In February 2023, the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA), an association representing the interests of mobile network operators around the world, issued a report that highlighted the discrepancies in mobile network usage between men and women who owned micro-businesses in low- and middle- income countries (LMICs).
The report was authored by the GSMA Connected Women programme which works with mobile operators to address the barriers women face when using mobile internet and mobile money services and evaluate the extent of women’s accessibility to mobile networks worldwide.
The role mobile devices and networks can play in helping women in low- and middle-income countries build a micro-enterprise was examined in depth.
This report highlights the emerging opportunities to better reach women #microentrepreneurs such as:
📈More gender-disaggregated data
♀️ Gender-intentional product/service design & delivery
📱Building digital & business skills
💡Awareness raising & more 👇https://t.co/g9DiBvLqsw pic.twitter.com/jdEuyX1uYx
— GSMA Mobile for Development (@GSMAm4d) February 24, 2023
There are an estimated 400 million micro-enterprises in LMICs, serving as the dominant form of employment while, typically, only employing 1-3 individuals.
Such enterprises are thus crucial for household income and for sustaining women’s active role in society, as in low-income countries, 88% of women earn their income through self-employment.
Promoting women’s empowerment would also have a positive multiplier effect on society.
Women tend to spend a greater share of their income on household well-being, especially their children, than men in areas such as health, nutrition and education. They also are more prone to employing other women and working with a female network, thus creating a ripple effect of economic empowerment through their network.
Citibank estimated that achieving gender parity in business growth could boost global GDP by 2% to 3% and generate 433 million jobs.
To facilitate and promote their businesses, increasing their access to mobiles and cellular networks is crucial to “provide a gateway to business services,” allowing women to access social media to market their goods, boost profitability by using digital payments, and overcome repressing social norms.
Why can’t women access mobile devices?
Unfortunately, access to mobile phones in LMICs is quite limited, especially for women. Considering women already face greater barriers to starting, running and growing a business, encountering further obstacles when trying to access mobile devices simply widens the gap between women’s and men’s roles in society.
In many households, especially in parts of South Asia, it is common for the husband to restrict a women’s use of her mobile device. Women will often have limits on apps and actions imposed by their husbands. Uploading pictures of the product they are selling on the internet is also frowned upon within households, as it is seen as a form of exposure that can tarnish the reputation of the family.
In more conservative familial situations, women must seek approval from their husbands on their business decisions. The decreased level of autonomy this entails can limit women’s access to and use of mobile technology.
In many countries, there are also policies in place that accentuate the discrepancy.
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In 104 countries, there is at least one law restricting women’s employment, and women in half the world are still denied their right to own property. It is still mandatory, in many countries, for a male family member to approve a woman’s right to access financial services.
Amongst the things that could stop a woman from registering for mobile and financial services is identification documents (IDs), which women struggle to obtain.
In developing countries, 44% of women lack adequate IDs, compared to 28% of men. Unfortunately, without IDs, it is impossible to access mobile connectivity, as in over 155 countries, IDs are compulsory in SIM registration policies.
Financially, women are in a more vulnerable position in most LMICs. Businesses owned by women often generate lower incomes than their male counterparts due to structural inequalities and social norms. Those micro-businesses are often within the low-income and low-growth sectors, producing minimal incomes.
Income is a crucial component blocking women from accessing mobile devices. When women in Egypt, Kenya, Senegal and other countries were asked what was stopping them from buying mobile devices, 50% of them cited cost as a reason.
In 2021, in South Asia, the cost of an internet-enabled handset was as high as 56% of women’s average monthly income, compared to 19% for men.
Furthermore, women are less likely to have the prerequisite credit history needed for purchasing such a device.
When a woman manages to purchase a mobile device, it is rarely a smartphone with a quality camera or internet capability. They are, therefore, in a more disadvantageous position when it comes to marketing their product on social media or contacting customers.
Purchasing a device also comes with the additional cost of buying a data package. In Sub-saharan, the cost of 1 GB of data in 2021 made up 3.8% of women’s monthly income, compared to 3% of men’s.
Buying a smaller data package can also force women to “forego value-adding apps (or updating them), watching online training videos or uploading photos to market their goods and services.
Training to use mobile devices comes hand in hand with education, literacy, and skills training that are often much more easily accessed by men in these countries.
Business or digital training may require time away from home, making it difficult for women to fit it around childcare and domestic responsibilities.
In Sri Lanka, only a third of women invited to attend a mobile agent training actually attended the event, compared to half of the men, while almost half of the women invited were replaced by their husbands or another male relative.
What can be done
According to Clare Sinthrope, Head of Digital Inclusion M4D (Mobile for Development) at GSMA, “following years of progress towards women’s equal digital inclusion, the report shows that for the second year in a row, the rate of women’s mobile internet adoption has slowed across low-and-middle-income countries and progress in reducing the mobile internet gender gap has stalled.”
New #MobileGenderGap data out this month: Progress in reducing the gender gaps in #MobileInternet use & #smartphone ownership remain stalled. Women are now:
📱19% less likely than men to use mobile internet
📱17% less likely than men to own a smartphonehttps://t.co/NE7L0rlVOP
— GSMA Mobile for Development (@GSMAm4d) March 23, 2023
The report thus puts forward multiple recommendations to bridge the gap between male and female access to mobile technology.
Claire Sibthorpe shared with Impakter what, in her view, is the greatest obstable that must be overcome:
One pressing issue is the lack of gender-disaggregated data on women’s access to and use of mobile, including on women’s needs, perceptions, circumstances and challenges. Collecting and analysing this type of data is the first step towards the design and delivery of mobile products, services, interventions and policies that serve women and unlock significant socio-economic benefits for women, their families, communities and economies. (bolding added)
Another key suggestion was raising awareness of mobile products to make them more appealing to different segments of micro-entrepreneurial women.
As such, they would need to promote the dual use of mobile phone characteristics, on one side, using the devices at home or for personal communications, and on the other, using them in a professional context for marketing or financial purposes. Social media, for example, can be enriching to women in their personal lives and could also be used as a very effective marketing tool to expand into new markets.
Our research finds that social media is the most widespread digital marketing channel among ♀️ women #microentrepreneurs and is associated with business growth 📈
— GSMA Mobile for Development (@GSMAm4d) March 4, 2023
Marketing mobile devices in a way that is appealing to women owning micro-businesses is key to selling mobile products to this segment of the population.
It is also important to sell the products in a culturally-sensitive manner by considering social norms, opening hours and employing more women to appeal to female customers.
Mobile network providers should also seek to make their products more affordable. This can also be done through micro-loans or instalment repayment plans that do not necessarily require owning property or possessing a male’s approval.
On the usage side, companies should seek to make their products more accessible to women with low literacy levels. Designs should be straightforward, pricing transparent, and text clear and minimal.
Partnerships and collaboration are also key to helping women access mobile devices. As Claire explains:
“Working with partners is key to raising awareness of the challenge and addressing the barriers women face to accessing and using mobile. We’re proud to be a member of the Women’s Digital Financial Inclusion Advocacy Hub, which helps to catalyse collective action by bringing together global partners like the GSMA with local partners on the ground in markets like Indonesia and Ethiopia, working together to provide resources to promote and advocate for gender-inclusive financial systems.”
Tailored training and support should also be provided to women based on the size of their business, its sector and other necessities. Partnering with organisations to provide training in topics such as mobile internet use, financial literacy, and digital marketing could go a long way in making women more comfortable using mobile devices.
What has already been done
A growing number of digital financial tools are beginning to be implemented to meet the needs of women owning micro-businesses but are unable to access mobile networks.
In Cambodia, KOTRA Riel, a digital book-keeping app, is helping users track business income, expenses, inventory and cash flow. Documenting business records online is crucial for women hoping to apply for loans without owning any collateral to their name. By presenting their records online instead, women do not have to rely on men for their business needs.
In Vietnam, VPBank’s work is allowing women to apply for loans of up to $20,000 digitally so that their daily activities and household chores do not hinder their ability to start a business.
This is done using e-KYC (electronic Know Your Customer) technology, facilitating the verification of identities online.
M-Pesa is a mobile banking service that transfers money through a mobile phone. In Kenya, Fuliza allows customers to make M-PESA transactions even when the user does not have enough balance on their account. It is used by one in five Kenyans and offers easy-to-access, short-term credit without requiring a credit history. Instead, a Safaricom mobile phone and M-PESA usage history are used to issue the credit score.
Following the GSMA recommendations would appear to be essential to bridge the gap between women’s and men’s access to mobile devices. It is clear, and a simple economic proposition, that empowering women and helping them build their businesses is crucial to boost the economy of LMICs and finally establish true equality between women and men.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: A woman holding a smartphone. Featured Photo Credit: Egor Vikhrev.