Advancing gender equality through inclusive business
Black Mamba is an ethical business from Eswatini in Southern Africa that manufactures specialty foods that are good for you, good for the planet, and good for the rural communities they work with. Their range includes chilli sauces, pestos, chutneys and jams, all made with organically grown ingredients and “no added nonsense” (no artificial preservatives, colours or flavours). Through a partnership with the local NGO Guba, Black Mamba trains smallholders in permaculture and regenerative farming and buys their fresh produce to make their goods. To date, 60 farmers are part of the value chain, and the direct positive impact reaches over 1000 individuals in Eswatini.
Black Mamba has won several Great Taste Awards in the UK for their chilli sauces, and currently export their range overseas to countries such as the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Norway and Taiwan, amongst others.
As an inclusive business, how have you promoted equity and inclusion through your business model or supply chain?
When I arrived in Eswatini as a volunteer over 12 years ago, I had the opportunity to work with other social businesses in the handicraft sector that were built on equity and inclusion, and I could see the positive impact they had on the rural communities they worked with. I also understood very quickly that women were at the same time the most important and the most neglected segment in the development of the country. Black Mamba’s business model was built around working with rural communities and women right from the beginning because of these reasons. There never was another option.
One way to promote equity is to be intentional about working with women. Black Mamba has always been “gender biased” in that sense, promoting and facilitating employment for women. As a result of this company policy, more than 80% of our employees are women. We have been equally intentional about inclusion, by working with small farmers and sourcing our fresh produce from them. Being a small business, we didn’t have the logistic or financial capability of working with farmers on a one on one basis, and that is why we decided to partner with the local NGO Guba. Guba’s mission is to create resilient communities in Eswatini through the use of permaculture principles, and they had already a network of smallholders that were interested in getting an income through growing fresh produce. Black Mamba then became their market access, with Guba facilitating the training and the relationship with the farmers.
Do you think your business has led to economic empowerment for women? If so, how have you accomplished this?
In Eswatini, women have lower status than men, and this is enforced via culture and tradition as well as archaic laws and regulations. Things are slowly changing, but we have still a long way to go. By focusing purposely on hiring women and working with women in our value chain (80% of our employees are women and 70% of the smallholders we work with are women) we strive for gender equality and to improve their status in a strongly patriarchal society. Through their salaries (in the case of our employees) or the income from the sales of their fresh produce (in the case of the farmers), women are able to provide for their families. From surveys that we have conducted with staff and farmers, we know that women’s priorities in terms of expenditure are school fees, rent (for the women that live in urban areas), groceries, home improvements (for the women that live in rural areas) and savings. They are able to do this because of the incomes they now receive.
We also provide education and training in terms of health and wellness, gender issues, and women’s rights. Through the combination of having a sustainable job and income, and an education for understanding their rights, we have noticed that women started benefitting from a better status within their communities and a higher self-esteem and in most cases this has allowed them to walk away from abusive environments or relationships.
Have you learned specific lessons you’d like to share related to making your business more inclusive?
One great lesson learned is that being inclusive is not necessarily easy. We have gone through many trials and made many mistakes to achieve what we have now, an inclusive value chain and a system that works for everyone involved. It takes a great deal of patience, commitment and problem-solving skills to work with farmers that might live in remote areas and not always have means of communicating. We have been very lucky to have a great partnership with Guba that has allowed us to sort out the issues throughout the years.
What do you think conventional businesses could learn from inclusive businesses in terms of addressing inequality?
I think most conventional businesses have come to realize that pursuing gender equality is important. We have seen that women are equally capable of managing, being leaders for their communities, being great employees and amazing providers for their families. I believe the issue lies in the fact that conventional businesses are less flexible with implementing changes, especially changes that might erode profitability in the short term. But consumers nowadays are demanding equality, as they are demanding fairness and good business practices and respect for the environment from businesses they purchase from. Market driven change is very powerful.
What many conventional businesses fail to see is that equality is connected to nature: the earth is a very complex system, and when things are out of balance (and we can see that with the climate crisis, the loss of biodiversity, the acidification of the oceans, the soil erosion), we all suffer, but especially the most vulnerable. Equality, in the sense of climate justice, is perhaps the most urgent equality to achieve, but this won’t be possible unless conventional businesses (and governments) adopt real policies and real changes to address these issues.