Investing in women’s economic empowerment is essential for COVID-19 recovery

Photo credit: Good Return

Women are key economic drivers in the Region, contributing to economies across the Pacific in a range of important ways.

The advancement of women’s economic empowerment will be essential to leading a fast recovery from the impact of COVID-19, and to building a more resilient and equitable future for everyone.

To date, COVID-19 has forced many European and Northern American economies to a halt. There is talk of a deep global recession, with significant job losses in the formal sector. Families and communities are already finding it challenging to support basic needs.

In the Pacific, the tourism industry, which is a significant contributor to employment, is already reeling from cancellations.

But with the number of COVID-19 cases still relatively small across the Pacific, and with some countries reporting zero infections, now is the time to act. It is necessary to build resilience now to ensure women can emerge from the impact of COVID-19 as strong business ambassadors.

Currently, in the Pacific men outnumber women 2-1 in formal paid employment (outside the agricultural sector), however, women make up most of the important informal financial sector, earning the income critical to meeting a family’s basic needs.

In Solomon Islands, the annual turnover at the Honiara Central Market is between USD10–16 million, with women responsible for about 90 per cent of activity as both bulk buyers and retailers. In Samoa, 80 per cent of the private sector is comprised of micro businesses, of which women are estimated to lead over 40 per cent.1

Research shows that if women had the same access to credit, markets and technology, the ability to increase returns, particularly in the informal sector, would significantly increase.

From our existing work in the Region there are important lessons learnt about effective ways of achieving this outcome.

Pacific RISE, an innovative pilot of the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), supports finance organisations to use gender analysis alongside financial analysis in the design of financing mechanisms and tools.

The Program’s partners such as Good Return, an Australian not-for-profit, are empowering communities and businesses through increased access to responsible, inclusive financial education and finance. Good Return launched an impact investment program in 2017 – first in Solomon Islands and then in Tonga – supported by Pacific RISE and Pacific Trade Invest Australia.

Good Return works with financial service providers to de-risk loans to businesses, including women’s businesses that may otherwise fall short of accessing commercial capital. The organisation typically does this through building the capacity of a business and providing a loan guarantee – reducing the risk to the financial service provider.

Importantly, Good Return uses a gender lens and conducts gender market assessments to identify sectors where investments are optimal, while working with financial service providers to build awareness and address barriers to access to finance (particularly for women) as well as improve products and services which respond to both women’s and men’s needs.2

Pacific RISE’s partners have also launched new financing facilities such as IIX’s Emergency Financing Facility, a revolving facility providing refundable grants and working capital loans to select high-impact SMEs, creating livelihoods more than 70,000 over the next 5 years. The Facility provides grant capital and concessional loans to SMEs creating a positive social and/or environmental impact in South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific to help them survive through the COVID-19 crisis. All repayments received from enterprises are re-lent to new businesses in need, magnifying the impact of each dollar by x3.

Programs like Pacific RISE are well placed to support women’s businesses to quickly re-establish post COVID-19. Pacific RISE works closely with financial stakeholders to reframe their understanding and consideration of women’s financial needs by integrating a gender lens across investing practices and process and including a strong focus on coaching and mentoring.

As a result, there are now structures and pathways in place that make it possible for financial actors to come into the Region and support women in a more effective way. Lessons from initiatives such as Pacific RISE, can and should be applied as part of an effective COVID-19 response.


This blog was originally posted on the Coffey International Development website:

Empowering Tongan Business through Impact Investment

As first published on the Pacific Trade Invest, Australia website. Photo credit: Pacific Trade Invest, Australia.

With extensive networks in the Pacific business community, PTI Australia collaborated with Pacific Readiness for Investment in Social Enterprise (Pacific RISE) to connect Tongan businesses to a new impact investment fund – supporting economic development and helping to stem the flow of people and skills from the region.

Good Return has been working in the Pacific since 2005, empowering communities and businesses through increasing access to responsible, inclusive financial education. Over the last two years, having identified a ‘missing middle’ in the business community — those too large for microfinance but unable to obtain commercial lending due to structural barriers and capacity building needs — Good Return launched its first impact investment program first in Solomon Islands and then in Tonga.

In the program, Good Return works with financial service providers to de-risk loans to businesses that may otherwise fall short of accessing this commercial capital. The organisation typically does this through building enterprises’ capacity and providing a loan guarantee – reducing the risk to the financial service provider.

Over time, it is anticipated that increasing investment in these under-served businesses, supported by Good Return’s loan guarantee scheme, will help to influence future risk assessments and remove the need for Good Return’s loan guarantee.

Gender lens investing is integral to Good Return’s impact investment program and it works with financial service providers to build awareness and address barriers to access (particularly for women) and improve products and services which respond to both women’s and men’s needs and preferences.

In Tonga, Good Return partnered with the Tonga Chamber of Commerce and Industry to support the vanilla farmers of ‘Eua Island to enhance their financial skills – running training sessions with both husband and wife on cash flow, forecasting and budget management and providing coaching with the farming couples to develop their business plans before they applied for a loan.

PTI Australia introduced the Good Return team to Heilala Vanilla – the largest buyer of vanilla in Tonga. With Heilala Vanilla as a guaranteed buyer, Good Return and Tonga Chamber of Commerce and Industry were able to support three ‘Eua vanilla farming couples to develop their financial skills and business plans to successfully access finance through the Tonga Development Bank.

To date, these loans have been used to buy fencing and other farming tools – helping farmers increase productivity by protecting their crops from theft and roaming livestock.

Although Good Return’s impact investment program is new, this increased productivity with Heilala Vanilla as a guaranteed buyer of the crops could lead to increased demand for seasonal workers on ‘Eua Island and may give farmers the opportunity to acquire more land through increased business profits.

More broadly, these changes could help stem the flow of people and skills leaving Tonga, and reduce reliance on remittances.

Pacific Regional Manager at Good Return, Jessie Fisher, said “The real goal for our impact investment program is to support job growth in rural and remote communities so people don’t need to migrate to find work, by supporting businesses to innovate and grow into the future.”

“We’re growing this program and learning a lot. Having partners like PTI Australia and Pacific RISE is very important because they’re so engaged in the Pacific and have incredible networks.”

“It’s a collaborative, open relationship where all sides are working to get the best for Pacific entrepreneurs – whatever stage they are at.”

World-first tool to assess the investment risk of GBV

Pacific RISE partnered with the Criterion Institute to design a world-first investment due-diligence tool for gender-based violence (GBV). Many studies detail the cost of violence for Pacific communities and businesses, but little is known of how these economic and social impacts pose a risk to investments.

This GBV due diligence tool analyses four existing due diligence categories of political, regulatory, operational and reputational risks and shows how these can be affected by gender-based violence.  The tool is specific to the Pacific region but acknowledges that this is an issue that all regions face globally and builds upon due diligence processes that are standard worldwide. Leading impact investors and gender-based violence organisations provided feedback and guidance on the tool’s development.

Pacific RISE and Criterion were proud to distribute it at the Impact Investment SummitAsia Pacific, and received great feedback from investors and other representatives. Access it as an interactive PDF here on the Pacific RISE website.

More investments in the Pacific

More investments in the Pacific  

Good Return recently announced that they have been able to support four loans to vanilla farmers in Tonga working with the social enterprise Heilala Vanilla. What started as a program to support vanilla farmers in Tonga after a cyclone, the Heilala Foundation supports sustainable farming of vanilla in the Kingdom.

Using their blended finance model, Good Return partnered with the Tonga Development Bank to provide subsidized commercial loans to the vanilla farmers that supply Heilala with vanilla.  The loans will fund fences to protect the spice from animals and also production materials to make the farming process more efficient.

These four loans can demonstrate to other farmers that it is possible to access bank finance at a competitive rate and can lead to more farmers taking up this opportunity in the future.

Good Return is working closely with Tonga Chamber of Commerce, which will continue with financial training and is also working with Heilala to apply a gender lens across their business and investments.

REAL Impact has supported a further two loans to creative artisans in Papua New Guinea by crowdfunding source, KIVA.

Marjorie and Thomas from Pacific Primitive Arts successfully raised USD 10,000 in KIVA finance to produce new styles of tapa cloth weaving to sell to an established US market.  Virginia and the team from REAL Impact facilitated the loan as well as the market access for them to sell this new style of traditional craftsmanship.  Marjorie and Thomas are from the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea, and the loan will facilitate the teaching of other Trobriand Islanders how to weave and carve, as well as buy materials and business establishment costs.

In addition to Marjorie and Thomas’ loans, REAL Impact has also facilitated a loan of USD 5,000 for Gilbert who is based in Port Moresby and has established a handicraft trading business called MAS APMA Carvers. Gilbert is currently buying and selling Ialibu woven baskets. He will use the loan to realise his vision of providing economic and social development opportunities for master weavers from his home in and around Wewak, East Sepik Province, PNG.

Sharing the lessons from 2016-2019

Pacific RISE has been extended until June 2021.  This extension will allow Pacific RISE to continue working on the investment pipeline that has been established in the first three years of operation.

Pacific RISE recently completed a report that captured the achievements and lessons of Pacific RISE during the first three years of operation from August 2016 to July 2019.  You can access this on the website.

Also, our Fact Sheet has been updated to reflect the goal of attracting AUD $10 million of new investment in the Pacific and some of the opportunities available on our investment pipeline.  This is available on this website.

Celebrating Menstrual Health Day 2019.....

How to invest so that women and girls in the Pacific can access quality menstrual health products 

Caption: Anne-Shirley from Queens Pads

Anne-Shirley can often be seen scouring the clothing racks at the second-hand warehouses in Port Moresby looking for the right type of fabrics to make her reusable menstrual pads that she intends to sells to unemployed women living in urban areas. As her business grows she would also like to target other markets such as school girls. She created her business, Queens Pads to provide these women and girls with safe, healthy and affordable menstrual health products as their alternatives are often homemade cloths pieces and other materials.  Queens Pads uses a strong quality control measure to make sure a high standard of product is produced which is supportive of health and environmental considerations at each stage of the production process. Using newly purchased fabrics to make the pads is a future option for Queens Pads but access to affordable fabrics is hard to come by in Port Moresby and alternative materials like sheets or towels would push their price point up too high for their urban area customers.  The second-hand clothing stores provide high-quality and often new materials but at much cheaper prices, keeping her pads at an affordable price.

Caption: Isabell and Angelica from Mana Care

Samoan-based menstrual product producers Angelica and Isabell have called their  business Mana Care.  Fabric for them is also impossible to source locally so they travel to New Zealand and Australia to buy their fabrics.  Due to the range available in these areas they have been able to position their business around the materials they buy with the designs reflecting their brand. They choose materials that will appeal to women and add a little joy to their menstrual cycle, such as their limited edition Wonder Woman range which sold out in two weeks.  These materials, though, come at a price, and so their buyers have been traditionally women who can afford their pads. Recently the founders of Mana Care have been able to develop other more affordable products to lower-income women, although the fabric and material challenges still remain, making these products inaccessible to most women in rural communities

These two organisations are not alone in their supply-chain challenges, the other 28 Pacific-based menstrual health product producers that attended Pacific RISE’s Menstrual Health Management workshop face similar obstacles around their abilities to purchase materials locally and at a reasonable price point.  Analysis of the production costs of this menstrual health producer community indicates that materials represent 70-90% of their unit costs (other costs like labour and packaging are very low by comparison). All of the producers are trying to source similar materials being cotton textiles, polyurethane laminate and button snaps.  To get the materials they need to make their products, some producers ask friends to bring them in suitcases from Australia or other locations; others freight them in at an exorbitant cost; some go to the local homewares stores and buy sheets and towels; while the QueensPads team spends hours and hours in football sized second-hand stores sourcing the fabrics.

These businesses also have other things in common apart from their inability to access affordable materials. They all have a strong focus and drive to find locally appropriate, accessible and affordable menstrual health products for Pacific women and girls.  They have established their organisations due to the challenges facing women and girls as outlined in the Australian Government funded Last Taboo Research including girls and women with less access to money (such as the unemployed, or those on low income and adolescent girls reliant on parents) face affordability challenges and may rely on home-made solutions (of variable efficacy) to manage their menstruation, more broadly, there is alack of available products in rural areas, with cheaper, poor quality brands being more common. Across the board, re-usable products generated interest among women and girls.

After meeting with these businesses, Pacific RISE commissioned the Criterion Institute to identify if there was an impact investment opportunity to support these menstrual health product producers and improve access to locally driven, affordable and sustainable menstrual health management products for Pacific women and girls.

Impact investments are investments of capital “made into companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate a measurable, beneficial social or environmental impact alongside a financial return.” The global impact investing market is now worth $502 billion, according to new research that advocates say highlights the need for future growth across the responsible investing landscape. Menstrual health is an attractive area for investors, particularly social impact investors, gender lens investors, investors with a focus on young women and girls, and public and donor agencies in the Pacific

“What businesses like Queens Pads need is investment in the ecosystem in which they operate to help overcome some of their other challenges like a dispersed population over wide geographical locations, weak transportation links that impact their supply chains consistency and of course to source appropriately priced materials locally.” says Joy Anderson from the Criterion Institute.

Trade finance is a tool that can make it easier for importers and exporters to transact business and  introduces a third-party to  transactions  to remove payment and supply risk.  This would allow the businesses to collectively bargain for cheaper prices for materials and would allow them to access capital to purchase material in bulk which can reduce the price of their products and allows them to pass those savings onto women in the Pacific.

Criterion is currently testing a proposal to structure a trade finance deal – pooling capital into a financial intermediary who would then offer a set of different trade finance vehicles to meet the needs of menstrual health enterprises. These could include but are not limited to trade credit insurance, pre-shipment capital, factoring, export credit etc.

“As a whole, the menstrual health market in the Pacific seems small compared to other regions; however, solving for this could have a considerable impact.” continues Joy.

And investors agree.  Having tested this with a number of local and global investors, there is already enough interest from investors to fund this initiative.  Considering the large number of informal markets in which community-based and/or female-led enterprises play a central role, structuring a trade finance deal to meet their early financing needs could have significant impacts on their scalability.


The Criterion Institute and Pacific RISE, with the support of the Australian Government, is committed to exploring innovative investments in menstrual health.  We are working on developing and testing this trade finance structure further to strengthen community-based menstrual health enterprises, as well its application to other market opportunities.

Visit our menstrual health website and read our report.

Curious to know what lessons we learned in 2018?

Well, you can in our Annual Report for 2018.  Plus find out what investments were made, get more insights into the work of our intermediaries, and find out the plans for 2019.

Read this report, plus a few others on our dedicated report page.

Championing the rights of women and girls: exploring a sustainable menstrual health eco-system in the Pacific

Pacific RISE, along with the Criterion Institute and MH Hub, was proud to convene of a group of 43 women and men stepping forward to champion the rights of Pacific women and girls in accessing affordable and quality menstrual health products. In September last year, representatives from 13 countries working in a range of social and business organisations came together to understand and overcome inefficiencies and obstacles in the menstrual health market across the region.  The workshop was supported by DFAT and Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development.

The final report of that workshop “Unlocking the opportunity in the Pacific menstrual health market” is now available. The first of its kind, a unique case study covering the lessons learned from menstrual health actors working in the Asia Pacific region and focuses on the local context of island-based nations.  It provides insights and opportunities for investment and recommendations on building the market within the Pacific.

View the report plus more about the four-day workshop at

The workshop was a recommendation of the Last Taboo research commissioned by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Celebrating International Women’s Day – Cathy’s story from local markets to international trade shows

Photo caption: Cathy  Wariapa from CWakama Arts & Crafts on right at the markets
Photo credit: Alec Mason / REAL Impact

“My region is known for its beautiful weaving and woven baskets, but our community has faced many challenges. With only local markets available, the community started doing less and less weaving, to the point that this traditional skill had almost stopped being passed down to the next generation.

But I believe that the craft industry in this country is a sleeping giant, and thanks to working with REAL Impact, I have been able to tell the community that their handicraft has value – we just need to get into overseas markets, and if we do, this will bring many benefits back
into the community.” Cathy Wariapa

Cathy Wariapa not only has talent as a weaver, but she is also a leader in her community providing women and men with the opportunity to sell their weaving products in international markets. Globally, the artisan market is the second largest employer in emerging economies, behind agriculture, with an estimated market size of US$38 billion. Artisans are significant contributors to the world’s high-end fashion, textile and homeware industries. Papua New Guinean artisans from Ialibu District have had little opportunity to contribute to this global industry until now. Their products that were once only showcased at local markets are now being promoted at international trade shows such as 2019 NY NOW.   Recently held in New York, the promotion of Cathy and her community’s products resulted in several orders and enquiries from leading US homeware companies.

Cathy is central to this success, bringing her local community together to produce world-class products. From developing her business, Cwakama Arts and Crafts with REAL Impact, Cathy is now creating real income-generating opportunities for her district. Selling to a large overseas market allows Cathy to increase her income as the local domestic markets where she was previously selling her products were unpredictable and were only frequented by a small number of tourists and other Southern Highlanders.

“The Ialibu community is producing a range of product for orders placed through my business by REAL Impact, which is providing a regular income for the community. This is exciting, but there have been many challenges along the way. Instead of working individually to sell products, the villages have had to come together and work to their strengths. For example, some villages are better at raw material gathering and preparation, while others are better at weaving. I worked with the community leaders to pick the best weavers from the region because the weaving needs to be high quality, and we have to have some standard designs. Along the way we have learned that some weavers are better than others, so we now have a buddy system so the better weavers can train the other weaver. 

We have collaborated with Australian designer Darcy Clarke to help us design high-end products that appeal to the international customers such as our lights
and stool.” Cathy Wariapa

It has been a monumental effort by Cathy, her community and REAL Impact to make this transition from local markets to international trade shows.

A decisive turning point was when Cathy received a zero-interest loan from KIVA – a first ever for a Papua New Guinean.  Within 14 hours over 700 investors and groups on the crowdfunding platform invested in Cathy with the capital going towards the development of new products. Supporting them along the way has been Pacific RISE an Australian Government funded initiative – which provided funding for REAL Impact to undertake scoping missions – and Pacific Trade Invest, Australia who facilitated the loan deals with KIVA and REAL Impact.

“The people in Ialibu community are proud people, and what we have been doing has restored that pride and belief, because they know what they are creating has value to others
and their community.” Cathy Wariapa

Find out more:

Read about PTI Australia’s role and other innovative impact investments in the Pacific

View the REAL Impact website and see their Considered range

Want to know more about using a gender lens to influence impact finance in our region?

***Update: Whilst this event has already happened you can still watch the panel on the ANU YouTube page ****

Pacific RISE is pleased to be participating in a panel on Tuesday 19 February at 1.30pm at the 2019 Australian Aid Conference in Canberra.

Amanda Jupp, Pacific RISE’s facility manager will join other leading specialists on investing with a gender lens to review and reflect on the on-ground experience using a gender lens in the impact investing ecosystem in Asia and the Pacific.

Moderated by Amy Haddad, assistant secretary and principle gender specialist, gender equality branch DFAT, Amanda will also be joined on stage by

Joy Anderson, founder of the Criterion Institute and Pacific RISE’s gender adviser

Sally Moyle, CEO of Care Australia

Will Scott-Kemmis, design lead for Second Muse (Frontier Innovators and Incubators)

James Soukamneuth, impact investing partnership director, Investing in Women.

Find out more here, watch the live stream at 1.30pm AEST here or follow the conversation on Twitter using #AAC2019.