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421. Root Capital shines light on women in the shadows

Back in February, Root Capital released a white paper on social and environmental performance management—the inaugural publication in a series of issue briefs on strategic insights the organization has gleaned from its work.  Last week, Root published the second brief in the series—this one focused on gender lens investing—that is worth a closer look.


The latest Root Capital issue brief is focused on women it calls “hidden influencers” in rural enterprises–not the women managers at the top of the pyramid nor the rank-in-file women farmers and farmworkers at its base who seem to be the subject of so much discussion in policy and corporate circles these days, but the women working as accountants, field officers, agronomists and in other “less conspicuous” roles in the middle of the pyramid.  Although it doesn’t use the popular term, Root Capital clearly seems to see these women as “intrapreneurs” with what it calls “outsized influence” within their respective enterprises–influence that can be used to increase rates of women’s participation and leadership in those same enterprises.  By shining some light on the role of mid-level women influencers lost in the shadows of their organizations’ leaders and the sheer numbers of women at the base of the pyramid, Root Capital seems to be reflecting a bit of its own gestalt.  After all, Root Capital is the financial institution that has done more than anyone else to fill the “missing middle” of credit markets in the coffeelands, lending to coffee enterprises that are too big for microfinance institutions and considered too small or risky for commercial bank loans.


Root Capital advances here the same argument in favor of a more deliberate focus on gender issues as it did in its first brief on the importance of social and environmental performance, namely: it helps Root Capital more effectively advance its mission to simultaneously drive improvements social impact and financial performance.  The document makes passing reference to the enthusiastic conclusion of a significant body of international development research: the social returns on investment in women of all ages, from girls’ primary education to incorporating more adult women into the workforce, are high.  To the extent Root Capital’s work brings more women into the grassroots enterprises it serves and puts more income into the hands of women, it is driving social impact.  It further cites more recent findings that improvements in gender equity can—like the social and environmental performance issues Root Capital raised in its first brief—be sources of competitive advantage.  Unlike the evidence advanced in its previous issue brief, in which Root Capital showed evidence of improvements in its own profitability as a result of its monitoring of non-traditional metrics, this brief enlists the work of others to support its claim.


The publication explains howRoot Capital’s “gender lens” has evolved, from early and rudimentary efforts to “count farmers” to a more elaborate set of eight metrics that are part of organization’s social scorecard.  On the basis of these metrics, Root reaches a determination about whether a client organization is or is not “gender inclusive.”

From my reading, the metrics still seem to have a bit of a “counting” orientation.  The challenge I see is documenting changes that begin to break down what Root calls “inherently inequitable systems.”

On the basis of my training in international development and my experience with the integral human development framework, I locate these “inherently inequitable systems” in both formal structures (institutions, laws, etc.) and informal systems (values, beliefs and norms).  The formal institutional frameworks that may discriminate against women are structural and formidable–“hard” barriers to women’s empowerment.  But we should not underestimate the power of “soft” obstacles like the “cultural norms” that Root Capital cites in its issue brief: the development economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen published a chilling essay in 1990 suggesting that 100 million women are missing from the Asian subcontinent as a result of one particularly insidious cultural norm—pervasive perference for male children—that led to systematic neglect of girls and higher rates of early childhood mortality among girls than boys.

Through my own studies and experience, I have come to the (decidedly novice) understanding that policies and programs that are truly “gendered” or “gender-sensitive” are those that take these structural and systemic sources of bias as their point of departure—their design takes into account the ways that a woman’s lived experience is different from a man’s precisely because of the social construct of her gender category.  In this regard, I found the most exciting aspect of Root Capital’s Women in Agriculture Initiative not the metrics on its gender scorecard but its strategy to develop financial products and services that are uniquely designed for women.  In my mind, these are the instruments of innovation that hold the greatest promise to deliver true empowerment for women by dismantling “inherently inequitable” structures and systems.


As it did in its inaugural issue brief on social and environmental performance management, Root Capital makes no bones about the goal of its publication: to push other organizations at the intersection of impact investing, social enterprise and international development to broaden the discussion and take action.  In the Synopsis, Root Capital says it seeks to “expand the dialogue” in these spaces to include a broader conceptualization of women’s empowerment.  In the Introduction, Root writes: “We encourage other investors and development practitioners to…expand their gender lens.”  And in the Conclusion: “We encourage others who share our goal of unlocking the economic potential of women to expand their focus beyond women as leaders to include women from across the economic spectrum…and begin a substantive dialogue on how we can collectively support their long-term economic empowerment.”

Here, here!  Thank you, Root Capital, for provoking important conversations and pushing us all to considered action.  I look forward to your next issue brief.



  • Many thanks for sharing your thoughts on our issue brief. You raise excellent points about the difficulty of changing pervasive gender inequities.

    You’re absolutely right that our gender scorecard is essentially still about counting women, just across more categories that provide richer perspective than a single number. It’s important for us to incorporate these metrics into our lending decisions, but it’s become clear to us that this isn’t nearly enough. We attempt to go deeper through impact studies with a subset of clients, issue briefs like this one, and by adapting our services to ensure that women benefit from them.

    This last area is where we believe we could have the most impact, but also where we’re just getting started. Some things we’re considering: targeting investments through our Coffee Farmer Resilience Fund to programs that demonstrate gender equity; identifying ways to increase participation by women managers and accountants (those hidden influencers) in financial management trainings; and expanding our loan offerings, such as loans for income diversification, which could disproportionately benefit women and then using metrics to make sure that these products actually reach women.

    We’re also exploring ways to engage cooperatives around the complex cultural dynamics that reinforce the systemic inequities you mention. We’re starting modestly by sharing findings from a set of impact studies we’ve done with 4 Guatemalan coffee coops in partnership with the Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank and the Committee on Sustainability Assessment. The findings include a section on barriers that women face to joining the coops and fully benefiting from their services. By sharing the data with a cross section of management, board, and members of each coop – and benchmarking each coop against the other three – we aim to initiate dialogue among our clients. The big question now: Where to go from here? This is a live discussion for us, and we look forward to engaging with peers as thoughtful and action-oriented as you are on these issues.

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thank you for your thoughtful response and the open invitation to dialogue. I hope others will contribute to the conversation here.

      I am not sure whether it is helpful, but today I published here some of the data we collected through our Borderlands coffee project in Colombia on the gender divison of labor there–our initial effort to understand the different ways that men and women engage with the coffee process. While it doesn’t help with the metrics you are working to develop, I think it is this kind of inquiry that can help inform all of us how women’s perspectives and needs are different from men’s as a result of their gender roles.

      I look forward to seeing the Guatemala issue briefs you mention.


  • Thank you for highlighting Root Capital’s timely issue brief on gender lens investing. Kudos should also be given to Root for its work and investment in organizations that demonstrate a strong commitment to gender equity. This is one of several innovative aspects of the program.

    As you point out, the development sector has confirmed that social return on investment in women is high, and points to competitive advantage. From our many conversations with coffee industry leaders, we have concluded that they agree with our own assessment that a more gender-sensitive approach is essential to ensuring a sustainable supply chain. At the same time, it is recognized that more work is required before we can fully understand how to engage effectively with this issue.

    To deepen the shared understanding of the subject, the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) recently launched a collaborative research initiative with industry and development partners. The research will explore the link between coffee and gender in order to inform our own strategic approach to gender, and encourage innovation in the coffee industry. The result of the first phase of this project will be an academically based, industry-friendly report that will recommend additional research, partnerships, pilots and investments that can actually move the needle on this important issue.

    Your invocation of the Amartya Sen’s ‘missing 100 million’ applies, though less dramatically, to the coffee industry; where women have not been systematically ‘disappeared’, but yet are so disenfranchised from tangible economic outcomes for their burdensome share of coffee work and frequently degraded life circumstance, that their capabilities are mostly wasted.

    We can no longer afford, as an industry, to let these significant capabilities go to waste, as we try to solve the monumental global challenges that threaten to disrupt the supply of quality coffee upon which our businesses thrive. Engaging the full capabilities of women and men in coffee producing communities and throughout the value chain will be what assures a sustainable coffee future.

    Dialogue among supply-chain participants is key to inform a sound approach to encourage new structures and systems that engage the full capabilities of all persons living and working in coffee communities. A key element of our research project is to involve coffee producers and industry participants in exploratory workshops on the balance of power in community and supply chain relationships, the relative share of work and income, and other dynamics that influence the well being of communities and hence, the health of the coffee supply chain.

    In line with CQI’s mission to improve the quality of coffee and the lives of the people who produce it, we are confident that greater attention to gender sensitive approaches in coffee communities will underpin a more resilient supply chain. We invite everyone to participate – by joining a workshop, supporting the partnership and spreading the word. More details at

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