H&M and PVH Corp. have been the most active global apparel buyers in East Africa, in particular in Ethiopia and Kenya

H&M and PVH Corp. have been the most active global apparel buyers in East Africa, in particular in Ethiopia and Kenya

Building inclusive supply chains through responsible sourcing practices, creating gender-sensitive workplaces, and investing in training and education are some of the steps apparel brands are being urged to take in order to support women workers in sub-Saharan Africa.

"Capitalising on the region's potential could transform national economies and create millions of formal job opportunities, particularly for women," according to a new report from global non-profit group Business for Social Responsibility (BSR).

However, the research 'Women's Economic Empowerment in Sub-Saharan Africa: Recommendations for the Apparel Sector' also notes: "To realise this potential, there needs to be a concerted effort to apply lessons from other regions and ensure that human rights, safe working conditions, and women's empowerment are priorities for brands, factories, and governments."

Africa has the potential to become a major global player in garment manufacturing thanks to its large labour pool, low wages, export incentives, and convenient access to both US and European markets.

This is particularly true given rising production costs in China, while major health and safety incidents in manufacturing hubs like Bangladesh and Pakistan mean apparel companies are now considering new sourcing destinations. The recent renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) through 2025, which allows certain countries in sub-Saharan Africa duty-free access to the US market, has also helped.

Indeed, this week, the World Bank committed US$57bn in financing for sub-Saharan Africa over the next three years in a move designed to change the development trajectory of countries in the region.

World Bank commits $57bn to sub-Saharan Africa

But while the export value of clothing from Africa stood at US$9.9bn in 2013, most of those exports came from countries in North Africa, such as Morocco and Tunisia, not SSA nations.

While East Africa is experiencing growth, apparel exports from four of the key SSA manufacturing countries – Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda – are still relatively low, at $337m in 2013. In contrast, China's apparel exports amounted to around $177bn in the same year. At present, all of SSA accounts for less than 1% of global clothing exports.

Hennes & Maurtiz (H&M) and PVH Corp have been the most active global apparel buyers in East Africa, in particular in Ethiopia and Kenya. Asda Stores Ltd, Belk, Gap, JC Penney, Levi Strauss & Co, Primark, Tesco, VF Corporation, and Wal-Mart Stores are also sourcing from the region. However, the report notes that while sourcing from the region is expanding, it remains a small percentage of these brands' global purchasing.

Like other women in the sector globally, researchers point out that women in sub-Saharan Africa – who make up the majority of garment factory workers in the region – face risks of sexual abuse and harassment, few career-growth opportunities, and limited access to basic services.

In particular, the report highlights the six key challenges to women's economic empowerment in the region as being: poor pay in the face of rising living costs; limited job security; low education and skill levels; lack of supportive supervisors and limited opportunities for promotion; lack of health knowledge and limited access to services; difficulty balancing work and care (especially childcare); and gender-based violence at home and unwanted sexual advances at work.

"The industry is providing many women with opportunities to enter the formal workforce," researchers say. But they add that while formal employment offers an income, "women are typically found in the lowest-level positions and thus are most affected by economic instability or rising costs of living in many SSA cities".

According to the report, gender inequality challenges currently cost sub-Saharan Africa an estimated $95bn a year.

It also argues that given the lack of an entrenched garment manufacturing sector in the region, brands have a unique opportunity to change this.

"Global buyers' expectations – from audit requirements to deadline pressures – shape the actions and decisions of other actors in the value chain. This, in turn, has real implications for workers, especially the women who are often found in the lowest-paid, lower-skilled positions. While brands are not the only actors, through their policies, practices, and influence, they can drive change both within factories and in the broader operating environment."

The report offers a number of recommendations for brands and retailers to advance women's economic empowerment:

Inclusive supply chains – Source responsibly from SSA to generate good employment opportunities for women. This can involve taking a partnership approach to engagement with suppliers, ensuring procurement professionals are equipped with knowledge of the issues facing workers, particularly women, and implement gender-sensitive auditing. Other recommendations include strengthening access to finance for women, and incentivising suppliers to advance women's economic empowerment.

Gender-sensitive workplaces – Promote mechanisms for women's voices to be heard and improve worker-management relations. This can involve establishing channels for worker feedback, ensuring women have a voice in decisions that affect them, and encouraging better wage standards is by supporting collective bargaining.

Investing in training and education – Brands can develop or join existing industry-wide programmes that seek to strengthen basic literacy and education, as well as job-specific and life skills for workers, such as Better Work, Ethical Apparel Africa, and BSR's HERproject.

Freedom from harassment and violence – Strengthen harassment policies, communication, enforcement, and accountability mechanisms. Brands should communicate and enforce no-tolerance policies, helping factories establish anonymous reporting mechanisms, and work with factories and community partners to provide referrals to counselling services. Training workers on how to navigate their workplace systems and policies, and to ensuring management responds to issues raised is also key.

Inclusive communities – Partnering with others to improve women's access to essential products and services. Supporting local and global organisations can build an enabling environment and network of actors for women's economic empowerment. It also can help address key gaps in skills and access to goods and services for workers, while addressing some of the cultural barriers that hold women back.

Click here to view the full report.