chains in which women producers play key roles, such as the shea value chain in West Africa that was supported by ICCO.

An innovative approach to value chain development focused on low-income consumers. In 2010 the Base of the Pyramid Innovation Center (Bopinc) was founded by ICCO, SNV, TNO (Netherlands Organization for applied science research) and others, with financial support from MFA. Bopinc focuses on developing innovative products and services by businesses for people with low incomes, with explicit attention to women. It documented business cases on ‘women as inclusive business partners’. Currently they promote and train women entrepreneurs in agriculture and distribution strategies.

MFA’s work on inclusive business was further inspired by WEConnect International, a global network that connects local women-led businesses to global brands and corporate buyers around the word. Their vision is that diversifying procurement to include more women entrepreneurs in lower income countries is a business case for the companies.


WEE's in MFA's sustainable value chain development from 2008

In 2008, as an outcome of the Schokland Agreements (see bullet 4) the Initiative for Sustainable Trade (Initiatief Duurzame Handel, IDH) was launched. IDH supports inclusive and marker-driven solutions creating value for people and planet. The initiative was extended in 2015, and again in 2020. From 2008-2020 MFA provided EUR 223 million. IDH has since grown to work on twelve commodities in nine developing countries. IDH mostly works on agricultural commodities, such as tea, coffee, and cotton. Their working methods are convening, co-financing and learning and innovating. They work with all stakeholders in a global value chain, connecting the dots between private sector, public sector and civil society. They drive change in sector governance, business practices and field level sustainability. 

In its first years of operation, IDH had paid little attention to gender aspects. In 2016, after some nudging by MFA, this changed. MFA agreed to organize a number of learning workshops on gender in sustainable value chain development, facilitated by the Gender Resource Facility and with participants from IDH, Solidaridad, Utz Certified and MFA. Inspired by the workshops, the organisations indeed intensified gender mainstreaming; which is a still ongoing process. IDH added gender equality and empowerment as a fifth impact theme, considering gender as both a key driver and a key concern for sustainability (see IDH gender policy). Solidaridad also intensified its gender policy


Value chain approaches under the Strengthening Civil Society (SCS) programs

The importance that WEE in value chain development had gained within development cooperation was also reflected in the selection of projects funded under MFA’s successive programs for civil society organizations, Dialogue and Dissent (D&D, 2016-2020) and Power of Voice (2021-2025). The selection included a number of innovative WEE projects. HIVOS’ work on Decent Work for Women in flori- and horticulture in East-Africa was funded from 2016-2021. The projects of the Dutch Fair Wear Foundation -representing industry associations, trade unions and NGOs- on Garment Supply Chain Transformation were also funded from 2016-2025. Both projects worked on comparable issues, such as living wages, combating violence against women and access of women to social dialogue