After COVID-19, Back to Business Should Mean Inclusive Business

By Henriette Kolb

Rawbank DRC Women in Banking | Photo credit: Nyani Quarmyne (Panos)

The coronavirus pandemic is threatening to set back years of progress in poverty reduction and further entrench existing inequalities. The World Bank estimates that in 2020 — for the first time in over two decades — extreme poverty rate will rise, reversing a trend that has lifted nearly a half billion people out of extreme poverty since 2010. As the world looks for ways to rebuild, it will be critical that businesses adopt an inclusive approach that helps those at the base of the economic pyramid.

Although the coronavirus doesn’t discriminate, it’s clear that in rich and poor countries alike the impact is greater on the most vulnerable. The insidious nature of the virus has heightened health risks among individuals who already lack access to affordable care. If you don’t have access to soap and clean water, regular hand washing becomes nearly impossible. Social distancing isn’t practical in crowded housing conditions. Distance learning and e-commerce doesn’t work if you can’t afford an internet connection. As jobs are lost and livelihoods impacted, many lack the savings to sustain themselves through an economic downturn.

But here is some good news. During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are seeing many companies respond to the crisis by reorienting and adapting their business models and operations — not only to continue to be able work with and serve their suppliers and customers at the base of the economic pyramid but also to deliver COVID-related messages and support.

Our Inclusive Business team did some analysis on how some of IFC’s clients are adapting to the crisis. From adjusting pricing models to adapting product offerings, these companies offer valuable insight into how to address the needs of those at the base of the pyramid. It is also demonstrating how private sector companies can leverage their existing networks and infrastructure to be essential actors during the crisis.

In Bangladesh, microfinance institution BRAC is leveraging its 100,000 field staff to raise awareness about the virus and crucial hygiene measures, teach hand washing, and distribute printed information and hygiene products.

In Jordan, vocational education company Luminus, is creating an App that will enable its students — many of whom are vulnerable youths and refugees — to access content more easily. This development comes after data showed that 70 percent of students are accessing the learning management system through their phones.

We are also seeing some inclusive businesses adjust their pricing and payment conditions for consumers who face limited incomes and uneven cash flows on a good day, but who now find themselves in an even more precarious position. In Mexico, Clinicas del Azucar, a diabetes care provider introduced an emergency payment policy allowing patients to defer payments, and it is providing discounts so that its services can continue to reach patients who need them the most.

When the COVID-19 crisis began, Grooming Centre, a microfinance institution in Nigeria, teamed up with the Sesor Empowerment Foundation to provide internally displaced and economically disadvantaged women with grants of 5,000 to 10,000 naira ($13 to $26) to offset the decline in earnings from their small shops. These grants are intended to provide enough funds so that recipients can stock up with 10 to 20 days’ worth of crucial food.

COVID-19’s devastating and disproportionate impact on the base of the economic pyramid will require a sustained global effort. Before the onset of the crisis, inclusive business models have been enabling companies, including these IFC clients, to turn underserved populations into dynamic consumer markets and diverse new sources of supply. In this crisis, we are seeing that inclusive businesses can play an essential role in amplifying the public and humanitarian response through their reach, innovation, and ability to adapt quickly.

Whether its developing alternative distribution channels, adapting technology, or adjusting pricing models, business can play an important role in mitigating the impact on the most vulnerable. And once the pandemic subsides, back to business shouldn’t mean simply business as usual. It’s an opportunity to build a more inclusive future.

Henriette Kolb leads the Gender Business Group at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group.

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