A group of women in a cocoa-growing community

Supply Chains Are More Resilient When Women Can Reach Their Full Potential

Published by Justin White, Thriving People Manager, Sustainability

Creating conditions for women in global supply chains to thrive is not philanthropy—it’s good business.

For many agricultural raw materials, the least resilient link in the supply chain is the first one—where raw materials are grown and harvested. During COVID-19, pre-existing vulnerabilities in sourcing communities have been compounded by disruptions including restrictions on movement and trade, changes in demand, currency devaluation, losses of work opportunities, school closures and more.

Justin White.jpg

Over the past six months, I’ve focused on understanding these exacerbated risks and how COVID-19 is affecting people across Mars’ supply chains, in materials such as fish from Thailand, mint from India and cocoa from Ghana. Through dozens of interviews with NGO partners, suppliers, and Mars Associates around the world, what I’ve found is surprisingly simple—when we unlock opportunities for women, communities are more resilient. When communities are more resilient, supply chains are stronger and businesses like Mars face fewer risks to supply of essential raw materials. 

Unfortunately, women around the world face structural barriers that prevent them from thriving. Unequal access to education, credit and opportunity remain ubiquitous. Even after decades of progress, women make up two thirds of the world’s 775 million illiterate adults, carry out twice the unpaid care work, own only 20% of the world’s land  and earn 24% less than men. As COVID-19 evolves from a health crisis to an economic and humanitarian crisis, women will continue to experience disproportionate negative effects ranging from losses of informal work to increases in intimate partner violence and unpaid care work. 

Yet, despite the many structures that impede women’s ability to reach their full potential, COVID-19 has proven that women drive community resilience.  

Through our global partnership with CARE—a global NGO focused on ending poverty with a focus on women and girls, we’ve seen women’s leadership though the pandemic first hand. Building on a five-year collaboration to strengthen women’s social and economic empowerment in West African cocoa-growing communities, Mars has committed an additional $10 million investment to expand Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs) that help women to save and invest in West African cocoa farming communities. Through VSLAs, women have access to financial inclusion and connection to formal finance, as well as business skills and entrepreneurship training. Mars also made an initial $5 million contribution to CARE focused on COVID-19 response and recovery across high-risk priority supply chains focusing efforts on women and girls. 

While managing our COVID-19 response and recovery efforts with CARE, I’m struck by the strength, generosity, and resourcefulness of women across our sourcing communities. 

  • In Lehiri, Cote d’Ivoire, Koffi Mela Gisele, a 38-year-old mother of six, was able to access a loan to buy mask-making equipment. She used her profits to buy land. 
  • Every year, members of another VSLA in Kragui, Cote d’Ivoire donate proceeds from their communal rice farm to the local school. They continued this tradition through COVID-19, despite massive challenges to this year’s harvest, especially having to reduce the number of women harvesting rice due to social distancing guidance. 
  • And in Lucknow, India, Mansha Devi, a 46-year-old mother of three, secured a low-interest loan to start a micro-enterprise in the face of extreme food insecurity. She now operates her store at home and is the family’s breadwinner.

Through investments with CARE that catalyze women’s economic empowerment, we share a mutuality of benefits. Women are able to thrive, communities are strengthened and Mars has a more resilient and secure supply chain. 

I appreciate that the leadership of three women isn’t a volume of scholarly evidence on its own. But do we need more evidence? Decades of research already show that women invest in their communities more effectively than men. Insights from the Farmer Income Lab, a collaborative ‘think-do’ tank founded by Mars to identify what works to make meaningful improvements in farmer incomes, show that women’s economic empowerment can be a critical component of interventions in raising farmer incomes. And we can look to Ebola, AIDS and natural disasters to see that women are on the frontlines of combatting the associated challenges.  

At Mars, we’re already seeing the impact of our work with partners like CARE. But it is not enough. That’s why we are continuing to deepen collaborations with strategic partners in our sourcing communities to understand the unique value women bring, to celebrate that value, and to support efforts that enable them to reach their full potential. Some of our next steps include: 

  1. Gaining deeper understanding of gender-specific risks exacerbated by COVID-19 and designing gender-transformative responses.
  2. Leveraging insights from the Farmer Income Lab to further understand how women’s economic empowerment plays a role in making meaningful and sustainable improvements in farmer incomes.
  3. Deepening our work with civil society groups, including UN Women and CARE to advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal No. 5—Achieving Gender Equality & Empowering all women and Girls, in our sourcing communities. 

To truly build back better, we must prioritize women’s economic empowerment, because when women can reach their full potential, supply chains are far more resilient. 

Learn more about Full Potential, the Mars platform for action on gender in our workplaces, sourcing communities, and the marketplace where we sell and advertise our goods and services.

More from Mars