Thursday, March 03, 2011

Phone apps for women at the bottom of the economic pyramid

A mobile phone for someone in the bottom of the economic pyramid can open up a whole world of opportunity. Job opportunities, mobile banking, literacy and health applications can all be made available on the phone, and for someone in the under-developed world, access to these apps can be life changing.

Yet there is an unequal access to mobile phones for women in the underdeveloped world. Mobile phone ownership rates are 20 to 35 percent lower for women compared to men. This inequality is despite the efforts of NGOs to give phones to the poor.

An article in the Scientific American describes a new program that gives phones and application to women to help empower their lives. The "mWomen Program" was launched by the advocacy group called Groupe Speciale Mobile Association. Writer Robin Lloyd describes some of the apps that this program makes available to women in the under-developed world.

Dozens of mWomen programs and apps already exist in the field, often conceived and implemented by local women. Program directors, organizers and field workers are comparing notes and sharing strategies via the GSMA, online bulletin boards and in-person gatherings such as a tech salon in New York City organized in September by MobileActive.

Attendees at the New York event learned of a recent pilot program in Africa to introduce cell phones and a text message–driven community bulletin board in 15 villages in Senegal that helped local women post messages and share educational information about malaria. The villages lack running water and electricity, but 58 percent of residents had used a mobile phone. Staffers with the Jokko Initiative trained locals how to navigate the bulletin board by mapping its phone tree—with labeled sticks on the ground. The bulletin board and phones freed the women of the need for men to read and type their messages for them. Erica Kochi, part of the initiative via Jokko-partner United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), says that women's literacy and numeracy went up as they used the phones to share information and calculate savings at the market.

Anne Roos-Weil described Pesinet, a women-run mobile service she co-founded that brings health care to infants in Mali—where one in five children dies before age five, usually from malaria, measles or respiratory diseases—along with other countries in Africa. For a monthly fee of $1 (equivalent to a day's wages), subscribers are visited weekly at home by a Pesinet agent who weighs newborns and asks the mother questions about diarrhea, fever and other health matters. The agent sends the data via a Java mobile phone app to a server accessed by nearby doctor who assesses the child's health. The doctor then recommends a visit to the clinic if necessary, where the child receives a free medical exam and half-price medication for the diseases that kill most children.

Pesinet's subscription base has increased 70 percent since January, and subscribers almost uniformly find it affordable and satisfying. But it needs to double its enrollment to 1,000 subscribers to cover its expenses.

Funding for nonprofits and NGOs can be unstable and subject to the whims of donor nations and individuals. Enter telecommunications companies, along with their customer bases and business models. Telecoms can build a program aimed at social welfare that will take as long as a decade to pay for itself, long after a start-up's donor patience or grant money might run out.

"Telcos have to think of the business angle as well as the social angle," says Shainoor Khoja, managing director for social programs for Roshan, the leading telecommunications service provider in Afghanistan, with 3.8 million active subscribers. "Sometimes NGOs seem to focus on the social angle only, which is their role, without something being sustainable. It's a real problem." Roshan is 51 percent owned by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, so it balances mandates for development and profitability. The company was the first in Afghanistan to post a billboard that featured a picture of a woman.

"Straight-out business-wise we are firm believers that putting a mobile phone in the hands of every woman and girl is essential," Khoja says. "We see the mobile phone as not just one communication tool—we see it as much more. Because the minute you put a voice phone in the hands of the woman, you empower her and also give her access to financial services, information, literacy, safety to pursue a livelihood—a whole variety of things that you and I would take for granted, because we have a phone."

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