Anne Kim

Gender Mobility: A deeper dive into female-friendly business, economic programs harnessing cell technology

Mobile access is on the rise, but women largely have been left out of many advancements that are so important to providing financial services to developing communities.

Women are 21 percent less likely to own a phone than a man in developing nations. Without a phone, women are unable to access mobile money, making it more difficult to have a bank account and apply for microloans. Without a reliable financial structure, women are forced to sell valuable assets like sheep and goats to pay for sudden financial expenses.

The mobile development community is aware that this gender gap exists and has kickstarted a number of programs to help. Alongside the moral imperative to close the gender gap, mobile vendors also understand that they stand to make serious economic gains by marketing and selling mobile phones to women. Here, we profile a few of the mobile providers that are ahead of the game with female-targeted programs.

Women of Uganda Network focused on using mobile phones to complement existing communication structures. Women working in agriculture had formed support groups that gathered to listen to farming radio programs. When Women of Uganda Network launched their program, they worked with 12 such groups, providing them with a mobile phone and a radio.

Because voice calls are expensive in Uganda, the organization taught women how to use SMS texting to communicate. Armed with mobile phones and the radio, the groups were able to interact with the radio programs and with other women’s groups. They traded farming techniques by dialing in on the radio or texting other groups. And they saw the benefits; one group even reported its goat herd increased from six to 40!

Women are now invested in these new tools. Women of Uganda Network initially provided free calls for the first six months, but because calls proved so useful, the groups are now purchasing airtime to use alongside SMS. Women of Uganda Network has shown that quick mobile adaption can happen if there’s a conscious effort to blend mobile into existing methods of communication.

Meanwhile, progress in closing the mobile access gender gap in Senegal has been hindered by illiteracy – not only for basic reading and writing, but also when it comes to technical know-how.

Local NGO Tostan and UNICEF realized that poor training had a large part to play in low mobile phone adoption. Their two-year pilot program, Jokko, tackles tech illiteracy through training sessions that teach how phones work. Trainers use common images, like the branches of a mango tree, to explain how phone menus are organized. By using local context, trainers can explain more complex ideas, like sending messages from phone-to-phone or sending a message to a central server that disseminates it to the network.

In order to combat illiteracy, Jokko is providing both materials and platforms to ensure that women, who comprise more than 80 percent of its membership, have a way to consistently practice their skills. Users access a central messaging system to send messages of births, deaths and other community issues. The hope is that community message board style of messaging will build stronger communities and organically form networks to tackle common problems.

Uninor, a mobile operator in India, and Hand in Hand, an NGO that focuses on women’s empowerment, partnered to close the mobile gender gap in India with a pilot mobile marketing program. (Read a case study here.)

Hand in Hand chose 50 women from its network, based on education, loan repayment records and low incomes. These women then purchased mobile products and resold them in their hometowns at a higher price. Uninor provided the mobile products and sales training, while Hand in Hand filled in any other gaps of information, such as legal rights.

The program had a few setbacks from government policies and health issues, but overall it was a success. Women who participated in the program were empowered by new revenue streams. Out of the 50 women in the pilot program, 32 were still running their businesses after a year. Despite fewer women selling mobile products, the actual number of mobile products sold rose.

The program had social benefits as well as financial benefits. Saraswathy, an entrepreneur from the pilot program, successfully increased her income from $35 a month to $100 a month in 11 months. After seeing her success, her husband demanded that she transfer the business to his name. With the knowledge that she could run her own business and provide her own income, Saraswathy refused her husband’s demands and left him. This was a major move in Saraswathy’s conservative town, but her success as a businesswoman has made her a community leader and a career counselor for local students.

From receiving mobile phones to selling mobile phones, women are benefiting from the wave of programs targeted to their needs. With mobile programs focused on women’s education, safety and working around the cultural barrier making female ownership of mobile phones taboo, the hope is that the gender gap in mobile access will continue to narrow. In fact, the evidence is mounting that this is no longer just a hope, but an emerging reality.

This article originally appeared in Global Envision, a blog focused on market-based solutions to poverty managed by Mercy Corps. It is republished with permission.

Anne Kim is an intern at Mercy Corps.