A New ICT4D Paradigm: Women + Mobile Phones + mServices = Economic Development

While everyone is amazed at the quick proliferation of mobile phones in the developing world, here’s a startling statistic which should check our unbridled enthusiasm for m-everything: 73% of women in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia do not have a mobile phone.

Across all developing countries, adult women are 21% less likely to have a phone than men. In absolute terms, that’s a 300 million-woman gender gap. Yet that gap is not evenly distributed. For instance, rural women who work outside the home are more likely to pay for phone use themselves and spend more on mobile phones as a percentage of income than their urban counterparts.

Why do women own and pay for mobile phones? Because they see tangible benefits: across all women, 90% feel safer and more connected thanks to their mobile phones and almost 50% used a mobile phone to search for employment or increase their income.

And mobile line operators should take note. The annual incremental revenue opportunity in closing the gender gap would be $13 billion per year, and even at current rates, 66% of all new mobile subscribers will be women. Simply put, women are the face of growth for the mobile industry in the developing world.

Such are the findings of the Women & Mobile: A Global Opportunity (PDF), authored by Vital Wave Consulting and sponsored by the GSMA Development Fund and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.

But Brooke Partridge, CEO of Vital Wave, took this concept a step further. She gave us a new development formula to challenge our conventional thinking:

Women + Mobile Phones = Economic Development

We all know that equipping women in low-income countries with productivity tools earns tremendous returns for development – it’s not just good for them, it’s good for their families, villages, societies, countries.

We know that women spend up to 90% of their income on their families and are responsible for up to 80% of food production in many low and middle-income countries. These women run families and businesses.

And we also know that mobile phones are uniquely positioned as tools for growth in our era. Research has shown that mobile phones are associated with faster economic and business growth.

Combining the two – the role of women and the power of a mobile phone – has the potential for exponential impact. It’s the perfect, and the obvious combination; empowering women through the benefits of mobile phone ownership is the easiest and most straightforward measure we can adopt to advance social and economic growth in developing countries.

Speaker notes of Brooke Partridge, Vital Wave Consulting

The Role of mServices

After dropping that bombshell on the Technology Salon, Brooke went on to explain that closing the mobile phone gender gap will not be easy. Of course cost and access are issues, but she found that perceived need is the largest barrier to female adoption.

Women, it turns out, just see a phone as a communication device for talking with those that they already know. And if everyone they know is near to them – in their family or community, they don’t feel the need for a device to reach them. Either they can easily walk to them or can borrow someone else’s phone to call them when needed.

So how to drive adoption, close the gender gap, and increase economic development? mServices. In the Salon, we brainstormed on what those mServices could be, and came up with these four:

  1. mPayments: With M-Pesa reaching throughput equal to an astounding 11% of Kenya’s GDP in 2009, its the killer mServices application. In her research, Brooke found Kenyan women to be more aware of the value that mServices could provide them, because of their exposure to M-Pesa.
  2. mEmployment: Remembering that 50% of women looked for jobs or increased income through mobile phone usage, we quickly agreed that mobile job boards or an mCraigslist would be popular if targeted at women.
  3. mHealth: Women are usually the home health provider, so offering them healthcare services (advice to diagnosis to treatment) over mobile phones should be an obvious mService
  4. mAgriculture: Women are responsible for up to 80% of locally-consumed food production, so they should be the target farmers in mobile agriculture services.

mServices have barriers to deployment. The services need to be very low cost, and yet high volume to be sustainable over millions of often rural and poor users. And to scale them beyond interesting pilots, there needs to be ongoing early-stage support – both capacity building and financial – that’s often missing in the gap between public donor program and private venture capital.

And of course, as we’ve found in previous Salons, sustainaiblity and scale are relative and contentious. Scale can be a community, a province, a country, or a continent depending on who is measuring sustainability. In the world of mobile phone operators, its almost always in the millions – either subscribers or revenue.

Women + Mobile Phones + mServices = Economic Development

Brooke concluded the Salon by remind us that while the mobile phone gender gap may look like $13 Billion dollar for-profit problem, mServices deserve attention from women’s groups and development organizations.

Scaling mServices is the key to closing the mobile phone gender gap, mobile phone ownership will empower women across the developing world with new access to information, services, and goods, and therefore mobile phones usage by women is directly linked with, and will result in, overall economic development.

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