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.

Caught on film: Mobiles in Africa

One of the highlights of yesterday’s Africa Gathering in London, this must-see video on mobile phones in Africa was put together by good friend Martin Konzett of during a recent trip to the continent. Great editing, combined with priceless on-the-ground footage and perspective, gives a wonderful flavour of some of the entrepreneurial activity spurred on by the arrival of mobile technology (something I previously wrote about here).

You can also follow Martin and his work on Twitter: @martinkonzett

Mobiles in Africa: A Travellers Perspective

This essay was originally commissioned in April 2008 by Vodafone receiver, Vodafone’s “neutral space where pioneer thinkers challenge you to discuss exciting and future-oriented aspects of communications technologies”. All images taken from the kiwanja Mobile Gallery

It didn’t take us long to find it. After all, mobile phone masts aren’t that easy to hide, and Masindi is a tightly-knit, flat little west Ugandan town. After a few short minutes, driving past countless mobile phone dealerships, internet cafes and village phone operators, there it was. I was last in Masindi in 1998, not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, but a lifetime in the short history of the mobile phone. Back then this mast wasn’t there, and neither were any of the mobile phone shops, internet cafes and village phone operators. The only phone line out of town – if and when it was working – was courtesy of the local post office. Every couple of weeks we would drive here to collect our post from the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, post our letters, have a cold beer, buy a few ‘luxuries’ and occasionally attempt to phone home. No text messaging in those days.

Just as I had done ten years earlier, I sat in the Travellers Rest drinking coffee, watching Masindi life go by. Unfinished buildings littered the edge of town, a scene not unlike the last time I was there, except this time endless mobile advertising banners broke the view. In a bold marketing ploy the entire café was branded “Celtel red”, yet it was only just managing to compete with the “MTN yellow” across the road. People were busy in their shops, busy carrying goods, busy ferrying passengers on their bikes, and busy on their phones. The mobile revolution is here, there and everywhere for all to see. What has happened in Masindi is happening all over Africa, a continent which now boasts almost 300 million subscribers and a penetration rate fast approaching 30%.

And the beauty is that no-one expected it. Back in 2004 I co-authored one of the earlier reports on the potential of mobile phones in conservation and development work. Focused mainly on Africa and funded by the Vodafone Group Foundation, we wrote it at a time when most people believed that rural Africans on a couple of dollars a day would never be able to afford a phone, let alone the credit to keep it going. Of course, four years ago mobile phones were expensive, but in many places the rampant growth of second hand markets made affordable handsets available for the first time. Nothing is thrown away here. At the same time, getting new phones into the hands of the masses was a key goal of the GSM Association’s “Emerging Market Handset Initiative”, announced back in 2005, an objective which continues to this day with the handset manufacturers themselves, many of whom are working hard to develop sub-$20 phones for this very unique “bottom of the pyramid” market.

Understanding consumers in emerging markets – many of whom have very different requirements of a phone – has spurned the development of handsets with multiple phone books, phones marketed as torches and even handsets with no screen. If you think that most of the innovation is going on in the West, take a moment to look at what’s happening in India and Africa. Even operators are getting in on the act, providing services such as “Call Me”, which allows Vodacom subscribers in South Africa to send up to five messages per day, free of charge, requesting a call back from the receiver. Services such as these have emerged in response to consumer behaviour, users who would have previously “flashed” the person they wished to speak to by ringing their phone once and hanging up. “Call Me” formalises the process, helps minimise network traffic through fewer prematurely disconnected calls, and allows operators to add value by differentiating their service from rival operators. A lot of the research, often the catalyst for these new devices and services, is increasingly lead by fellow anthropologists Jonathan Donner at Microsoft Research and Jan Chipchase at Nokia, both of whom spend considerable amounts of their time studying mobile phone use in the field and, in Jan’s case, working his way through a fair number of bicycles in the process.

When it comes to mobile innovation, the gap between developed and developing countries is not much of a gap at all. Mobile innovation in the West, largely technology-lead, sits in contrast to that in the developing world where combating the geographic, economic and cultural constraints of users is considered a more sensible way to go. This explains the emergence of the torch phone, for users who live in areas with little or no regular light, or multiple phone books for users who share their phones with family members. On the heavyweight side, a plethora of financial applications have hit the streets, with Safaricom’s m-Pesa service getting by far the biggest press to date. Regularly used by hundreds of thousands of Kenyans, you often hear it described as the “Kenyan Debit Card”, allowing users to transfer money through their mobile phones to help out family and friends, or to buy and sell goods and services across the airwaves. For the tens of millions of Kenyans without bank accounts, m-Pesa represents both a revolution and a revelation. It is now being rolled out in other countries, with Afghanistan next on the list.

Innovation is not always as official or formalised as this, however. People in developing countries are rarely simple, passive recipients of a technology, and rarely wait for outsiders to provide solutions to their problems. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well, evident by the masses of thriving small businesses you find on the street corners of every village, town and city. Last summer, in “A Review of The Postal and Telecommunications Sector: June 2006 to June 2007”, the Executive Director of the Uganda Communications Commission presented some quite incredible statistics. Official employment in Uganda’s ICT industry – dominated by telecommunications workers – sat at a little over 6,000. Informal, unofficial workers not directly employed, but who were making a living on the back of the industry, was estimated at a whopping 350,000. Amazing as it may be, Uganda is no exception. This is happening all over the African continent.

These ‘informal’ businesses come in all shapes and sizes, as do the kiosks many of them operate from, manufactured using anything from wood to metal sheeting, or made up of simple tables and plastic chairs. Mobile phone repair shops, often equipped with just a handful of basic (and frighteningly large!) tools, have sprung up to help owners squeeze the maximum life out of their devices, many being used in some of the harshest conditions imaginable. Mobile phones are attached to bikes (two and three wheelers), and even boats, and taken to where the business is. In Uganda these bikes, known locally as boda boda’s, are hooked up with spare batteries and desktop mobile devices to create what are affectionately known as “Bodafones”. I met the owner of one on Kampala Road last summer, and got talking to him through the universally accepted language of English Premier League football. He also accurately predicted the result of the Liverpool match later that day – I should have got his number.

In “Mobile Telephony: Leveraging Strengths and Opportunities for Socio- Economic Transformation in Nigeria”, Christiana Charles-Iyoha sheds some fascinating light on the barriers to mobile ownership among Nigerian market traders. Erratic power supply, and difficulty charging, came top with a staggering 87%. Of course, Nigerians are not alone with this problem, and entrepreneurs are coming up with ingenious methods of meeting this crucial consumer need. Today, in some rural areas, users are able to charge their phones from a car battery which is taken to the nearest town, charged up and dragged back. In more urban areas with better mains supply, charging kiosks have sprung up allowing users to recharge their phones while they wait. Soon, with the continuing drop in the cost of solar chargers, many users will be able to do what I did last weekend down my local village green, and charge their phones using the most plentiful renewable energy source available – the sun (yes, we do occasionally get some in England). Interestingly, the total cost of this entire set up came to just over $40 – $22 for the ZTE handset (as being sold by MTN in Uganda), and $20 for the solar panel. Suddenly, with solar, there is light at the end of the charging tunnel.

Any discussion on mobile telephony, developing countries and economic opportunity would not be complete without a mention of Village Phone, Grameen’s pioneering work in Bangladesh which has recently taken root in Africa. A number of competing Village Phone schemes have since sprung up, providing business opportunities to mostly women, usually in rural areas, who borrow a small amount of money to purchase a phone. Members of the community, or passers-by, pay a small fee to make a call, or send a text message. Some of these schemes use desktop-style phones, which many owners prefer because of their ruggedness and the fact they are less likely to go walkabout. Culturally, bigger is also generally seen as better, a view somewhat at odds with how we feel about mobile devices in the Western world.

Other schemes use standard mobile phones, such as Nokia’s entry-level 1100 (for a while the best selling phone on the planet), while Motorola developed their own “pay phone” specifically for the job, allowing operators to enter the number of units to be used before handing the phone over to the caller. This helped ensure customers didn’t talk for longer than they’d paid for, and negated the earlier practice of operators having to rudely grab phones back with their clients in mid-sentence, or having to smack their hands down on the hang-up button of a desk phone before they’d had the chance to say goodbye.

In many places I’ve seen handsets used primarily as phone books, torches or even once as a method of keeping track of bad debts, but despite some ingenious offline applications mobiles are not much use as a communications device without a signal. On the whole, operators are doing what they can, but with geographically disbursed populations, often with little disposable income, it’s sometimes difficult to make a business case for increasing coverage to an area with a minimal, and scattered, population. But where networks do exist, operators in East Africa are blazing a trial, doing something unheard of in Europe and in many other parts of the world. We’re talking roaming, and we’re talking “one network”.

Celtel, MTN and Vodacom are just three of a growing band of African operators tearing down national boundaries to allow their customers seamless mobility as they travel from country-to-country. Advertising boards are scattered everywhere. “One SIM card. 6 countries” proclaims Celtel. “Travel with your Vodacom SIMcard and enjoy Vodacom tariff in Kenya and Uganda” boasts Vodacom. The speed of change in the mobile industry – more so it seems in developing countries – continues unabated. Again, the telecommunications gap between the so-called developed and developing countries looks a little blurred. Travelling across central Africa with a single SIM, on a single tariff, is a business person’s dream.

You may not see a Bodafone on your street anytime soon, but you may see a single European-wide network.

And if you do, just remember where it happened first…

Mobile consumerism: Pixel by pixel

Despite the many incredible things happening around the world with mobile phones, one thing continues to trouble me – the sheer numbers of these things being manufactured, consumed and, in some cases, spat out (dumped, stuffed in drawers, or whatever). Okay, many are finding their way into new homes and markets – developing world or otherwise – which is a good thing all round. But we’ve been fed news for so long about “several million new subscribers here” and “another few million there” that we’ve almost become numb to the massive scale of the whole thing. What on earth do several million handsets look like?

I never really thought about it until now. The photo above is from “Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait“, a series of prints by photographer Chris Jordan that aims to examine modern American culture through the “austere lens of statistics”. What you’re seeing up there is a photograph of 500,000 mobile phones all piled up. This represents the number of mobiles ditched daily in the United States.

In India alone over 5 million new connections – ten times this number – are made every month. Now, maybe not all come with a new handset, but the manufacturers are doing their utmost to make sure they do. That’s where the battle is right now, and it’s only going to hot up. After all, on a global level more people still don’t have phones than do.

The sheer environmental cost of producing such a massive number of devices can’t be underestimated. Quite frankly, it’s huge. I don’t have any answers right now – I wish I did – and sometimes during my various talks I get asked about this. But despite that, I think it’s important that we are at least aware of the issues and don’t just stick our heads in the sand. Our love affair with the mobile phone is just one of many ‘consumptions’ taking hold in the world, as Chris Jordan’s exhibition so vividly shows. Curbing our demand for newer and newer handsets is just a small part of a much wider problem.

And, right now, no-one has any answers to that either.