The Singularity

More women need mobile phones in emerging economies

March 5, 2014

Julia Hobsbawm, a Professor of Networking no less, invited me to the Connected Women Summit, where I expected to find a bunch of high powered women discussing how to become even more so. There were plenty of those, but the conference had absolutely nothing to do with Londonistas and everything to do with helping women in the emerging world.

Irula tribal ladies in Saris on mobiles, Nilgiris region, Tamil Nadu, pictured by Thus on a highly unscientific anthropological road trip, 2011.

Irula tribal ladies in their best Hindu saris, on the blower, Nilgiris region, Tamil Nadu, pictured by Thus on a highly unscientific anthropological road trip, 2011. The Irula, a ‘Backward Caste’ are estimated to number less than 2000 people. Their forest-dwelling agricultural way of life has been undermined by successive government policies. They are far from ‘backward’ These women are sisters. One is 35 years old, with 7  children and a husband who works in Kerala whom she only sees twice a year. Both walk 10 km each day to get the bus to the NGO office where they work on home working projects for Adivasi (tribal) women.

Anyone who has travelled in India, Anatolia, Africa and South Asia knows that there is no lack of people with handsets glued to their ears, but there are 300 million fewer women with mobile access than men. Connected Women claims that in regions such as rural India, East Turkey, Egypt and much of Africa, giving women access to mobile communications can help transform subsistence home working into profitable trading. It is self evident that mobiles can help traders make more money, but the benefits in terms of education, literacy, access to health information and physical safety are at least as widespread. 

Owning and using a mobile is usually far cheaper, in real and relative terms in the developing world, especially India and much of Africa. But cost is not the only factor deterring use: women face significant social and cultural hurdles. Elisa Minischetti from GSMA described how a rich woman in Saudi Arabia may face more barriers to using a mobile than a woman in tribal Kurdistan, for example. An Egyptian presenter talked about how the mobile helped provide educational building blocks, simply by encouraging women to venture outside their village boundaries, meet others and experience different surroundings. To a sophisticated westerner this may sound trite, but these first steps are far from trivial.

Vodafone announced a partnership with Malala Yousafzai (the Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban for going to school). In a poignant presentation, on the platform alongside Vodafone CEO Vittorio Coleo, young Malala confessed – to the delight of many – that she personally doesn’t use a mobile, preferring an iPad and Skype to ‘argue with her brothers.’ The Malala Fund campaigns for access to education for girls in regions where this basic right is denied on religious and social pretexts. Some Islamist groups claim that Malala a western stooge. On the evidence of this occasion, she appears well aware of her totem status but quite prepared to use the resources of global brands and media to serve a wider purpose.

Education and communication are self-evidently empowering, but the conference was keen to show how mobile technology enhances the supply chain. When distances between villages and towns are great and people travel on foot or local bus, a mobile phone can save time, money and wasted journeys for an entire community. Mobiles provide access to e commerce – a phenomenon which has taken huge cadres of people out of poverty in China, for example. An Anatolian lady from Turkey’s Women First group described how her subsistence village textile weaving enterprise went global by gaining access to Internet buyers. Importantly, mobile e-finance can help bypass middlemen, gain access to micro finance and thus smooth out corruption, as this study by the GSMA mWomen programme shows. 

The RUDI network enables village women spice traders in Gujarat to compare prices, check marketplace availability and transfer money electronically using simple mobile phones enabled by easily-understood apps. Moving money electronically cuts down on corruption and eliminates middlemen. A Tanzanian project showed how mobile access to healthcare information such as midwifery services and diagnosis of illnesses saves lives. In other words, stuff we take for granted in developed economies enables step changes in the developing world.

Reducing the gender gap in mobile ownership in he developing world is a commendable goal. Affordable pricing and efficient network access are a big part of the story and the caveat that mobile bills may suck money from hard-pressed households cannot go unremarked. But I for one hadn’t grasped the implications or scope of the Connected Women programmes until I met some of the presenters, NGOs and self help groups represented. Read the Connected Women report here with an open mind and support this initiative.

John J Kelly