Fit for purpose? A review of guides for gender-equitable value chain development

This article presents a review of seven guides for gender-equitable value chain development (VCD). The guides advocate persuasively the integration of gender into VCD programming and raise important issues for designing more inclusive interventions. However, gaps persist in their coverage of gender-based constraints in collective enterprises, the influence of norms on gender relations, and processes to transform inequitable relations through VCD. Guidance for field implementation and links to complementary value chain tools are also limited. The article identifies opportunities for conceptual and methodological innovation to address the varying roles, needs, and aspirations of women and men in VCD.

The literature review pointed to key themes to be considered when seeking to enhance gender equity through value chain development. We combined these themes in a framework that guided our assessment of gender-equitable VCD guides. 

The framework presents seven assessment criteria derived from the literature on gender in value chains. The first criterion addresses the guides’ theory of change for empowering women, men, and households through VCD. Each guide suggests how behaviour change is expected to happen through interventions and their implications for chain stakeholders. Such a theory may be explicitly stated in a guide or deduced from the recommended activities and the expected outcomes and impacts. As women’s empowerment is not a linear process and may prompt backlash against them, we also considered whether the guides explicitly mention the assumptions, risks, and potential repercussions that accompany the change process. The second criterion focuses on the guides’ attention to the normative elements that influence opportunities and constraints in value chains as well as preferences and aspirations of women and men in relation to chain engagement. The third criterion covers the instruments and methodological recommendations for analysis of the enabling environment and its implication for gender-equitable VCD. This criterion seeks to understand how the guides orientate users in understanding the laws, regulations, and other formal institutions that, along with support services, influence the differentiated opportunities for women and men to engage in value chains.

The following two criteria address the issue of sex-segmentation and different levels of women’s and men’s participation across chain nodes and in collective enterprises. The sixth criterion examines how the guides cover the gendered division of household labour across market and non-market livelihood activities. In particular, we considered how such arrangements condition the roles of different household members in value chains and the trade-offs that often exist between these activities. With the final criterion we look into the guides’ focus on women’s and men’s (separate or joint) access to productive assets as well as the intra-household distribution of benefits derived from value chain participation, including income and decision-making on its use. Along with the assessment criteria, the deductive approach to our study required the definition of parameters for detailed assessment, following a similar approach used by Donovan et al. (2015) in their comparative review of generic guides for VCD programming. For each assessment criterion we defined one to four parameters, for a total of 17 parameters across the seven assessment criteria (Table 1). Given the objective of this study, we selected methodological guides for gender-equitable VCD that: (1) principally target development practitioners engaged in VCD programme design, implementation, and assessment; (2) include a set of specific methodological steps and practical tools for collecting and analysing gender-sensitive data; and (3) are published by an influential international development or funding organisation, thus offering the prospect of wide-scale circulation. The seven guides selected according to these criteria are presented in the list below:

All the guides seek to shed light on opportunities for gender-equitable VCD involving smallholder farmers. Most focus on women’s empowerment, while only some address gender relations in value chains and the context in which they operate. The guides vary in their focus across different levels of chain actors and with regard to the attention paid to the environment in which VCD takes place. Table 3 reveals the emphasis for analysis and action placed by the guides across the following levels: (1) individuals, (2) households, (3) collective enterprises, (4) value chain, and (5) business and regulatory environment.

As Table 4 illustrates, the guides advocate stronger coverage of four out of the seven criteria that underlie our assessment: (1) gendered participation in the value chain; (2) enabling environment for gender-equitable VCD; (3) gendered division of household labour; and (4) gendered access to and control over household assets and VCD benefits. Even in these cases, only two to four guides – usually including SNV, AgriProFocus, USAID, and DCED – pay more attention to these. The other topics receive markedly less attention, namely the theory of change on the potential of VCD to transform gender relations and empower women and men, the normative elements that influence gender relations, and gendered participation in collective enterprises.


Looking forward, this review points to important opportunities for a deeper integration of gender into VCD through conceptual and methodological innovation in practitioner-oriented guides. Particularly important will be the elaboration of new tools that cover to a fuller extent the capacity of households, and of women and men therein, to deepen their engagement in value chains. Such tools will employ the notion of jointness inherent in household activities, decision-making, and access to productive assets. They will also address the complementarities and frictions between women’s and men’s individual aspirations, capacities and benefits; and they will allow to better understand the actual and potential effects of women’s and men’s (separate and collective) empowerment on overall outcomes at the household and enterprise levels. Doubtless, any deeper consideration of the gender dimension in VCD adds complexity. This, in turn, requires more detailed guidance for practitioners on how to plan for gender-equitable VCD, considering the skills needed, the time required, and the additional costs incurred. Finally, a deeper understanding of the circumstances and needs of individuals, households, enterprises and other value chain actors and the complex dynamics of their interactions requires a structured process of monitoring, evaluation, and learning – another aspect to be included in future guidance on gender-equitable VCD. The refinement of guides over time will be accelerated by the availability of research findings that shed light on context-specific options for negotiating change in household and business relations, the critical factors behind the change, and resulting implications for promoting gender equality through VCD. Researchers and practitioners will benefit from deeper collaboration among themselves and joint
learning with chain stakeholders to better address the “how” and “what now” questions, which have largely been absent in discussions on gender-equitable VCD.

Author (Core team): 

Dietmar Stoian, Jason Donovan, Marlène Elias and Trent Blare

Spatial coverage: 
Conceptual framework: