As the proverb goes, women hold up half the sky.

We hold up an increasing portion of the global market as well. As the world shifts into a post-2015 era, pursuing Sustainable Development Goals that are holistic and ambitious, there is a timely and significant opportunity for businesses to step up and engage more deeply with female entrepreneurs – especially in key sectors such as agriculture.

While women’s empowerment has traditionally been the prerogative of development organizations and equality advocates, corporate executives increasingly recognize that the issue belongs in the boardroom too, on the action agenda for business growth and competitiveness.

With the cacophony of urgent issues facing businesses today, executives may wonder why women’s economic empowerment should rank among their priorities.  In fact, engaging female entrepreneurs represents an underexplored business opportunity.

Women play a central role in the global economy. They represent 40% of the world’s workforce, hold 27% of global wealth, and are the owners of four in every 10 small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) in emerging markets. Yet the global women’s market suffers from a $300 billion credit gap, and women’s unequal access to resources and assets results in lost productivity. As an example, closing the access gap between men and women farmers would increase agricultural productivity by 2.5-4% in developing countries, reducing the number of hungry people by up to 150 million while increasing wealth throughout the value chain.

The agriculture sector is particularly promising for increased investment in women. Farmers – the most numerous and invested businesspeople in the sector – are underserved by the market, and the notion that women are the world’s most underutilized resource certainly applies to the 564 million who are engaged in agriculture worldwide.

Notwithstanding the real and substantial barriers that women face in policy, legal and cultural realms, several gaps offer “quick wins” for business engagement, especially for closing financing and input access disparities by understanding and serving women as suppliers, clients and customers. Capturing these opportunities will require a mindset shift for business: just as with new geographies, women entrepreneurs – arguably the world’s largest neglected market – are best reached via a tailored approach. This will mean questioning lingering assumptions, such as the perceived riskiness of investing in women-owned SMEs, and drawing from evidence-based approaches for grassroots engagement.

As we mark International Women’s Day and the 20-year anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, we are preparing to enter a new era of development and collaboration. Businesses should seize the opportunity and engage more proactively and deeply with female entrepreneurs.

As with all complex issues, private-sector actors cannot achieve progress on their own; their efforts should be in concert with the contributions of policy-makers, academic and think-tank experts, non-governmental and international organizations, and – most critically – women entrepreneurs themselves. The World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture initiative convenes these critical people and organizations to align agendas, mobilize leaders and define priorities to create opportunities with and for women.

Real progress depends on corporate leadership, and there is still ample space for early movers to step up. Businesses that do not may find themselves left behind.

Author:  Lorin Fries, Associate Director, New Vision for Agriculture, World Economic Forum

Image: Workers pick tea at a plantation outside Kericho February 6, 2008. REUTERS/Peter Andrews