Mobile Tech and Rural African Women

By Priscilla Mutembwa, ICT Director, The Corporate Council on Africa

Africa is the second most mobile-connected continent and is on track to hit one billion mobile subscriptions by 2015, according to Informa Telecoms. The impact of this technology has been phenomenal and is transforming people’s lives in several ways to an even greater extent than in developed countries, and opening up a wealth of new opportunities. What makes the Africa story most interesting is the way that technology has positively impacted the people that one would least expect it to: rural women. It has provided them with the opportunity to actively participate in critical sectors of economy such as education, agriculture and healthcare. It has also encouraged rural women’s financial inclusion as well as the ability to communicate through technology. My 79 year-old mother lives in a small village in Southern Africa. One of her most prized possessions is her cell phone which she proudly carries around in a pouch hung around her neck. This very basic mobile phone is solar charged and she purchases ‘air-time’ weekly for USD $1. Notwithstanding the 6 hour time difference between Washington, DC and her village and her hearing impediment, she cannot understand why I do not speak to her on a daily basis, as well as remit money to her as often as she needs it. That mobile phone is the only communication technology available to her in a place where it is hard to find power lines, fixed-line telecom infrastructure, or personal computers. Not only does she use it as a means for communication, she uses it as a bank account, a facility that she would otherwise not have had access to. Mobile Technology has significantly helped to spur financial inclusion for rural women. 

According to the Brookings Institute, in sub-Saharan Africa, where the provision and uptake of traditional financial services is limited due to a wide range of factors (including poverty, lack of savings, and poor infrastructure, among others), a number of governments are working to promote digital financial service offerings by creating an enabling environment for various entities, including bank and non-bank formal providers. In turn, the region is leading global progress in the adoption of digital financial services: 12 percent of sub-Saharan African adults have a mobile money account (nearly half of whom exclusively use digital services) compared with only 2 percent of adults at the global level. In fact, in five African countries (Cote d’Ivoire, Somalia, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe) more adults have mobile money accounts than conventional bank accounts.

Beulah, my mother’s neighbor and a close relative (everyone in the village is related!), is a 41 year old widow with 2 children. She is a small scale farmer who makes her living gardening on a 2 acre plot. She is very glad she no longer has to visit the agricultural extension office which is 7 km away (roughly 4.5 miles), whenever she has a problem or requires clarification. She just sends an SMS, and feedback is provided within a day. She receives pricing information on a daily basis for her market produce and she no longer has to wait days before she receives payment for her sales –payment is remitted to her mobile ‘wallet’ as part of the sales transaction. If she was not skeptical about insurance generally, Beulah might also have insured her farming venture using a mobile weather index-based insurance product which a local insurance company has been selling for the last 18 months. 

Beulah also happens to be the chairperson of the village women’s savings club locally known as ‘mukando.’ The club consists of a group of women who each contribute regularly into a cash pool that members can borrow from on a rotating basis. In the event of the death of a spouse or child of a club member, the club provides assistance using funds from the pool. To manage the fund, Beulah uses the mobile product “Ecocash Savings Club” which supports savings groups across the country and offers a more inclusive, secure, transparent and convenient way for people to pool funds using their mobile wallet. The mobile application allows the verification of the withdrawal of funds based on multiple SMS sign-offs. All members can check the group’s account activity at any time on their phones.

Besides their capacity to reach people in rural areas that would be otherwise hardly reachable, mobile health and awareness programs (m-Health) have provided an educational platform for rural women in Africa to learn about health care as well preventive measures in the event of epidemics. “Ebola Alerts”, for instance, were periodic sms messages that both my mother and Beulah received on their phones despite the fact that they live thousands of miles away from the countries affected by the outbreak. The alerts kept them informed on the progress, as well as reminded them of the precautions that were necessary to prevent the spreading of the disease.

It is encouraging that some of the traditional ICT companies have taken note of the potential technology market and pool of talent in Africa and are now putting in place investment initiatives to harness this potential. A case in point is the Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative which is built on the dual beliefs that technology can accelerate growth for Africa, and Africa can also accelerate technology for the world. Through this initiative, Microsoft is working with African Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) and developers to accelerate the development of highly relevant Windows 8 and Windows Phone apps – by Africans, for Africa. Another example is the IBM Innovation Space @ iHub in Nairobi, Kenya which provides early-stage entrepreneurs and start-ups with access to IBM expertise, education and technology tools – especially in the areas of cloud, Big Data analytics, mobile and security. 

In the meantime, I continue to look forward to my bi-weekly 10 minute conversations with my mother where she updates me on the village gossip as well as poses questions on issues that she would otherwise not have come across if she did not have access to a mobile phone. I also continue to look forward to new technological applications that will continue to positively transform the lives of rural women across Africa and the world.




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