New Beginnings and Prosperity: Women on Wings

By: Ronald van het Hof
Managing Director, Women on Wings India

Women on Wings is a social enterprise, founded in The Netherlands, that advises Indian social entrepreneurs that employ women in rural India and have opportunities for growth. Women on Wings’ core objective: creating 1 million jobs for women in rural India by 2018.

The idea for Women on Wings arose in 2007. Following several trips to India by Maria van der Heijden and Ellen Tacoma, self-employed entrepreneurs in management and marketing communication, the two women wanted to make a personal contribution to sustainable entrepreneurship in India.

 “We link women’s strengths with knowledge of all parts of the value chain
from production to sales.”
Maria van der Heijden

Driven by compassion, they chose to focus on ways to develop businesses in rural India and to source more employment for women. The Indian underclass – around 700 to 800 million people – still lives on barely two dollars a day. There is very little work, especially in rural areas. Families lack their own income and depend on others for their survival. By the end of 2013 the number of jobs created by Women on Wings totaled 101,250. “With an annual doubling of the number of women, we will realise over 1 million jobs for Indian women by 2018” say Van der Heijden and Tacoma.

We are achieving this goal by making knowledge available to existing Indian social businesses to accelerate their growth (pro-bono business consultancy) and by developing new businesses in partnerships. This creates employment for women in rural areas. A job means income for these women, economic autonomy and an escape from the cycle of poverty. Their children can go to school and thereby increase their chances of a better future.

“Human capital is the core of what we provide”. – Ellen Tacoma

More often than not there are ample business opportunities, but the area lacks expertise.  Women on Wings provides focused expertise – Dutch experts attach themselves temporarily to an Indian social enterprise and work together to find fitting and realistic business models. These experts provide their time – in the Netherlands and in India – on a voluntary basis. The overall effort is supported by a team of more than fifty experts. The expertise ranges from: retail and logistics, management and organization, HR and finance. This gives Women on Wings a large pool of human capital that we can link up to social enterprises in India.

Our work includes active partnerships with large companies such as AkzoNobel and Rabobank.

Corporate Social Responsibility

All three components of People, Planet and Profit can be seen in the work carried out by Women on Wings, with an emphasis on people and profit in the form of an income for enterprising women in rural India.

Women on Wings follow the international OECD Guidelines for responsible business practices. We also ensure that the women are selected for their specific skills; the women’s background and religion are not of interest. Some customers focus specifically on disadvantaged groups. 

People, Planet, Profit

In 2009, the organization drew up basic principles for its own policy on corporate social responsibility which includes consideration of:

Payment: We work with organizations that pay a fair price for the work.

Working hours: The majority of women who work for Women on Wings’ customers are not paid a salary, but are paid per item or assignment. Women often combine the paid work with their housework and looking after children. Working hours are not fixed, but are determined by the women themselves.

Child labor: Women on Wings works with organizations that hire women aged 16 years and older.

Footprint: An important component of our philosophy is the footprint left by Women on Wings – how sustainable is our business management? Do we make responsible purchasing decisions? And how do we, for example, compensate the many air miles we clock up in our trips to India and The Netherlands?

Accountability and monitoring: The process related to the detailed accountability and monitoring of the working conditions and environmental impact of activities is a work in progress. For example: this could be done through case descriptions and stories from our customers and our experts, and using organized accountability tools tailored to companies similar in size to Women on Wings (examples include the “social evaluator” and the BSCI methods).

Strengthening Our Activities in India

In 2013 a Women on Wings office was established in Delhi. This permanent base in India makes it possible to respond to partners’ questions quickly and effectively. As Ellen Tacoma has remarked: “After all, if you’re close at hand, it’s easy to make an appointment.”

Women on Wings is now able to respond much faster from its Indian office. Closer and more frequent contact enables us to expand our current partner base more rapidly, build on existing relationships and also add new partners and relationships more quickly.

Our team of 3 Indian consultants creates new business leads for Women on Wings and maintains contacts with relevant stakeholders.

Building Prosperity

Before we start working with a new business partner we need to get a clear picture of its culture and way of working, ensuring that they fit the mission and vision of Women on Wings. We then analyze the organization’s product portfolio, structure, as well as the management and operating style. Once we choose to work with this organization we then form a strategy together with them to ensure the success of the cooperation. In the next phase, we support the organization based on the defined strategy in order to link our knowledge and to create an impact that is sustainable. We have long-lasting and successful partnerships with Indian social enterprises such as Fabric Plus, Rangsutra, Jaipur Rugs and Jharcraft.

Our funding partners are companies and/or corporate or private funds/financiers who commit themselves to Women on Wings for at least three years. Together we develop business programs that aim at the sustainable development of jobs for women in rural India combined with the objectives of the funding partner.

One Program in the Spotlight

Sanitary Pads: In partnership with Aakar, SSP/SURE and Foundation Charity Fund Rijsholt we work on a sanitary pads program. This program focuses on raising awareness about the health issues associated with menstrual hygiene and the startup of sustainable enterprises in the production and sales of sanitary pads by women in rural India. Aakar provides the necessary machinery and raw materials and trains women to operate the machines. SSP/SURE is responsible for production, marketing and sales and draws on its network of 1,000 female entrepreneurs in the districts of Latur and Osmanabad. Stichting Charity Fund Rijsholt is the program’s financial backer.

A team of Women on Wings experts worked with the team members of SSP/SURE and Aakar Innovations to improve the production set up, develop an awareness and marketing plan, and create a picture book and training manual on menstrual hygiene and the use of pads.

Menstruation is stigmatized and contributes to gender inequalities in rural Indian society. In rural India, roughly one in two girls believes menstruation is a disease. The majority of adolescent girls know very little about menstruation and how to deal with it. During their period, girls stay at home instead of going to school and often drop out permanently. Sanitary pads are largely unavailable. Instead, women and girls are forced to use unhygienic cloths that can lead to disease and even death.

Since November 2013, Shanta Gevali, one of the entrepreneurs of SSP/SURE, manages the business unit in Tuljapur. She runs her business with 10 women and currently they produce 1,500 pads per day. Shanta has tremendous faith in the capacity of women to run successful businesses: “It’s not important how high you can fly in the sky, but what matters is with how many others can you fly”. Shanta believes that a woman can prove that she can play the roles of creator, feeder and survivor on this earth, if only she gets the freedom to think.

Trust and Focus on One Country

It makes me very happy that Women on Wings plays not only a role in hands-on support for social enterprises to create growth but also actively introduces organizations to each other. That could vary from buying Eri yarn for weaving, Tasar silk for embroidery, natural dyes for an environmental friendly dying process, capacity in knotting rugs or linking producer groups to those who have good access to the market. Simple connections within our network of business partners in which trust plays an important role.

We work in different states in India which has allowed us to build a great network of partners. All these connections support growth of the business and work for women in rural India!

About the Author: Ronald van het Hof has broad retail experience in design, sourcing, sales, supply chain management, multi-channel management and change management. He has worked as CEO for different leading retail chains in The Netherlands and has received several retail awards. He has been working for Women on Wings as an expert-volunteer for 5 years and has supported many Indian social enterprises in their growth. Ronald is a Dutch national and currently lives in Gurgaon, India.

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