Social Innovation

The social innovators empowering women worldwide

Social innovators in rural India

Social innovators are having an impact on whole communities Image: Frontier Markets

Adam Gavin
Impact Communications Specialist, Foundations, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Social Innovation

  • Gender parity globally has returned to pre-COVID-19 levels, but the pace of change has stagnated, finds the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2023.
  • The social innovation sector, however, has proven itself uniquely capable of empowering women leaders and changing the lives and welfare of all women.
  • Social innovators strive to create a better, more liveable world.

Gender parity globally has now recovered to pre-COVID-19 levels, but the pace of change has stagnated as converging crises slow progress, according to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2023. The Global Gender Gap Report 2023 finds that the overall gender gap has closed by 0.3% points, compared with the previous report, and the expected parity remains the same at 2154.

Image: Global Gender Gap Report, 2023

The social innovation sector, however, has proven itself uniquely capable of empowering women leaders and changing the lives and welfare of all women. Women social innovators have repeatedly made a profound impact by overhauling unfair and unjust systems, sparking collaborative social movements and reshaping dominant expectations, norms and stigmas.

The State of Social Enterprise 2024, the first comprehensive global data set to estimate the size and scope of social enterprise worldwide, from the Schwab Foundation's Global Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship, finds that one in two social enterprises around the world are women-led, compared to only one in five conventional businesses.

Below are three social innovators recognized by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship for their social impact and efforts to close the gender gap and empower women worldwide.

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A micro-credit pioneer empowering 31,000 women business-owners

SELFINA empowers Tanzanian women through micro-leasing Image: SELFINA

Founded in 2002 by Dr. Victoria Kisyombe (Social Innovator of the Year 2010), SELFINA has established itself as a micro-credit pioneer in Tanzania. Social innovators tend to look at the root cause of a problem and work around it to find solutions. Customs and traditions in Tanzania make it difficult for women to own land and assets, resulting in many women being considered uncreditworthy by financial institutions since they lack tangible collateral assets.

To bridge this gap, Kisyombe founded SELFINA to offer a new financial solution that empowers thousands of women in Tanzania through micro-leasing. This model allows the organization to address eligibility criteria and collateral requirements. Women with no assets and little business experience can lease assets to engage in commercial activities. Women are empowered to support themselves and their families, creating new jobs in a spirit of entrepreneurship.

SELFINA addresses women's economic empowerment by providing credit exclusively to women entrepreneurs, bringing social change to their communities. The business consists of financial leases (60%) and sales and leaseback (40%). Leasing is different and more advantageous for women than traditional micro-credit because leases are linked to specific assets and, therefore, are not as vulnerable to takeover by partners. It allows one to gradually acquire assets, such as sewing machines, livestock and ovens, over time and use them to grow their businesses and generate revenue. When leases are complete, the assets become the women's property and can be used as collateral for subsequent loans.

So far, SELFINA has economically empowered more than 31,000 women through an active revolving fund, supported the creation of 150,000 new jobs and impacted over 300,000 lives. To address food insecurity exacerbated by climate change in the country, SELFINA is raising funds to replenish the micro-leasing fund. SELFINA will construct silos and establish warehouse receipt systems to complement its leasing programme. Learn more about how you can support its work here.

If I can change the life of one person it makes a whole difference because behind that person there is a whole family. It’s a family, it’s a society, it’s Tanzania.

Dr. Victoria Kisyombe, Founder, SELFINA

Closing the digital divide by empowering rural women

Frontier Markets invests in women, technology and market connectivity in rural India Image: Frontier Markets

Founded in 2011 by Ajaita Shah (Social Innovator of the Year 2024), Frontier Markets focuses on bridging the $7.7 trillion access gap in rural India by investing in women, technology and market connectivity. Many companies in the region miss out on this massive market opportunity by not necessarily designing products or services that are relevant to their needs.

Through a network of 20,000 digital rural women entrepreneurs, known as Saral Jeevan Sahelis, Frontier Markets facilitates the delivery of impactful solutions to rural households, spanning agriculture, clean energy, digital finance, healthcare and commerce. This approach empowers women and unlocks new markets, fostering prosperity and innovation. This has created exponential impact and prosperity: conventional businesses get access to new untapped markets, design relevant solutions and can participate in the impact generated in the communities.


What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

According to Shah, the persistent digital gap leaves many women behind due to limited access to essential digital tools, training and capacity building. “The looming threat of climate change exacerbates the situation, particularly for women farmers. In India, a significant portion of agricultural labour and cultivation is undertaken by women and women, therefore, are always at risk of financial and healthcare losses - they face disproportionate impacts on crop production and land health due to their reliance on agriculture. Coupled with limited diversification in livelihood opportunities, this amplifies their vulnerability to climate-related shocks and stressors. Additionally, entrenched socio-cultural norms further hinder women from effectively adapting to these climate challenges. Another critical hurdle is the persistent lack of access to finance for women entrepreneurs, impeding their ability to start or grow businesses. These challenges underscore the urgency of our mission to address systemic barriers and create opportunities for women's economic empowerment.”

To address these challenges, Frontier Markets has launched the She-Leads Impact Fund which aims to enable one million women to serve 100 million families by 2030. Unlocking capital is crucial for scalability, necessitating philanthropic investments to catalyze partnerships and attract commercial interest. Collaborations with local organizations are vital for capacity building and market adoption. By fostering innovation and demonstrating market potential, blended capital investments can drive impact and sustainability.

Exercise should be accessible to everyone

B-fit gym franchises empower women in Turkey Image: B-fit

Founded in 2006 by Dr. Bedriye Hülya (Social Innovator of the Year 2013), B-fit is a chain of women-only gyms that uses a franchising model to empower Turkish women. One of the core principles of B-fit is that exercise is a fundamental human right, not a luxury. However, exercise is not the only component. B-fit creates spaces open to women only where they can develop self-awareness and learn a wide range of skills. It is a platform where women can exercise, work and even own a business, while becoming more self-aware and reducing the inequality gap between men and women. B-fit also organizes social events like seminars, courses and other activities for women's empowerment. It has set up a flexible franchise system where each gym can institute its programmes, classes and activities.

Since 2006, B-fit has grown to 370 gyms around Turkey, all run by women, enabling one million women from various socio-economic backgrounds to do sports and hundreds to start working – many of them for the first time. B-fit has also provided more than 450 women with the opportunity to become entrepreneurs and created employment for more than 5,000 women.

Hülya believes social innovators have a unique approach to bridging the gender gap. According to her, a social enterprise is focused on solving a specific problem for the greater good, which is the core of their business, not an afterthought. She argues that "the rise of fundamentalism is threatening the existence and potential of women all around the world and proper governance at all levels should recognize the strength of women and work towards empowering them to contribute to saving our planet."

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