Export Development Canada (EDC) has committed CA$50mn to fund a programme designed to help Canadian women entrepreneurs engage in exporting.

The Women in Trade Investments Programme will provide equity capital through direct investment in women-owned and led businesses that the Canadian export credit agency considers strong candidates for significant export growth. The programme will also invest in Canadian venture capital funds that demonstrate a commitment to gender diversity on both sides of the entrepreneur/investor table.

As part of the initiative, EDC aims to offer support to businesses at an early stage of growth as it says this is where many women-owned and led businesses can stall due to a lack of capital.

“The market clearly has a gap in terms of women accessing capital at the critical commercialisation stage, and we want to do more to address this,” says Jennifer Cooke, EDC’s corporate lead for Women in Trade, in a statement on the launch.

“We know women entrepreneurs are more likely to access capital when there are women investors on the other side of the table, so we’re seeking fund partners who are also committed to improving gender diversity within their own senior management.”

The programme was launched earlier this month and its managers are currently closing the first deal.

The initiative comes in response to research which shows that only 2% of Canada’s SME exporters are run by women. A 2017 Statistics Canada survey revealed that women account for 16% of SME owners in Canada, and only 11% of that portion are active overseas.

EDC says that advancing women’s equality in Canada has the potential to add CA$150bn in incremental GDP by 2026.

Mairead Lavery, who was appointed president and CEO of EDC at the start of the year, says: “Women face unique challenges in the business world, and we’ve seen that equity capital providers are not meaningfully investing in businesses owned or led by women in Canada. EDC’s new programme is the latest in a series of solutions EDC offers to ensure all Canadians have the same opportunities to dream big, be daring and take on the world, regardless of gender.”

EDC joins a growing group of financial institutions that are doing more to promote women-led businesses around the world. Earlier this month, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and Citi agreed on a US$150mn facility to support women-owned SMEs in Paraguay.

Elsewhere, the European Investment Bank, in partnership with UniCredit, signed its second financing facility of the year in February that was focused on developing women-led SMEs in Europe.