International Women's Day: Adding Gender to Impact Investment Portfolios

As the world celebrates International Women’s Day this week, it is hard not to think of the progress and remaining challenges facing our global society in achieving gender equality. We have Malala Yousafzai and Hillary Clinton as examples of high-profile women leading their own movements, with the United Nations focusing on all women, with “Achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls” as their fifth-ranking Sustainable Development Goal (SDG).  And – just as we see with most social issues – the conventional way of approaching positive change, like counting the number of women who show up to a hand-washing training, is not nearly adequate. International investors, who are already exploring innovative ways to solve large-scale environmental, agriculture, energy, and health issues, are also looking at how to bring impact investing to bear towards gender equality.

Most of today’s global investors are not solely interested in pure financial returns. In an era where doing well and doing good are sought together, even investors are looking to use their money to generate social returns alongside financial returns. This is the market of “impact investing,” a sector that is actively seeking market-based solutions to social and environmental problems, instead of the conventional model of simply “do no harm.”

And this impact investment market is growing. Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) estimates there is currently $60 billion worth of impact investment under management. A recent Impact Investing Australia 2016 Investor Report concluded that its country’s impact investment market is set to grow over the next five years, with 41% of respondents who are active impact investors aiming to triple their impact investment fund allocations over this period. The majority of its respondents who were non-impact investors indicated they were “likely to consider social, environmental, and cultural impacts as metrics” for their investments.

With this growing market, led by heavy-hitters like J.P. Morgan, The Rockefeller Foundation, along with the Ford and Kellogg Foundations, it is natural to explore how impact investing can add to its successes and seamlessly include gender among the array of sought outcomes. For International Women’s Day, Forbes published an article, “5 Easy Ways to Invest in Women – And the World,” citing a GIIN survey where one third of the impact investment respondents already explicitly target gender equality as an impact focus, shown in Figure 57. Veris Wealth Partners, a firm with $800 million in managed impact investments, now sees “gender lens investing” as the most popular of its five impact strategies.

Impact investing is being explored as an innovative way to finance large-scale social protection programs, such as school feeding, increasing economic benefits by improving smallholder farmers’ market access, and supporting agriculture production and better ensuring food security. Within every one of these areas, gender equality is a seamless and natural fit.

Let’s look at Nigeria as one example.  This February, 20 Nigerian women won the African Women in Agriculture Research and Development, leading the pool of winners across eleven African countries. Cassava, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme, is a leading staple crop both in Nigeria and throughout Africa that is traditionally considered a “woman’s crop.” Women do the bulk of the post-planting labor, such as weeding, harvesting, transporting, processing, and marketing. Just last month, the American Association for the Advancement of Science invited Nigeria’s National Root Crops Research Institute to hear Nigeria’s latest advancements that would put cassava on par with the world’s industrial cash crops, and, also benefit women smallholder farmers.

In Haiti, investing in cleaner energy technologies such as cleaner stoves or “green charcoal” not only creates environmental improvements, but also directly benefits health outcomes for women, who are largely responsible for family cooking.  The World Bank estimated that 70% of Haitians were dependent on wood fuel as its primary cooking fuel, which led to extreme indoor air pollution and respiratory infections – a leading cause of Haiti’s ranking as a country with one of the highest rates of tuberculosis in the world.

Let’s combine these problems and look at how impact investors could target specific outcomes that promote gender equality by measuring the impact of the benefits that, for example, a school feeding program offers. These targets could include:

  • Ensuring at least 50% of the smallholder farmers producing for the school feeding program is women.
  • Targeting “women crops,” like cassava, as key parts of school meal menus.
  • Choosing at least 50% women-owned small and mid-sized enterprises to introduce to investors agro-allied transportation and processing companies.
  • Specifically tracking women’s participation in the preparation, cooking, and delivery of the school meals with focused M&E.
  • Investing in and ensuring the use of cleaner technologies for food preparation.

To end with business-sage advice from Forbes, “there’s no shortage of opportunities to make women a part of your investment strategy – with results that will improve lives as well as your investment portfolio.” In the growing impact investment market, gender equality is already rising as an obvious focus for investment portfolios, and those seeking impact investments may do well to include specific gender-focused targets to attract better financing.