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Kati Suominen, Founder and CEO of Nextrade Group; Technical Director of the Alliance for eTrade Development


In recent years, governments and companies around the world have made significant efforts to enable women-led firms to access business opportunities, technologies, training, and financing. Governments’ growing interest in promoting women is reflected in the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, many of which have a specific focus on gender equality and the empowerment of women.


The COVID-19 crisis has pushed consumers and businesses around the world online, expanding the opportunities for women-led firms to reach new customers, markets, suppliers, and services. Governments, donors, and corporations have in ecommerce an outstanding and timely opportunity to enable and help women-led firms to recover from the crisis and grow - and work to enable women-led firms to grow through ecommerce is already well underway. However, much remains to be learned about the approaches that exist and what actually works to enable women-led firms to grow through ecommerce and online platforms, allowing them to reach and transact with service providers, suppliers, and customers around the world.


The purpose of this report, co-sponsored by eTrade Alliance partner Visa, is to start bridging this knowledge gap, and shape governments, development organizations and corporations’ programming to promote different types of women-led firms in the digital economy, and to catalyze innovative approaches that support women-led firms at scale and with lasting impact. Specifically, this report:


  • Takes stock of women-led firms’ use of ecommerce and online platforms in their businesses, leveraging new survey data in five countries—Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Kenya, and the United States (the benchmark country).;


  • Assesses the pain points that women-led firms face when growing their online sales and businesses;


  • Explores the types of approaches that have been deployed to date by donors, governments, corporations, and other stakeholders to build women-led firms’ capacities for ecommerce, including drawing on interviews with representatives from various programs that support women-led firms, as well as women-led firms themselves; and


  • Develops a roadmap of strategies and tactics for governments, private-sector players, and the international development community to optimize capacity-building among women-led firms to use ecommerce and build new value in the global digital economy, leveraging leading-edge approaches from corporate learning and the development field.


Some conclusions from the report are as follows:


  • Women-led firms in all countries vary by their digital maturity, and digitally mature firms tend to outperform their peers in ecommerce use, growth, export participation, and ecommerce sales. There are empirical regularities in women-led firms’ digital journeys. For example, firms typically start their digital journeys by adopting social media and mobile payments, followed by accessing digital payments, before finally setting up online stores and getting on online marketplaces. They then tend to access other digital services such as fintechs for online loans and technologies such as ERP systems and software that create operational efficiencies in such areas as inventory management, accounting, and marketing.



  • There are several lessons-learned on how to structure an impactful ecommerce capacity-building programs for women-led firms. For example:


  • A rigorous and rather ruthless selection process for firms by their ecommerce maturity and products-channel fit is a key step toward achieving the desired results from capacity-building. Ensuring firms are well-matched to the program will also keep them interested in it, help them attain results faster, and deepen their commitment to and investment in their digital journeys.

  • As technologies and methods to deliver training advance and change, what women are taught must also change. Emerging technologies enable women-led firms to teach themselves and customize training to their needs. Interviews with women-led firms highlight the interest in highly applied micro-learning, mentorship, and time-saving, self-paced practical approaches that simplify and shorten content and make it available when participants want to use it and in a format that suits them.

  • While many of the lessons apply to teaching men as well, there are gender-specific issues to consider. Peer learning and interaction are especially important for women, who are often outnumbered in the business world by men. There is also a growing awareness about the importance of programs to sensitize recruitment and course materials to women, attract traditionally excluded groups to participate, and put an end to persistent gender biases. Raising the profile of successful women digital entrepreneurs also helps increase women’s credibility in the industry, and amplify their voice in policymaking processes.

  • Going forward, the delivery of capacity-building and support for women-led firms need to evolve with the possibilities of technology. AI will enable entirely new opportunities for mass-customizing content and delivery to the executive, her role, her knowledge base, and the pace and way she learns and applies knowledge best. Virtual and augmented reality can be used to practice skills in advance and operate in hypothetical scenarios—and also enable women-led firms to offer their own customers more immersive experiences. Leveraging data on micro-expressions will enable rich datasets of analysis that can help customize capacity-building further.


The author’s views do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Agency for International Development or the United States Government or any of the eTrade Alliance members. The author would like to thank Erica Vambell for research assistance.

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