Closing mobile’s “gender divide”

At the Networked Society Forum in Hong Kong last November, I sat and listened as Jeffrey Sachs described mobile connectivity as “the single most important instrument for development that we have“. Few people would disagree. A recent study by the GSM Association reported a 10% increase in mobile phone use leads to a 1.2% increase in a country’s GDP. Encouraging as this may be, it’s only half the story.

Women in the developing world are 21% less likely than men to own a mobile, leaving an estimated 300 million excluded from the social and economic opportunities that owning one might bring. If mobile phones do increase opportunity, then right now they’re not increasing it for everyone. Closing this “mobile gender gap” doesn’t just make sense for women – it’s also an opportunity believed to be worth a staggering $13 billion to network operators annually.

Empowering girls and women has long been a focus for the development community, and it’s easy to see why. In Sub Saharan Africa women produce 80% of household food and, when educated women run family farms, they’re able to increase yields by up to 20%. Research also suggests that increasing the earning power of women has additional benefits for the entire family through improvements in health, education and child nutrition. And when educated girls start earning an income, 90% of it is put straight back into their families. The number is nearer 40% for men. Yet, despite all this in many parts of the world women are more likely to go hungry than men, the number of girls out of school almost universally exceeds the number of boys, and – in the case of Sub Saharan Africa – women own only 1% of the land.

Whilst the introduction of the mobile phone alone is unlikely to solve any of these problems directly, targeted interventions can. Defining this opportunity is crucial, according to “Mobile Value Added Services: A Business Growth Opportunity for Women Entrepreneurs,” a new report released today by the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women with support from the ExxonMobil Foundation. This milestone study is a major step for the Foundation – which tasks itself with helping women entrepreneurs across Africa, South East Asia and the Middle East – as it seeks to leverage the power of mobile phones and services for the women entrepreneurs its wider programmes support.

One key objective of the study, which focused mostly on Indonesia, Nigeria and Egypt, was to identify the most useful mobile value-added services which enable women entrepreneurs to advance their businesses. In the study, over 88% of women entrepreneurs said they were willing to use these services to address the core business challenges they face, and more than 82% of women entrepreneurs indicated a willingness to pay for them. Demand for the right service is clearly there. Identifying what those services should be was a key driver for commissioning the report.

Although mobile value added services were abundant in many of the areas covered in the study (over 200 different products were reviewed) surprisingly, none were tailored for the specific needs of women entrepreneurs. The Cherie Blair Foundation is now working with a number of commercial and non-profit partners to fill that gap and to provide a service that an overwhelming majority of women entrepreneurs desperately need.

You can download the full report here (PDF, 6Mb).

This article was also published on the Huffington Post website.