Using Technology to Close the Gender Gap in Sierra Leone

Monday, August 29, 2011

Admire Bio has the reassured presence of a successful businesswoman, with an edge that reveals she is still hungry for more. Bio, 28, a single mother living with her parents, set up her first internet cafe in the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, only a year ago. She has expanded with two more branches, and plans to go national if she can secure a bank loan.

“My biggest motivation is challenging men,” she says, “to [get women to] say: ’Yes! I can be successful without you’.”

But things aren’t easy. “Men make you dependent,” says Bio. “Women only get loans with collateral from male relatives. My fiance offered his land. Worse, it’s common to be pressured into sex by bank staff, if there isn’t a man’s backing, when women apply for loans. I’m angry women can’t succeed alone.”

The swell of internet users in her cafe tells Bio she is on a winning road. Access to the internet and computer literacy is an area of much needed growth and investment. Only around 0.3% of the population are described as internet users (pdf), while fibre-optic broadband will not arrive until next year. Bio offers women evening computer courses “to make them stronger”.

Meanwhile, mobile phones are ubiquitous, in urban areas at least, with around 26% of people owning one (pdf). In the absence of widespread internet access, mobiles have been seen as something of a panacea for development in Africa.

Kenya’s M-Pesa money-transfer is hailed by technology gurus and development experts alike as an example of how poverty can be bypassed and development hastened. However, “banking the unbanked” has been questioned by some, as mobile money often caters for already affluent groups.

M-Pesa’s success inspired Sheka Forna back to his homeland, Sierra Leone, to start Splash. Since it launched in 2009, Splash has convinced around 100,000 people to forsake real money for the virtual kind, effectively using their sim cards as bank accounts.

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