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Announcing A New Research Project: Walmart’s Empowering Women Together

Andrew Wicklund, a graphic designer on the US West Coast, translated our description of the project into this great visual. (You can see it better if you click it.)

Today, the University of Oxford’s Said Business School is announcing our new research project with Walmart.  In this work, we will be studying the Empowering Women Together initiative, a global program in which Walmart aims to bring products made by women’s businesses into their system for sale to consumers online and in stores. Our purpose is to analyze the effort, identifying obstacles and benefits, toward the end of producing a measurement system that can be used to monitor progress and impact over time.

This woman is a weaver in one of the rural Kenyan groups Catherine and Laurel visited in December. Baskets are woven for a business in Nairobi, who then sells them through Full Circle Exchange to Walmart.

The core team is comprised of Catherine Dolan, Laurel Steinfield, and me.  Regular readers may recognize that Catherine Dolan, from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, has been my research partner for nearly a decade.  We worked together on the Avon research, as well as the Jita project, Pampers/UNICEF, and all the sanitary care research.  Laurel Steinfield is my doctoral student (she will finish this year) and has worked on the sanitary pads research, along with other consumer culture projects in Africa (see posts on her work here and here).  Beyond this core team are several colleagues and students, in the US and the UK, who are providing specialized inputs to the project–I will introduce them in the course of reporting the work over the coming months.

The businesses in the EWT program are selected on the basis that they are 51%+ owned by women or are social enterprises aimed at benefitting women. A variety of products is represented, from foods to apparel to jewelry.  At the moment, most of the products are sold online at the Empowering Women Together portal on Walmart’s website.  However, the first attempt to bring EWT products into the stores occurred successfully during the Christmas season and it is hoped that more will be able to “scale” to this level.

These women spend part of each day making various bean-based products for the Women’s Bean Project to sell, then receive a variety of job- and life-skills training the rest of the time. I visited this site, along with Lina Rothman, a graduate student at Cambridge, in October.

We have been working on this study since October 1.  I have visited the groups of people at Walmart who are orchestrating EWT, as well as two companies, Full Circle Exchange and Global Goods Partners, who act as intermediaries between many of the women’s businesses and Walmart.  In addition, we have already done fieldwork at two sites, the Women’s Bean Project in Denver and Katchy Kollections in Nairobi.  Over the coming weeks, I will describe the  aims of the project, the role played by Full Circle and Global Goods, and the very different enterprises in the system, as illustrated initially by the Women’s Bean Project and Katchy Collections.  Then, as the team fans out around the world during April, May, and June, we will report from the field, as we visit the remaining sites for this year’s work.

The EWT Program was launched in spring 2013 and currently includes about30 businesses stretched across 12 countries on four continents.  So, the scope is wide, but, thus far, the numbers of businesses included is still small.  Our team is very pleased to be “in on the ground floor,” so to speak, because we want to watch this effort as it grows.  However, as we have learned already, it is more challenging than one might think to identify and certify these businesses.  Once the businesses are on board as partners, it is often even more difficult to work through various barriers that suddenly appear when trying to engage a massive, modern multinational with small, often fragile, enterprises with limited resources.  These are the reasons there are not yet many businesses operating in the EWT system.  As the whole team learns to overcome the obstacles (or, more precisely, invents ways to get over these barriers), I would expect the EWT effort to take off, increasing the number of businesses fairly quickly.

We chose to begin the fieldwork simultaneously in North America and East Africa.  Most of the businesses currently in the EWT system are in these two regions, so we were able to efficiently cover a significant percentage of the total by focusing our efforts geographically.  In addition, we felt that the variability in circumstances across the whole system might be captured between North America on the one hand and East Africa on the other.  So, we thought if we were to do a “deep dive” into these two regions, we might establish parameters that could be used to map out the rest of the sites.

This beader is employed by Katchy Kollections in Nairobi. Catherine and Laurel visited this site in December also.

Interestingly, the first two locations presented both oppositions and similarities. For example, the Denver business benefits from a well-developed consumer market and multiple established avenues for reaching them:  the Women’s Bean Project has a shop at the production site and a website from which consumers may order for direct shipment, as well as multiple retailers besides Walmart who stock their goods (and even come pick up the shipments themselves).  In contrast, Katchy Kollections has to target products very carefully to limited local segments and faces significant logistical challenges in producing and shipping their output to a retailer on the other side of the globe.  The role of national infrastructure in facilitating business growth–whether we are talking about roads or internet or banking facilities–is starkly evident when you compare these two enterprises.

At the same time, there were surprising overlaps. It is not uncommon, in a developing world context, to find that your workers may be pretty casual about when and how often they come to work:  the regimentation and orchestration that typifies work in the modern economy has not yet become part of their culture.  So, the women who were weaving baskets for Katchy Kollections to ship to Walmart didn’t always want to weave–instead, they might choose to work in the fields on any given day.  The Women’s Bean Project is a social enterprise that sells products in order to finance a program aimed at preparing disadvantaged women for careers.  Many of these women have never held a real job:  their position at “the Bean” (as they call it) requires that they come to work on time, every day, and learn to make products as a team.  They also spend a substantial amount of time every day in programs that teach, along with skills like financial management, basic workplace etiquette.  So, as far apart as these two businesses are in terms of national culture and development, both are faced with a meaningful need to enculturate employees to the workplace.

At “the Bean,” some inspirational message is always on the blackboard in the main meeting room. The feeling of the place is light, airy, upbeat, in spite of the real challenges being addressed by this social enterprise.

Both businesses design products and packaging to communicate that a woman was the maker.  So, a shopper online or at a store can know that if they purchase a given object, some benefit is going to a woman.  From my perspective, this labeling points to a key aspect of research interest:  the EWT system unites many points of contact with the Double X Economy, creating the first opportunity ever to study a multinational (or any other entity) attempting to empower women through a holistic effort–from consumer to supplier to employee–right around the globe.

More than 50 women have relocated to Boise, Idaho to escape conflict in their native countries–12 different nations. The products they are making will be sold through Empowering Women Together, under the auspices of Full Circle Exchange.


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