Beyond good intentions: how can businesses make a difference for girls?
The benefits of investing in girls are well-known. Educated and empowered girls earn more income, marry later, and have healthier pregnancies and children, which is better for them, their families, communities, and countries. That’s why there has been a call to action to include girls in development plans. But what does this mean for businesses, particularly those operating in places where girls face significant barriers to education, employment, and access to products and services?
Five years ago, the SPRING Accelerator was created to answer this question. With the financial backing of DFID, USAID, and DFAT, the design power of fuseproject, and management by Palladium International, SPRING worked with 75 businesses in 9 countries across East Africa and South Asia to create solutions that could benefit adolescent girls. To date, SPRING’s businesses have reached over 2.5 million girls and secured more than $38 million in follow-on investment.
While we are proud of these results, the most interesting part of SPRING was our journey. We strived to determine the role of business in improving the lives of girls in a way that made business sense, and how a design-centric accelerator could help businesses deliver impact for a hard-to-reach group of people. Now that our programme has drawn to a close, we have captured these and other lessons in our Impact Report, Building Businesses for Girl Impact: Insights from the SPRING Accelerator. Here are some of our key insights:
Start with listening to girls.
Our journey began with conducting research with girls to identify their challenges and opportunities. These girls told us that earning a safe source of income was a top priority. In response, many of our first cohort businesses trained older girls (of working age) to be involved in business operations, for example as micro-franchisees, ambassadors, or distributors. While girls did benefit from these jobs, often these projects were not core to growth, or carried a significant level of effort which could not be commercially justified. Scale potential was also limited depending on the size of the business and nature of the roles offered.
While employment is important, we wanted to demonstrate that business could reach adolescent girls more broadly – including those who are not old enough to work – in a sustainable, scalable way. Instead of offering girls a “business in a box,” we had to think outside the box.
Think holistically about girl impact.
So, we widened our thinking to explore with businesses how their offering could remove barriers to girls’ well-being and future economic success. Instead of encouraging businesses to stretch their model to create new roles for girls, we explored how their existing business could drive more meaningful impact for them. We mapped how solutions across sectors could address constraints that disproportionately hold girls back. This could be in sectors where girls have traditionally been underserved – such as financial services – or those where girls have been undervalued, such as in small-scale agriculture. Then we supported our businesses to conduct human-centred research to understand how girls experienced their solutions, providing insight into how they could improve.
We found numerous opportunities to incorporate girl impact into core product or service design. For example, a transportation company in East Africa can help to address girls’ mobility and prevent harassment. A water and solar company in Pakistan can help reduce time girls spend on collecting water or other domestic tasks. These solutions didn’t have to exclusively focus on girls to have a positive impact, though sometimes they did, as for example, a self-defense training company in Nepal can provide girls with a sense of self-confidence and empowerment.
Consider the business’ contribution to the bigger picture.
Of course, casting a wider net to include a diverse set of business models meant that not every business affected girls’ lives to the same degree. One of our challenges was assessing girl impact, and we developed several tools to support this. In making business selection and ongoing support decisions, we considered the potential breadth and depth of impact across our portfolio, rather than requiring each business to achieve both scale and depth of impact. SPRING’s ability to reach millions of girls was driven primarily through digital solutions.
We found that the best way for businesses to have an impact on girls is to be thoughtful about including them. By using human-centred design to understand girls’ barriers, motivations and preferences, businesses can ensure they are included as part of the wider stakeholder base. By broadening their youth/gender scope beyond products and services designed for and directly targeting girls, businesses can improve their understanding of how girls fit into their overall ecosystem. By emphasizing gender and inclusivity into their strategies, businesses can achieve an even broader cultural shift beyond reaching girls as consumers or employees.
Adapt if it’s not working.
In addition to learning about how business can contribute to have a positive impact for girls, we also learned about how to run a design-focused accelerator in emerging markets. As evidenced by our reframing of impact, the ability to adapt based on what worked well and what didn’t was crucial.
Finally, the people behind businesses make it possible. While SPRING has officially ended, its people are continuing on our journey to define, promote, and measure the impact by business for girls, excited by the possibilities of what social change businesses can achieve when they take girls into account.
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