Amy Gillett

Texting Toward a Better Business: What happened when women in three countries were offered bite-sized bits of business know-how via mobile phones

Ijeoma Ewurun of Nigeria left a long career as a teacher to become a poultry farmer. She had always kept poultry as a hobby and decided to try her hand at turning it into a business. She had no formal business training – and as the mother of nine, she couldn’t spare the time to attend a training program.

Lil Hartini of Indonesia needed to find a way to supplement her teaching salary in order to pay school fees for her three daughters. Drawing on her baking skills, she started selling cakes and breads. People liked her baked goods, but demand was inconsistent. Lil felt frustrated but didn’t know where to turn.

Both of these women, and thousands of small-scale entrepreneurs like them, could benefit from business education. But with little free time and few financial resources, how can they attain it?

The question is key, not only for the women who striving to improve their lives through a better livelihood for themselves and their families, but also for the economic growth of their countries. Developing the skills of women to make them more effective at work increases a country’s productivity. Unleashing the power of women to earn a better livelihood also has numerous social benefits (see my previous blog post on NextBillion).

Enter the Business Women mobile service. Developed by the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, the ExxonMobil Foundation and Nokia, the service offered the women bite-sized bits of business know-how via their mobile phones. Every week, they received five or six business tips as part of a year-long curriculum. Content included topics such as customer relations, negotiations, applying for loans, bookkeeping, human resource management and marketing.

The content was customized for the women in each of the three countries in the program: Nigeria, Indonesia and Tanzania. Local non-profits helped tailor the messages to the countries. Other subjects included the practical aspects of setting up a business in the target country, such as how to properly register a business. And examples were also localized, so the women in Nigeria might be learning from the example of a fruit seller in Nigeria, while the women in Indonesia would be reading about a successful Indonesian catering business owner.

As the project got underway and feedback was collected, the importance of customizing by country became even more apparent, as participants’ interests differed by country. For example, while nearly six in 10 women in Nigeria wanted to learn more about managing employees, only two in 10 Indonesian women did.

One might be skeptical about the power of SMS messages to improve one’s ability to grow a business (even if there are 200 such messages.) So what were the results of this program? First, let’s start with the two struggling women mentioned at the start of this post. I always find personal experiences a great way to explore training effectiveness. Of course, quantitative data are important – but it’s the stories that really resonate and stick with us.

Ijeoma Ewurun, the poultry farmer in Nigeria, utilized the business tips related to innovation to differentiate the types of eggs she sells. By giving her chickens a vitamin supplement, she was able to start selling higher quality eggs. Customers took note and started increasing their orders. Word got out among bakers in the community. Her reputation has grown and sales have taken off.

Lil Hartini of Indonesia expanded beyond baked goods and into the catering business with the help of the business tips. She now makes a popular rice dish, nasi goreng, and supplies it to the kitchen at the school where she works as a teacher. The program also gave her new confidence and courage to work through difficult times. “The program gave me the feeling that women are equal with men in terms of building a business,” she is quoted as saying in the Cherie Blair Foundation’s “Evaluating Business Women” report on the project.

Overall, nine out of 10 participants in the program said the service gave them “practical guidance” on growing their business. Participants reported higher levels of optimism and entrepreneurial optimism.

The Business Women mobile service tapped into the growing trend of using mobile devices for learning. Called “m-learning,” the practice is taking off around the globe. It is very well suited to the many developing countries, which tend to have a high rate of mobile phone penetration. M-learning leapfrogs the traditional e-learning infrastructure requirements of a computer with an Internet connection, so often in short supply in emerging markets.

Left: A screen shot from the Usaha Wanita application in Indonesia. The topics menu enables the subscriber to choose an article. The process was similar for the Nigerian version of the application. (Image credit: Cherie Blair Foundation).

M-learning allows content to be delivered cheaply and at scale. The Business Women mobile service program ultimately served 134,000 people (100,500 of these were women) from its launch in the fall of 2012 until its conclusion at the end of 2013. The cost for participants was minimal. In Nigeria, the service was free for six months and then participants had to pay the cost of receiving an SMS. In Indonesia, the service was delivered via data network. Participants did not pay per message, but the service did draw down on their data access. Of course, the program sponsors incurred development costs for the program. But once the program was set up, there was no incremental cost for each new participant.

M-learning also fits in well with the busy lifestyle of business owners in emerging markets. Even if they can find low-cost training, there are usually additional costs in transportation and lodging to attend a program. Further, there is the opportunity cost of being away from their businesses for class and travel time. Finally, there is the challenge of finding childcare so they can attend the training. M-learning delivers bite-sized learning that can be consumed whenever one has a few minutes to spare, wherever one happens to be.

The Business Women program was impactful and cost effective. So why isn’t it still running? The program was hosted on the Nokia Life platform. This platform was pre-installed on Nokia handsets, so it was easy to access and already familiar to many of the women (it hosted features including news and horoscopes). Nokia decided to pull the plug on the Nokia Life platform by the end of 2013, thereby cutting off the Business Women service.

Despite its untimely end, the Cherie Blair Foundation and the ExxonMobil Foundation consider the program a success. According to Matt Strickland, the Mobile Technology Programme Coordinator at the Cherie Blair Foundation, the two organizations are now re-charging their efforts and talking to potential partners about a next generation program, which will incorporate much of the participants’ suggested improvements. These include:

  • Providing more customized information by location, such as links to local microfinance agencies.
  • Offering more examples of women like the program participants who have overcome barriers and achieved success. Such stories can help inspire confidence and serve as teachable moments for the women.
  • More content on time management, especially considering so many of the participants have time-consuming family care and household responsibilities.
  • Features in the system that allow for forging social connections and sharing information.
  • More content tailored to individual interests.

The Business Women mobile program demonstrated the efficacy and efficiency of m-learning for women entrepreneurs seeking to grow their businesses. The Cherie Blair Foundation and ExxonMobil Foundation’s assessment of the program will also allow them to produce an even more effective version 2.0. By sharing their learnings from the program with others in a report entitled “Evaluating Business Women,” they enable others to learn from their experience. They have presented compelling evidence that m-learning is an effective way to educate entrepreneurs at scale. Other foundations and educational institutions will hopefully be inspired to emulate their program and reach more women in more developing countries. The sky is the limit, and as we all know, women hold up half of it.

Amy Gillett is Vice President of Education at the William Davidson Institute. (WDI is the parent organization of NextBillion.)

Education, Technology
business development, skill development