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Empowering Women, One SMS at a Time

Jason KohnBy Jason Kohn, Contributing Columnist.

What’s the best way to accelerate economic development in the developing world? One answer is to do more to empower women. According to a 2012 World Bank report, women now make up 40 percent of the global labor force, but face major gaps in education, access to technology and economic opportunity compared to men. World Bank analysts estimate that closing those gaps could make a big difference, increasing labor productivity by as much as 25 percent in some countries.

There are many strategies for empowering women in developing countries, but one of the most practical is to provide more access to education, especially for women business-owners. Educational content provider ChangeCorp is dedicated to doing just that by capitalizing on growing access to mobile phones. I spoke with ChangeCorp’s CEO, Louise M. Guido, about some of the company’s efforts.

“If you’re trying to reach a woman farmer or business-owner in Kenya, she probably doesn’t have a land line or a computer, but she does have a mobile phone,” says Guido. “There are more people in Africa who have phones than have electricity. So we figure, if that’s the only way to get to them, you might as well give them something they can use, that will be helpful, that will bring them up in society, help them learn what’s wrong and right about market prices, about dealing with social issues, and so on.”

Creating Content

ChangeCorp creates a wide range of educational content for consumers in emerging markets, typically distributed via SMS text message, and often targeting women. The content is offered through a paid subscription, or sponsored by a mobile operator or enterprise.

The company’s flagship content channel, SmartWoman, provides daily messages to urban and rural women business-owners on a variety of topics, including life and communication skills, banking and finance, health, family, and work/life balance. The content channel launched last year on Nokia’s Life Tools platform, for example, and today serves more than 50,000 women business-owners in Nigeria and Indonesia.

One obvious question: How do you get low-income, prepaid phone customers to spend money on a subscription SMS service? ChangeCorp’s response has been to create content that is relevant to the needs of women business-owners; that’s localized for customers’ specific language, location, culture, and socio-economic profile; and that’s learning-based.

“Our users tell us it has improved their efficiency in terms of how they purchase products, how they manage their finances, and more,” says Guido. “There isn’t really good networking for women business-owners in certain places. If you’re a rural farmer, you’re not necessarily going to your local community and talking to other women farmers. So this is a way for them to get information they need that provides practical help in their lives and businesses.”

Connecting Developed and Developing Worlds

Change-Corp/SmartWomanChangeCorp is working to expand the reach of SmartWoman education, and the company has come up with an interesting model. This fall, ChangeCorp is launching a new SmartWoman app as part of what it calls the SmartWoman Project. The full-featured smartphone app will target women in the developed world, providing educational content about career, family, health, and more for a subscription of $5 per month. A portion of that subscription fee will support SMS-based SmartWoman education for women in developing countries.

“When people in developing countries are using prepaid phone cards, they’re very careful about signing up for something that costs a dollar a month,” says Guido. “If you’re making $3,000 a year, you’re not buying Angry Birds for $2. You’re very careful about what you’ll download and pay for. If the barrier to entry is cost, we’re not going to wait for an aid organization or a telecom to give us free SMS. We’re going to build that support and sponsoring network.”

Capitalizing on Opportunities in the Developing World

ChangeCorp is not only demonstrating the viability of paid SMS education services in developing countries, they’re an example of the huge economic opportunity this market represents.

“You have to go where the people are, and there are just more people in emerging markets than in the developed space, and those people are on their phones,” says Guido. “A lot of corporations now, the way they grow is by tapping into emerging markets. They can sponsor our content, they can sponsor a channel, they can sponsor a platform. Because that’s their customer base, and they don’t know how to reach them. These customers are not watching TV commercials.”

Guido says the same applies to ChangeCorp’s telecom partners, who rely largely on prepaid phone card customers about whom they may have very little information. SMS-based education services can help provide more useful demographic information to help them better tailor and market their products and services.

Highlighting Mobile Innovation

Guido’s slate will be full over the next few months. In addition to rolling out the SmatWoman Project, ChangeCorp is also sponsoring the conference Changing Lives Through Mobile: Innovation in Emerging Markets. The conference will be held June 21 at the United Nations in New York, and will highlight some of the amazing work being done in the mobile space in developing economies.

“There are innovative things happening in emerging markets with applications, with mobile that we just never talk about,” says Guido. “There are some great programs out there, both social and commercial, and we want to highlight them. We want to show that there are opportunities in the emerging markets for creativity, innovation, and to provide a social value.”

VNI Service Awards needs to hear your story of how you used technology to make a difference. Programs which impact social change,  improve access to health care, or educate rural communities are just a few examples.  The top five stories with share USD $10,000. The deadline is May 10, 2013 so don’t wait.  Check out and share your great work.

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  1. This is great stuff. One thing we've come across while interviewing NGOs of various sizes (as part of developing our new mobile engagement platform, is that many smaller NGOs really struggle to create content for their messaging campaigns. Developing a centralized content database were NGOs can add content and take content would be incredibly valuable. Also, two additional thoughts: 1) SMS is a great tool, but doesn't reach the illiterate (about 50% of adult women in Africa are illiterate). Voice calls (or in U.S.-speak, robocalls) can. 2) Check out the Motech Platform, which is also a pay service for pregnant women and new mothers in Ghana to get key educational messages. And in line with #1, recipients seem to prefer voice over SMS - 99% of the women who signed up for Motech chose voice calls over SMS to receive the messages. (

  2. Excellent initiative. Having partnered with Louise on previous efforts to accelerate women and girls through entrepreneurship in Colombia ( I have confidence this will succeed too. Grants alone will not help women reach their potential; they must find new and inovative ways to use mobile technology to increase their potential to succeed.