A fresh conversation on gender equality and inclusion in last mile distribution

It’s a satisfying moment when, instead of discussing why gender equality is important, we find ourselves accepting this well-worn truth and instead focussing on persistent challenges and tangible strategies to make it a reality. That’s the situation we, at the Global Distributors Collective (GDC), found ourselves in at the recent launch of Ashden’s new research on gender and energy ‘Gender dynamics and solar electricity: lessons from Tanzania’, in honour of International Women’s Day 2020.

For anyone who remains unconvinced by the ‘women’s right are human rights’ logic, see the mounting global evidence demonstrating the vital role of women’s economic empowerment in driving success for big businesses; in increasing national economic growth; and in raising the health and wellbeing of their loved ones and wider communities. For example, well-known data suggests that women reinvest 90% of their earned income back into their families (particularly their children’s education), in comparison to just 30-40% for men. The message is clear: “if you can empower women economically, you can ignite a catalyst for greater poverty alleviation at the individual, household and community level that is unstoppable” (Iskenderian, 2011).

Energy access and gender equality: it’s complicated

In the energy access sector, the idea of Sustainable Development Goals number 7 (universal energy access) and 5 (gender equality) being mutually reinforcing is not new. A wealth of research from experts such as ENERGIA, Solar Sister and Value for Women & Shell Foundation collectively demonstrates why energy access and gender equality are inextricably linked; the unique role that female sales agents have in reaching into untapped markets and building trust with often risk-averse customers; and how to integrate gender inclusion into last mile businesses (although on this last point much more remains to be done). Research from the Clean Cooking Alliance also demonstrates that women entrepreneurs in Kenya sold three times as many stoves as their male peers, while Whitten & Roy report similar patterns of success.

However, research from Ashden and ENERGIA suggests that men have more influence over purchasing decisions, have greater control of off-grid solar assets and benefit more from them than women do.

For instance, while 90% of female respondents surveyed in Tanzania reported that their time was more flexible after receiving solar electricity, this often served to increase their ‘double burden’ to both earn an income and complete domestic chores. According to research from ENERGIA, whilst 68% of women surveyed said they made decisions around energy access ‘jointly’ with their husbands, this does not mean they stood to benefit equally. For instance, when it came to decisions around the position of fixed lighting in the household, this tended not to prioritise the traditionally female-dominated area of the kitchen; suggesting that either the husbands have ultimate decision-making power about which rooms should receive lighting – or that women deprioritise their preferences in favour of their husbands and children’s.

So, we know that energy access is a critical step towards achieving gender equality – but it by no means guarantees a change to existing power structures within households and societies. We know that in some contexts like Kenya women sales agents are excellently suited to reaching last mile customers with life-changing products – yet, as the GDC’s Last mile distribution: State of the sector report suggests, not all companies are proactively tapping into this demographic. We are increasingly realising that this is a complicated story, and our knowledge of how to achieve gender quality and empower women in the last mile distribution sector is still shaky.

Thinking outside the box: examples from GDC members

At the GDC, we work with around 150 last mile distribution companies that are selling life-changing products, including clean energy products, to last mile customers. A number of them have a strong focus on gender inclusion and/or women’s empowerment. Drawing on their experiences and additional insights, we have learned that sometimes the most impactful interventions to empower women in last mile distribution are not the most obvious ones.

For example, after recognising the particularly high churn rate of their female sales agents, Pollinate Group made changes to become a more inclusive workplace for women. This included restructuring to allow sales agents and operations employees to take out education loans for their children’s tuition and have access to the national health insurance plan. This gave employees a level of stability and security that enabled female sales agents, in particular, to continue working even when they were hit with unexpected challenges at home.

Recognising the potential barriers that female sales agents can experience within their own households, Smiling Through Light delivers ‘husband workshops’ for partners of their sales agents. This provides an opportunity to raise and address any concerns that husbands may have, while also offering a platform for Smiling Through Light to advocate for the important role of women in energy access markets and public life more broadly, to generate familial understanding and buy-in. As a result of these workshops some husbands have emerged as particular champions of their wives’ businesses, including by supporting them to expand into new territories.

Research from Solar Sister also demonstrates that mobility, specifically access to motorbikes, is a major factor for success among their entrepreneurs serving last mile communities, because motorbikes allow agents to go further into rural communities – especially where there’s poor infrastructure – and avoid market saturation. This research concludes that entrepreneurs who owned a motorbike averaged 60% higher total sales than entrepreneurs using other forms of transport. While not an obvious intervention on face-value, by challenging gendered norms around women’s mobility and providing loans to help entrepreneurs buy motorbikes, significant impact could be achieved for female sales agents, their families and last mile customers alike.

Each of these cases demonstrate a different approach to gender in last mile distribution. Alongside considering what more could be done to be gender inclusive and empower women in their organisations, these companies considered what the key success factors for leaders, sales agents and staff were – and from that starting point, began to unpick the particular barriers women face, in order to build meaningful and targeted interventions to dismantle barriers and enable women to thrive.

It isn’t easy and requires investment, so companies need support

The GDC exists to represent and support last mile distributors to reach more people with life-changing products; and so we take very seriously the question of how we can best equip our members to be gender inclusive and to empower women in a way that makes sense both for their bottom line and end impacts. Encouragingly, we do believe that the commitment and willingness to adopt inclusive practices exists within our membership. But, despite some guidance from the energy sector, there remains a need for broad-based and sector-agnostic knowledge, tools, guidance, mentoring and training to support last mile distributors in this realm.

Supporting frontline inclusivity isn’t solely the responsibility of frontline companies

The burden and responsibility to deliver inclusive outcomes shouldn’t just fall to frontline companies, like GDC members, who are engaging with customers on the ground, day-in day-out. The vast majority of recommendations and best practices in the sector are designed to be implemented by these entities and often imply additional costs: include women in your workforce, provide gender-sensitive training for your employees, adopt gender-inclusive marketing strategies, promote products that benefit women, collect gender disaggregated data – the list goes on. These are all incredibly valid and important recommendations and best practices for companies to strive to adopt; but we also need to think deeply about how the wider ecosystem can support them to do this properly and sustainably.

There is a real opportunity to leverage the customer relationships and insights that frontline companies have gathered and communicate them up the supply chain, to inform efforts across the sector. For example, at the GDC we’re exploring how our members can work with product manufacturers to better integrate customer feedback – particularly women’s experiences – into product design, so that products intended to benefit women are designed from the outset with their preferences and lived experiences in mind.

In some context, subsidies can also play a role in catalysing action. Notwithstanding the evident long-term pay offs to be gained by implementing more flexible and inclusive working policies and recruiting more female staff at all levels, this may entail relatively high short-term costs. When companies are unsure of whether they’ll be around in six months’ time, they may not have the luxury of planning for three years down the line. So instead of just telling companies that gender equality is good for business, let’s be realistic about what kinds of investment they will need in order to adopt best practices – because to do this right can be expensive.

We welcome this challenging new research from Ashden and encourage us all to keep being honest about the questions that we have, as we strive to find the answers together. Last mile distributors cannot – and, indeed, should not – achieve gender equality on their own; we must all play our part to achieve greater impact for overlooked and underserved people everywhere.