Two recent ICT4D and gender news items caught my attention this week. The first was a CGI Commitment announcement - Tata Communications and MasterCard Foundation have teamed up, along with a number of other partners, to provide up to 100 million women in developing countries with mobile technology over the next five years, starting with 25,000 women in India, Nigeria, Indonesia and Guatemala, as part of a broader effort to empower women socially and economically. By all accounts, this ‘providing women with mobile technology’ means giving out 100 million handsets over the next five years to women.
Along a similar line, the second article that got me thinking was the results of a randomized controlled trial (RCT) conducted by the College of William and Mary in the US, working with the Tanzanian-based social enterprise Kidogo Kidogo, who sell beautiful smartphone cases and then use the proceeds to provide low-income Tanzanian women with free handsets. The small-scale study provided 60 female small business owners in Tanzania with free handsets, and measured the effects of their business – and found that there was a big improvement in their businesses:
“It was much easier for them to obtain market information, such as real-time prices from neighbouring markets on goods they were selling…overall this improved their competitiveness as traders. The women also used their phones to get cheaper supplies, to stay in touch with customers, to send and receive payments and for mobile banking.”
Both of these initiatives are fascinating. The mantra of some of the organisations I’ve worked for in the past has been that we don’t give out free phones at any cost, ever. And yet here is one large-scale CGI commitment with two major players that commits to doing just that – and giving out 100 million of them. And here is a robust, empirically sound, independent study that shows that giving out free phones does make a marked difference to women’s lives.
Give out free handsets, or don’t give out? That is the question. Let’s look at some of the debates.
- Barriers of cost
A major argument for giving out free handsets is that the biggest barrier to access to mobile for women is cost. Well, this is undoubtedly true. Women, on the whole, have lower-levels of income than men because of underlying gender inequalities, and so are more price-sensitive than men. So the biggest barrier of owning a phone is the actual handset cost – so therefore, by giving out free handsets, you’ve automatically removing this hurdle, right?
But at the same time, we know that barriers to access are a lot more complex than just cost – particularly in places like India, where Tata and MasterCard will kick off their work. Cost is not just about the cost of the handset – it’s about the cost of the airtime or the cost of charging the battery in terms of electricity, and women are much more affected by these costs than men. So they may own a handset, but can they afford to use it in a meaningful way?
Another thing to consider are social norms: if a woman is given a free handset, how are Tata and MasterCard going to ensure that it is not taken away from her by husband or brother, particularly if it’s a nicer phone than the one they own? Some of the women I’ve interviewed in India and Bangladesh have said that they don’t believe it’s right for women to own mobiles, particularly younger women. How are Tata and MasterCard going to address these perceptions of who has the right to own a phone? And please, please, don’t let it be by giving out pink phones – there is enough gender stereotyping to deal with without throwing THAT one into the mix.
I’ve heard comments from the development sector that mobile operators and the private sector don’t want to give out free phones as it reduces their profits – particularly if they’re actually selling handsets in the first place. I’m sure there’s some truth in this – GSMA have long advocated for any mobile programme to be commercially sustainable, and that means commercial revenues for mobile operators in order to help them see the business case for serving women; it should not a CSR activity. I do believe this is true – but we’ve yet to find a model that has gone to scale and is commercially sustainable. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist – it just means we need to keep trying. And giving out free handsets isn’t going to be sustainable in the long-run: Tata and MasterCard can give out 100 million handsets, but what about the other billions of women globally who don’t have access to a mobile? Is someone else going to give them out free handsets? How will this be done?
Working on the BBC Janala project, we placed a huge emphasis on consumer insights. And time and time again, we heard that people are willing to pay for something if they see it as valuable. If they get it for free, it’s not seen as important. If they pay for it, even a little amount, they are much likely to value it, and engage with it on a regular and meaningful basis. And yes, these were people from the base of the pyramid who lived on less than $2 a day. By giving out free handsets, there’s a risk that the women may not value it in the same way, or use it in the same way, as something they had bought themselves.
- Meaningful use and meaningful services
Working in mobile education in particular, one of the key principles is to only use technology that is already prevalent in the target population: a ‘worst’ practice is dumping hardware and expecting magic to happen. And I think you can argue that a similar thing is going on here – if the women don’t have phones and then they are suddenly given phones, who is going to teach them how to use it? We already know that women have lower levels of technical literacy and self-confidence than men, let along lower levels of literacy overall – how are Tata and MasterCard planning to deal with that?
Another thing to consider is relevance. We also know that one of the barriers to meaningful use is a lack of relevant services for women. One of the interesting things about the Tanzania study is that the women were using the phones to get meaningful information and use services that were relevant to their needs. But what if those services don’t exist? Or if they do exist but the female users that Tata and MasterCard are targeting don’t know about them because they’ve never used a mobile before and so don’t know how to find this information? What’s the plan for addressing this?
I may be a cynic, but I’m curious to know what Tata and MasterCard’s plans are around these issues and debates. It’s clear that overcoming the gender digital divide simply not a question of access alone, and it feels a bit like Tata and MasterCard may be taking a very technology-determinism approach. Yes, mobile phones are enablers, and yes, it’s wonderful that such big names in the industry are sitting up and paying attention to women, and have huge numbers and huge ambitions, and yes, it’s wonderful that we have these research studies and we’re building the evidence base. But unless people think about all the wraparound activities and issues that come with giving out free handsets to women, I fear we may be seeing a One-Laptop-Per-Child-style failure for the gender and ICT4D world.