How WUSC’s Partner Innovation Fund Supports Local Solutions to Improve Women’s Economic Empowerment
The barriers facing women’s full economic participation are many. In some countries, there are legal constraints to women’s rights to work, including a lack of protection from sexual harassment in the workplace. Women also bear a disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work and are less likely to have access to education, technology, and financial resources. For those women who overcome these barriers to enter the workforce, they are more likely to be unemployed or work in informal and vulnerable employment, and be paid less than men without access to social protection such as pensions or maternity protection.
With so many factors affecting women’s access to work, a one-size-fits-all approach will not do. That’s why WUSC launched its new Partner Innovation Fund to support locally developed solutions for young women’s economic participation and empowerment.
Supporting Locally-Owned Solutions to Women’s Economic Empowerment
There are many ways to support young women’s economic empowerment and leadership around the world. The most effective ones are grounded in the experience and expertise of local organizations who are closest to the challenges and opportunities affecting young women in their communities.
By supporting these organizations, we can support solutions that are designed to respond to urgent and emerging priorities, often filling critical gaps in services that are available to young women seeking to improve their economic well-being. We are also able to support solutions designed by those who know best how to achieve sustainable impact.
About WUSC’s Partner Innovation Fund
Our Partner Innovation Fund was launched to support inclusive social innovation and social entrepreneurship through two-year awards that respond to emerging needs and focus on the most marginalized communities. These awards are accompanied by volunteer assignments specially designed to support the innovations. Our goal is to assist our partners to pilot their new approaches and adaptations of existing solutions while offering critical resources to scale more established ones.
Through a call for proposals, we launched the Fund in 2020, inviting all 64 partners of our IGNI+E initiative—a multi-country project that supports young women’s economic empowerment through international volunteer cooperation—to submit their solutions. Successful proposals were selected based on three criteria:
- The potential for impact: innovative solutions that engage the community in design and delivery
- The potential for leverage: solutions that are likely to mobilize support from other actors
- The potential for success and sustainability
Each recipient receives between CAD$40,000 – $60,000 to launch their solution, as well as support from volunteers specially selected to meet the needs of our partners.
Meet our 2020 – 2021 Fund Recipients
A total of eight WUSC partners across four countries were awarded new Partner Innovation Funds in 2020, out of 24 applicants. Just over one-third (38%) of the applications received were from women’s organizations—who know best the unique challenges and opportunities affecting women’s economic empowerment in their communities—who received 28% of the funding available in our first year.
Many of the winning proposals focused on training and incubation programs for youth social innovators and entrepreneurs. For example, The Centre of Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CSIE) in Vietnam launched ImpactUP, an online platform that provides learning and incubation services to youth. Participants sign up for self-paced learning on topics including gender equality, environmental sustainability, and how to support further job creation and economic growth in their communities. More advanced entrepreneurs can apply to participate in a four-part incubation program for their startup. Upon completion of courses, participants receive a certificate as well as access to a social network of like-minded peers. This program not only improved services for youth entrepreneurs across the country, it also ensured continuity in these services by moving them online during the pandemic. The project was supported by four volunteer assignments, including a Communications Specialist, two Gender Equality Specialists, and a Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist. CSIE created opportunities to engage a variety of partners through the initiative and, as a result, have successfully attracted more resources to sustainably support the growth of the platform in the future.
To date, more than 700 youth have been reached by the ImpactUP platform, and more than 70 startups have received incubation support. Minh, a student at National Economics University in Hanoi, is one such young learner. Minh dreams of being a social entrepreneur after graduating and making a difference in her community, but she wasn’t sure how to harness her many ideas. After taking courses on design thinking, she expressed having a greater understanding of how she could channel her passion for positive impact to address real issues affecting people in her community.
Also in Vietnam, the Bac Thang Long Economic-Technical College (BTL), piloted a blended learning platform for marginalized women, such as those who migrated to the city for work. Nearly two-thirds of the participants in the college’s short-term training programs are marginalized women who say they struggle to balance attendance in the longer programs with their household responsibilities, which continue to disproportionately fall on the shoulders of women. The college wanted to test whether the flexibility provided by a blended learning program would allow more women to participate in training programs that would lead to greater economic opportunities. For the pilot initiative, they focused on an e-commerce curriculum for migrant women in which 37 women participated. BTL was supported by three volunteer assignments which supported the development of training materials and outreach communications. The program drew considerable national attention which helped the college mobilize more resources to provide training opportunities to a further 200 migrant women who had lost their jobs during the pandemic.
Over the course of the project, BTL reached 2,560 youth through their new blended learning programs, including 895 women. Seven years ago, Ngan had moved from her small hometown to Hanoi in search of greater economic opportunities. She started out providing cleaning services at a barber shop and, upon starting her family a couple of years later, she soon dreamed of opening her own home-based salon that would give her the flexibility to earn an income while caring for her children. She had learned the technical skills of hairdressing from her on-the-job experience, however, she wasn’t confident in the business skills required to start her own salon. After participating in the e-commerce blended learning program at BTL, she launched business accounts on Facebook and TikTok to build her own customer base and is eager to continue her learning with BTL.
Meanwhile in Malawi, a consortium of partners including Mzuzu Entrepreneurship Hub, ACADES, and mHub, wanted to address the high levels of stagnant growth and business failure among youth and women-led startups across the country. They came together to launch the Hatch Start Incubation Programme which provides comprehensive support for young entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and succeed.
For their first cohort of participants in the program, Hatch Start had more than 700 applicants from which 81 young entrepreneurs were selected. One such entrepreneur, Lizzie, reported that one of the biggest impacts from participating in the program has been the growth in her confidence. She reports learning how to best manage her farming business, her finances, and her records which she feels has made her a better manager and leader overall. Meanwhile, Lisnet-Lissa says she gained a better understanding of how to monetize her startup’s innovative technologies, including how to identify potential customers and better market her products to meet their unique needs.
Other initiatives focused on filling critical gaps in services to young women in their communities and seizing untapped potential for new opportunities. For example, in Ghana, the Mobile Business Clinic Africa introduced many new solutions to improve access to finance and improve financial literacy among smallholder farmers and rural enterprises.
The Mobile Business Clinic Africa developed a Farmers Management Information System which services 650 farmers, 41% of whom are women. They also set up a physical cashpoint and established a farm incubator centre to provide financial literacy, entrepreneurship, and agricultural training. To date, 187 people have improved their skills through the centre.
In Uganda, Uganda Small Scale Industries Association (USSIA) invested in a new technology that converts local waste into more environmentally-friendly and affordable briquettes used for cooking. In addition to addressing waste in their community, they also saw the opportunity for young people in their community to earn an income creating and selling the briquettes. They provided training on how to use the technology, as well as important business skills such as marketing. They also drove greater environmental awareness in the community to help generate more demand for greener solutions. USSIA was supported by three volunteers during the course of the project, including a Waste Management Specialist and a Monitoring and Evaluation specialist who helped unpack the project’s impact for women entrepreneurs.
Through their community awareness campaigns, USSIA have helped change attitudes among 511 participants about the importance of waste management and their contribution to environmental conservation. In addition, 525 participants report that creating briquettes for personal use has helped them save money. While 420 participants indicated that they see the new technology as a potential source of income, only about 38 participants report that they have increased their income through the production and selling of briquettes. USSIA discovered that community attitudes about gender and waste management jobs remains a barrier to engaging women in the production of briquettes for sale to the community. The organization plans to do more research with the community to better understand and address this barrier in the future.
There were many exciting and emerging ideas presented by other applicants in our first year of funding which, unfortunately, were not selected. However, several partners decided to enlist support from WUSC’s international volunteers to further ideate, research, and test these proposed initiatives.
Since launching, we’ve successfully completed two additional calls for proposals, with 17 additional projects currently underway. We look forward to sharing the results of these new solutions soon!
The IGNI+E (Innovative Global Networks for Inclusion + Equality) initiative, funded by Global Affairs Canada, supports over 70 partner organizations to advance gender equality and the economic empowerment of 1.2 million youth around the world. IGNI+E harnesses the knowledge, capacity and expertise of skilled Canadians through volunteer assignments and public engagement activities to assist partners in improving their performance, advocating for gender equality, and implementing more sustainable, innovative and inclusive initiatives and services for poor and marginalized youth, particularly young women. Join us! Click here to see all our current e-volunteer opportunities.
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