Jeffrey Riecke

Controlling the Family Purse Strings, But Not the Cell Phone: mWomen report examines how low-income women can gain mobile money access

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the Center for Financial Inclusion Blog and has been cross-posted with permission.

Buzz about the promise of mobile money services has been around for some time now. But until coming across a recently released report from mWomen, I’d never found anything highlighting the especially big opportunity that mobile money presents for lower-income women.

mWomen’s report Striving and Surviving: Exploring the Lives of Women at the Base of the Pyramid examines the relationship between mobile phones and women, and in doing so articulates how exceedingly well-positioned this client segment is to benefit from mobile money services. mWomen is a program of GSMA that brings together the worldwide mobile industry and the global development community to reduce the mobile phone gender gap by 50 percent by 2014, facilitating connectivity to more than 150 million women in emerging markets.

The researchers behind the mWomen report found that women in families at the base of the pyramid are largely responsible for managing their household’s finances (a collective 2,500+ women from Egypt, India, Papua New Guinea, and Uganda took part in the project’s research). And with low and often unpredictable incomes, this is no simple task. Household financial management strategies used by the women surveyed regularly include: hiding money within the home away from other family members (especially husbands); storing money at the homes of family or friends, enabling outside parties to act as “money guards;” borrowing from family or friends during emergencies; and accumulating savings in gold jewelry or coins.

Though more formal financial services do exist – some research respondents cited the possibility of participating in microfinance services – many of the women reported a lack of local banks as a major challenge. This infrastructural deficiency not only leads to increased time spent traveling to banks, but also higher safety risks. Crime is often high in areas of high unemployment and poverty, and women are often targets in the case of attacks. Of the research respondents, 8 percent listed safety and security as one of their life’s most pressing challenges.

The report doesn’t detail how mobile money services might be tailored to best fit the specific needs of BoP women, it suggests possible avenues for exploration only in general terms, like using the platform for simple budgeting, mobile banking, or access to microcredit. The report does, on the other hand, go into depth on how BoP women perceive mobile phone use and explore barriers to adoption, both of mobile phones and of mobile money. Here’s a look at some of the biggest barriers:

  • Cost: 81 percent of women who reported not wanting to own a mobile phone cited cost as a principle reason.
  • Husband suspicion: 64 percent of married respondents who did not want a mobile phone cited disapproval from their husbands. 82 percent of married respondents who own a mobile phone reported the ownership disadvantage of it making their husband suspicious.
  • Family social dynamics: In some of the surveyed markets, a family could need to have three or more mobile phones before it would be perceived as sensible for a woman in the family to have one. In India and Egypt, after the patriarch, sons, brothers, or brothers-in-law tend to be “next in line” to receive a phone before women.
  • Technical literacy: 22 percent of those who reported not wanting to own a mobile phone said the main reason was that they wouldn’t know how to use it.
  • Perceived value of SMS messaging: Respondents reported that they didn’t see SMS services as useful. Despite 77 percent of respondents having made a mobile phone call, only 37 percent had sent an SMS message.

However, these barriers aren’t insurmountable and the report outlines ways to overcome them and reach BoP women. Driving prices down surely will be important in encouraging sustainable adoption, but there are other areas that need to be explored as well.

The report emphasizes that working with the communication channels used by BoP women could be an effective way of combating unfamiliarity, misconceptions, and inequitable social dynamics. Fifty- three percent of the women surveyed watch television, often daily, and 28 percent of respondents reported visiting women’s groups regularly. And if the producers of such pro-mobile messaging need compelling material, this very report from mWomen would be a good place to start. Here’s a few of my favorite statistics from the report:

  • “I wish I could save my own money” was the #1 ranked of 40 attitudinal statements in Uganda and Papua New Guinea
  • 41 percent of respondents reported that owning a mobile phone helped them increase their income or their professional prospects
  • 73 percent of BoP women expressed interest in entrepreneurship
  • 80 percent of respondents reporting being more connected to family and friends as a benefit of mobile phones
  • 93 percent of BoP women reported that mobile phones made them feel safer

To access the full report, and to learn about the project’s research methods, visit the mWomen website.

financial inclusion