5 gender-smart investments for COVID-19 in emerging markets

suzanne biegel
7 min readMay 28, 2020


Image: istockphoto.com

The COVID-19 crisis has spurred rapid investment in public health responses such as testing and vaccines, and rightly so.

But the novel coronavirus isn’t solely a health crisis: it’s also a social and economic crisis that is impacting and reshaping every part of our lives. This means that our investment response to the crisis needs to look beyond the health impacts, to issues and sectors that might not immediately come to mind when you think of a global pandemic.

This is the first in a series of two articles — the first focused on emerging markets, and the second on developed markets — outlining the issues and sectors investors need to be paying attention to right now if we don’t want this crisis to leave women further behind. The issues in this article are important at all times, but they have been made even more urgent by the coronavirus pandemic, which has exacerbated existing gendered divisions in unpaid labor, employment, and access to technology, information, and financial services.

Prioritizing them in our investment response will be vital to our long term recovery from COVID-19. As Janti Soeripto of Save The Children US wrote in April, “If we do not account fully for gender differences in this crisis, the progress of women and girls will be erased for generations.”

Here are five areas we need to be paying attention to if we don’t want to leave women behind.

1. The Care Economy and the Impact of Unpaid Work.

Around the world, women do three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men, caring for children and older family members, as well as performing other essential family-care tasks such as collecting water, firewood, and kerosene. They also comprise the majority of paid care workers in industries including healthcare, childcare, elder care, and disability care. Paying attention to care is essential for enabling women to access the paid workforce, education, entrepreneurship, and leisure. It’s also essential for ensuring that women who are working in the care economy have access to good jobs.

The COVID-19 epidemic has only brought these issues into even sharper relief, with many women and adolescent girls taking on additional care work at home or being forced to leave paid employment altogether. In a struggling global economy, in which 305 million jobs globally are at risk of being lost this quarter, these challenges risk further economically marginalizing women, making it more likely that when jobs return men will be the first to go back to work.

But smart investments can mitigate these risks. In Kenya, social enterprise Tiny Totos has worked with daycare providers to upgrade standards and deliver improved care to young children, which in turn has freed their adolescent sisters (who typically do a disproportionate amount of household labor) to pursue education and other opportunities.

2. Girls’ pathways from education to employment.

According to UNICEF, one in eight people currently living on the planet is an adolescent girl or young woman aged between 10 and 24, and we know that education is essential to both their future opportunities and their countries’ economies. This has been a major area of focus for the World Bank, development agencies, and others in recent years.

We’ve also learned that investing in education alone isn’t enough if it’s not supported by pathways from education into employment. This is doubly true now, with the International Labor Organization estimating that almost half the global workforce is at risk of losing their livelihoods due to COVID-19. We know that that in an economic downtown men keep their jobs longer and get them back faster. For young women who are just entering the workforce, the long term effects of this economic disenfranchisement could be brutal. To overcome these obstacles, we need to invest in smart solutions that will help train girls for and connect them with future employment.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot that is investible in this field right now, and a lot of what does exist is likely to take a combination of philanthropy and investment to become commercially viable. One recent bright spot and creative solution is the Akilah Institute in Rwanda, which runs vocational higher education in hospitality, entrepreneurship, and information technology, and has had enormous success in placing women in employment. But while the current investible options may be slim, for institutions with patient capital to spend, this is a critical area to be investing in — and a critical moment to be investing. Economies will eventually rebound from the COVID-19 crisis, but if we don’t take care of young women, they may suffer the economic consequences of the pandemic for the rest of their lives.

3. Financial inclusion.

Nearly one in three women globally is excluded from the formal financial system, with women statistically less likely than men to have access to basic banking services, mobile wallets, insurance, loans, and PAYG services like mobile and energy — and the poorer a community is, the bigger the gender gap. But financial inclusion isn’t solely an equity issue: management consultancy Oliver Wyman estimates that the financial services industry is missing out on $700 billion in revenue each year by not meeting the needs of women customers.

All of these challenges and more are magnified amid the chaos caused by COVID-19. Right now, not having a bank account could mean missing out on much-needed COVID-related relief checks or UBI. As Women’s World Banking has observed, not being able to make private, secure digital payments increases the need for travel, which in turn may increase the risk of exposure to infection. We know that women who pay for things with cash are more vulnerable to violence, and to their spouses taking away their resources. At a time when women are increasingly vulnerable to gender-based violence, lack of financial inclusion makes them more vulnerable still.

Financial inclusion is an arena with a lot to invest in. The key is to make sure that there’s a strong gender lens, that the products are right for the target audience, and to pay attention to where women are in the value chain of the business. An example of an effective intervention is Goodwell Investments and Alitheia’s ongoing investment in Nigerian mobile money company Paga, which partners with banks and financial institutions to make finance accessible to everyone.

4. Bridging the digital divide.

Globally, 184 million fewer women than men own mobile phones, and 327 million fewer women can access the internet through their mobile devices. This has a concrete impact on women’s ability to access digital banking and mobile wallet services, to make online purchases that save time and labor, and to report or seek assistance for gender-based violence. It also makes it harder to access up-to-date health information, which can have dire consequences in a pandemic.

If a woman doesn’t have access to a mobile device or a computer, she’s not going to be equipped to easily discover and apply for jobs when the economy recovers. She’s not going to be able to easily access money that is accessible through governments, banks, or grants. She’s going to have less access to education, to news, and to public health information.

You can bring a gender lens to your investments in this arena by looking at who is designing and selling the devices, and which companies are both getting devices in women’s hands and doing the training to make sure they have the digital literacy to use them. You can also invest in companies that are training women to work in tech roles — I think of Women In Digital Bangladesh, but there are equivalents in every country.

5. Energy.

Like technology, access to clean and affordable energy is a lifeline to which so many other things are connected. Energy can transform household objects into productive assets: cookstoves and refrigerators enable women to make food and sell it, solar-powered water pumps enable women to grow crops more sustainably with less. You can’t use your mobile phone unless you have energy to charge it. Conversely, if women have to go out and collect kerosene or firewood to power basic household tasks like cooking, they are going to have less time to do income-generating work.

Whether you’re talking about households or small businesses, energy access is a source of economic resilience for women. And if the economic shock of COVID-19 causes people to fall off the energy ladder, that will make it much harder for them to recover economically. Whether you’re using a recovery lens or a rebuild with resilience lens to guide your investments, this matters.

There are lots of reasons why your average investor hasn’t historically invested in these companies, but we’re finally over the innovation curve in some of these businesses where they have been sufficiently derisked. You can invest in the companies directly, or in funds that are focused on this area, such as responsAbility, KawiSafi, Calvert Impact Capital, and AlphaMundi.

How are you maximizing your impact?

The COVID-19 crisis isn’t going away any time soon, and the conversation about how we can best deploy capital to recover from the pandemic and rebuild a better world will no doubt continue throughout 2020 and beyond as the crisis evolves.

What arenas and opportunities are you paying attention to right now to maximize your impact? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below — I’d love to hear them.



suzanne biegel

Catalyst at Large and Co-Founder, GenderSmart, investor, change maker, movement building leader. catalystatlarge.com, @zanne2, gendersmartinvesting.com