In recognition of International Women's Day, March 8, 2014, we'd like to challenge mobile operators, NGOs, government and others to radically rethink the way that we allow poor women to benefit from mobile technology. While the advantages of access to information and markets through mobile are clear, the path to achieving impact is not, and requires innovative approaches to product and process design and innovation.
Benefits of mobile access for the poor is undeniable, especially for women
Rapid expansion of mobile phones in the developing world has far reaching socioeconomic consequences, especially for women. At a macro-economic level, research has shown that increased mobile phone penetration in developing countries contributes to about 2.5 percent of annual GDP growth on average. A 2009 study conducted in India also found that women in households with a mobile phone were 9.5 percent more likely to have savings or a bank account, which is equivalent to 5.6 extra years of education.
Mobile phones aren't just a tool to create economic opportunity, but can also contribute to saving lives. For example, a study of 2,550 pregnant women in Zanzibar who attended antenatal care at primary healthcare facilities, found that mobile phones significantly increased attendance, thereby dramatically driving down the risk of maternal and/or infant mortality. By giving women access to financial services, education and health information, mobile technology is a powerful tool to increase the number of women in the workforce and allow them to contribute economically. And more women in the workforce equates to reduced rates of childbirth, which is positively correlated to economic growth.
In addition to the socioeconomic benefits of access to mobile technology for women, the business case for serving women is also compelling. According to the GSMA Foundation, the market opportunities associated with closing the mobile phone gender gap are substantial: additional revenues for mobile network operators are estimated to be $13 billion.
Access to mobile for women continues to be problematic
However, access to mobile phones by women continues to be a persistent barrier for women. Women are 21 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone, according to the GSMA Foundation. This has given rise to a mobile phone gender gap, where there are 300 million fewer female mobile subscribers than male subscribers in low- to middle-income countries. As a result, women are less likely to realize the benefits of using mobile phones.
Even when women have access to mobile phones, usability is lower than among their male counterparts. A 2012 study by Grameen Foundation in India found that, out of 65 women, only 23 were able to use a mobile phone independently. Of those women, only 13 owned a phone. Despite training, none of the women reported knowing how to check their savings balances using SMS or to send money to another user.
Closing the mobile phone gender gap requires process and product innovation
To close this gender gap, we need to “radically rethink the lifecycle for developing and deploying new and existing technologies,” according to a 2010 ICRW report. To quote the authors: “Rather than allow enthusiasm for a given technology to drive how it is designed, marketed, and distributed in the field, developers need to put female users at the center of their thinking, consulting and involving women at critical design and deployment phases. Rather than creating a technology and only then figuring out how to entice women in developing countries to adopt it, developers must first ask: “What technologies do women need to increase their economic opportunities?” And then they must involve women—as technology innovators, developers, and drivers of the process—to design something that women can't afford not to use.”
Grameen Foundation is adopting this new way of thinking by investing significantly in human-centered design for both product and process innovation. When identifying new ways to empower the poor to take advantage of market opportunities and to reduce risk, we use this approach to put the user at the center of the design process, thereby increasing uptake of mobile-enabled products and services. In Ghana, for example, we tested many difference voices with differing accents and ages for aMobile Midwife service we implement with the Ghana Health Service until we found one that women felt they could trust. The service provides pregnant women with health information and advice through voice recordings as well as SMS.
Other players in the mobile space in low- to middle-income countries are also thinking radically. In Qatar, for example, Vodafone realized that women were not comfortable buying a phone from a man in a store. They equipped women with red suitcases filled with mobile phones and launched a Tupperware-type sales model of marketing in women's homes, making phone purchases more comfortable for women.
Much more needs to be done, though, to allow poor women to benefit from mobile technology. While access to mobile has clear benefits for poor women, we can't simply assume that access will result in behavior change that drives socioeconomic improvements, as the Grameen Foundation study demonstrates. Identifying or building trusted human networks—such as mobile money agents or community health workers - as agents of change are equally as important as availability of phones to enable poor women to realize the full potential of mobile technology.
By designing for and with women—and by thinking radically about innovation in distribution systems as well as product development—we can achieve greater impact in the lives of poor women, and therefore in the economies of the developing world.
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