While wireless internet technology is taking the world by storm, boosting businesses and churning out market leaders, for the resource poor developing world, it is the telecommunications technology that’s making waves. Four out of every five new mobile connections are being made in developing countries, according to the mobile phone industry body, the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA). They also report that about 41 percent of all female business owners in developing countries had higher earnings because they had access to a phone.
In Third World countries, traditional rural communities are characterized by limited infrastructure and low literacy rates, especially amongst women. Women are largely marginalized and given a conservative environment, they are primarily dependent upon a middleman be it their husbands, the village elder or the local teacher. They are often inaccessible and have been known to impose exorbitant fees and unfair conditions for their services. By providing access to a mobile phone, the middleman is eliminated as is the need to travel large distances to use a phone.
Based on this preemptive, several schemes have been developed worldwide to provide access to mobile phones. In Bangladesh, the Grameen Bank introduced its Village Phone scheme in 2002 that provides modern telecommuncations services to the rural poor. A Grameen Bank member, usually a woman, obtains ownership of a mobile phone under the lease – financing program of the bank. She then uses the phone either for her own business purposes or as a mobile service provider for her neighbours. Following the rapid success of the Village Phone scheme in Bangladesh, the system was then rolled out in Uganda in 2003.
CellBazaar, an initiative by GrameenTelecomm (a sister concern of Grameen Bank) is the e-bay equivalent that provides easy access to the mobile market place for Bangladeshi villagers. Sokhina, a mother of two and a budding entrepreneur has cashed in on Grameen’s CellBazaar initiative and now makes a modest income from selling her handicrafts on the market. Mobile technology means that her illiteracy is not a hindrance anymore and many rural women have transformed themselves into entrepreneurs.
Schemes in Zimbabwe and India are being developed to enable easy money transfer between income earners and their family members living in isolated villages. In crime riddled areas, M-banking would allow people to send money safely from their mobile phones to those of their families, who would be able to redeem cash from mobile airtime sellers where they live.
Readily accessible information via the mobile has gone a long way to help micro- entrepreneurs. One example is Lucy’s story. Lucy, a micro-farmer in Kenya was struggling with an outbreak of pests in her potato crop and called the GSMA’s m-Kilimo helpline for assistance. Experts on the line talked Lucy through the process of caring for her crop and she was able to have a bountiful harvest that year.
The introduction of mobile phones in villages has abundant benefits, the most profound of which are reduced transaction costs, quicker access to information and less isolation. Women in particular profit by supplementing their families’ incomes and fending for themselves.
Realising the potential for empowering women via access to mobile phones, the GSMA has launched a global public-private partnership between the worldwide mobile industry and the international development community. The Programme aims to reduce the mobile phone gender gap by 50% by 2014, enabling mobile ownership and effective usage for more than 150 million women in emerging markets including by providing access to financial, healthcare and education services.