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Beverage company launches women’s empowerment campaign

Gilbert Ghostine’s pet project, Diageo’s CSR campaign to empower 2 million women by 2017, had never felt more personal than when the executive watched Lebanese women talk about the difference the program, “Plan W,” had on their lives.

“I feel very proud that we launched Plan W in my home country,” Ghostine, president of Diageo Asia Pacific, told The Daily Star. “This project is my baby.”

Diageo is the enormous alcoholic beverage company selling household names such as Smirnoff, Johnny Walker and Tanquery. With Ghostine at the helm of Diageo’s operations in Asia, Plan W was conceived in 2012 as a corporate social responsibility initiative worth $10 million. Plan W’s launch in Lebanon this spring means the project has now reached 13 countries, and by the end of this year, 900 Lebanese women will have received entrepreneurship training classes as part of Diageo’s initiative.

Plan W seeks to empower women through learning, particularly in the field of entrepreneurship. The project in Lebanon focuses on three main subject areas: communication, accounting and leadership, skills necessary for success, Ghostine said.

Diageo has teamed up with 18 NGOs across the13 Asian countries with Plan W programs.

Local NGO Association D’Entraide Professional is spearheading the work in Lebanon, attracting women to the program, vetting their applications and helping the beneficiaries with microfinance after the program is complete, Ghostine said.

Lebanon’s program targets women living outside the capital and mainly in rural areas. Plan W began with the region of Zahle, where more than 170 women have received training to launch or better their small-scale business plans. Two of the women from this pilot program recently spoke at a news conference about their experiences.

“I felt very emotionally touched by their stories,” Ghostine said.

One of the women, he explained, came to the program hoping to open a small shop where she could sell her homemade preserves and other products. “But she didn’t know how to make a profit,” Ghostine said. For her, the classes on accounting were invaluable, she told the audience.

The project in Lebanon has also revealed areas where small business owners need practical training. Another woman at the news conference lamented that her children were computer savvy but she did not have the tools to learn herself. Ghostine said they were considering how they could incorporate computer courses into the local programs.

Batroun will be the next targeted area, and projects will continue all over the country.

Plan W takes a different approach depending on the socio-economic climate of the country. For example, in Nepal the program targets women in the lowest caste of society, a section of people called “untouchables,” and the most impoverished. Here, however, Plan W leaves the program open to all Lebanese women.

“It’s open to any woman who is Lebanese ... here, you can’t put filters,” Ghostine said.

Ghostine takes personal pride in the project because he had been inspired to create it with his team after he met with Burmese political figure Aung San Sun Kyi at the Bangkok World Economic Forum.

The first program was implemented in 2012 and now counts 40,000 women among its beneficiaries. Ghostine explained that helping women was part of the company’s DNA. Forty-four percent of Diageo’s corporate board are women, and Plan W is just one of a number of projects by the company targeting women’s empowerment.

This year Diageo inaugurated its WE Journalism awards, which honor those in media who’ve fought for women’s empowerment. Diageo is also the only alcoholic beverage company to sign the U.N. Women’s Empowerment Principles.

Ghostine said he hoped the project would spur others like it in Lebanon: “This is a great cause and we’re rallying people. ... We’re creating a momentum.”

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