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Empowering Women with Mobile Services

March 16, 2012 - 0 Comments

By Jason Kohn, Contributing Columnist

Last year, I wrote a series of editorials about how mobile data services — mobile agriculture and banking in particular — are becoming major economic drivers in developing economies. While these services can benefit all people in regions under-served by traditional infrastructure, women may benefit in particular.

In fact, the introduction of mobile banking, education, agriculture, and other services is already helping to empower millions of women in profound ways, and lift many families out of poverty. According to a newly released report from Pyramid Research:

The impact that mobile phone access and usage can have on women has never been greater. The proliferation of projects in the fields of mobile health, mobile education, mobile agriculture, mobile money/banking, mobile social networks and mobile innovation in general have all demonstrated that women in particular can benefit both directly and indirectly through time and cost savings, access to life-saving information, the ability to communicate with others (who may be at long distances), increases in access to business opportunities, the ability to perform monetary transactions, and even nurturing their ability to read and write.

Bridging the Gender Gap

However, there remains a significant gender gap in mobile phone adoption, especially in developing economies. According to a report from the GSM Association (GSMA) Development Fund and the Cherie Blair Foundation, as of 2010, 300 million fewer women than men had mobile phone subscriptions.

To address this problem, GSMA launched its “mWomen” program. The program aims to reduce that gap by 50 percent by 2014 by expanding mobile phone usage for 150 million women in the developing world. GSMA is working with a host of worldwide partners, NGOs, and mobile operators to try to achieve this objective.

While these groups highlight the many social reasons for expanding mobile phone access for women in developing economies, there are excellent economic reasons as well. According to the GSMA:

  • Women will account for two thirds of all new mobile subscribers between 2010 and 2015.
  • This represents a $13 billion revenue opportunity for mobile operators.
  • 41 percent of women reported having increased income and professional opportunities once they owned a mobile phone.

Empowerment Ideas in Action

The mWomen program began with a series of policy recommendations, and has been very active, along with its NGO and mobile partners, in funding efforts to change the situation on the ground for women in middle- and low-income economies.

You can actually track these efforts at the mWomen website using an interactive 3D map, powered by Google Earth. Deployments profiled include:

  • A project sponsored by Vodafone in Siwa, Egypt, where female trainers take mobile computing units into homes to teach women how to use the technology.
  • Ovi Life Tools in Nigeria, sponsored by Nokia, which sends women’s healthcare, pregnancy, and childcare information to women via text messages.
  • The Agape Age Teenage Mothers & Young Wives Development Programme in Cameroon, which distributes mobile phones to groups of young women, provides them with weekly messages with health and economic information, and trains young mothers to be leaders.

Pyramid Research also highlighted a recent success story in Zimbabwe. Network operator Econet Wireless launched a mobile banking service, Eco-Cash, in 2011, which quickly became a vital tool for empowering women’s groups in Sub-Saharan Africa. As the report describes:

Thelma Nare, a head of a women’s cooperative, had the difficult task of collecting money from cooperative members to support the group’s activities. Because of distances from banks and scheduling difficulties, some women were unable to make their payments regularly or on time. Without a regular income coming into the cooperative for support, many members would suffer from the continuing high levels of inflation in Zimbabwe.

“The usage of [the Eco-Cash] service creates a steady cash flow, reduces the need for long journeys into cities, and helps the cooperative members save money because they no longer need to rely on cross-border transporters who regularly requested steep commissions for their money transfer services,” says Ronda Zelezny-Green, Associate Research Analyst at Pyramid Research. In the absence of a physical bank account, this women’s cooperative can now get banking services like their urban counterparts. Some of the cooperative members have even used the service to receive money from husbands working abroad and to send money to their children studying at boarding schools.

These are just a few examples. You can check out the mWomen deployment tracker, as well as the group’s blog, to find dozens more, with new programs launching seemingly every week.

Expanding mobile usage to tens of millions of women in the developing world over the next few years is no small task, but it’s exciting to watch. And it’s clear that service providers, mobile companies, and nonprofit groups worldwide are committed to making it happen.

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