M-Powerment for Women: The Role of Mobile Phones in Inclusive Development
By Christian Taske & Frances Forde Plude
Working as a television producer years ago, I (Plude) understood that many new communication technologies were fast approaching. Satellites and fax machines had arrived and computers existed in universities. At the time no one had heard of Bill Gates. Laptops were not yet designed. Mobile technology was limited to cumbersome walkie-talkies.
Even then, as I realized people would make millions of dollars in these new communication technologies, I worried about poor people around the globe in such an environment. Who would be concerned about their needs, especially the needs of poor women?
This concern drove me to doctoral studies in telecommunications and public policy at Harvard and MIT so I could be sensitive to the communication rights of the poor.
I completed my doctoral work during the period when the AT&T monopoly was breaking up and the regional “Baby Bells” were born. Those were exciting days if you were studying telecommunications: there were seminars and corporate heads visited Harvard; and all of our deliberations went straight to Washington to guide policymakers who were moving into unchartered telephone territory. I remember writing in an article at that time saying “… the telephone has been one of our most valuable communication tools, offering the potential for humane telecommunication that allows intimacy, dialogue and the ability to form people interconnects or networks” (Plude, 1984, 14).
Since then a digital revolution has occurred. We argue in this paper that the telephone (now a digital, mobile, computerized device) is at the heart of the global communication revolution – especially for impoverished billions of women who just might be liberated, not so much by a philosophy as by this digital communication tool.
This revolution can be witnessed around the world: in Bangladesh, a woman connects to the Web by plugging her mobile phone into an Internet center to make an appointment with a cardiac specialist 140 miles away. In Tanzania, fishermen use mobile text messages to check market prices to auction off their catch, eliminating middlemen and increasing profits. In Malawi, health care workers send text messages to instantly communicate data on childhood nutrition. In China, teenagers redeem coupons on their mobile phones at McDonald’s. In India, worshippers send prayers in the form of text messages to Hindu temples. In Singapore, drivers pay tolls with their mobile phones. In Kenya, street vendors make a living by selling airtime minutes. In Cambodia, garment workers send half their salary back to their families in transactions conducted entirely on their mobile phones. And with mobile phones millions of poor people are plugging into banking for the first time.
These are just a handful of examples showing that the mobile telephone has become the computer of choice for poor people in developing nations around the globe.
I saw this clearly during several trips to India and in my growing network of colleagues there.
Based on my personal observation and research, this paper discusses:
The Explosion of Mobile Phone Growth
While it took about 20 years for the first billion mobile phones to sell worldwide, the second billion sold in four years, and the third billion in just two, according to statistics from the market database Wireless Intelligence. Eighty percent of the world’s population now lives within range of a cellular network, and 68 percent of the world’s mobile subscriptions are in developing countries, according to figures from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
There is now more than one mobile phone for every two people on the planet. This explosion of mobile technology and the sharp drop in price for the cellular device and air time, has brought mobile phones to some of the most remote places in the world. Today more than 3.3 billion mobile phones worldwide have a tremendous impact on community, culture and the global economy (Corbett, 2008).
Particularly in developing nations, mobile phones are much more than digital communication tools; they are used as electronic wallets for cash payments, in-your-pocket ATMs for mobile banking, and on-the-go medical communication devices. The mobile phone has spread throughout much of the developing world faster and more deeply than any previous technology.
Consider this: In 1998, there were no mobile subscribers in Morocco; eight years later, 24 of every 100 Moroccans owned a cell phone – six times the number of landline subscribers. During the same period, mobile phone subscriptions rose from zero to 36 percent in Albania, zero to 30 percent in Paraguay, and zero to 21 percent in China (Lasica, 2006, 33). In 2001, Afghanistan had one of the lowest phone penetration rates in the world. In a country of 26 million people, there were no mobile phones and less than 40,000 landline phones. By 2008, Afghanistan had almost six million telephone subscribers, 5.4 million of whom owned cell phones (Gross, 2008). Some 30 countries in the world now have more mobile phone subscriptions than people (Adler, 2008, 4).
With these statistics in mind, it is clear that the cell phone more than the Internet, is the key technology to help move the world’s poor out of poverty. The mobile phone is a tool for economic development and its benefits are evident particularly in microeconomies.
Is Aid Dead?
Along with the explosion of mobile phone growth, there has been an evolution – even a revolution – in the field of foreign aid. Most of us are familiar with the work of entertainment figures like Bono, dramatic global “Live Aid” concerts, and philanthropic work like that of Bill and Melinda Gates.
Less dramatic perhaps, but very powerful, is the argument put forth in the book Dead Aid, by Dambisa Moyo. Moyo’s background includes a Ph.D. in economics at Oxford, a Master’s degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and work at Goldman Sachs and the World Bank. Born and raised in Zambia, Moyo notes: “Social capital, by which is meant the invisible glue of relationships that holds business, economy and political life together, is at the core of any country’s development” (Moyo, 58). She continues: “Foreign aid does not strengthen the social capital – it weakens it. By thwarting accountability mechanisms … aid guarantees that in the most aid-dependent regimes social capital remains weak and the countries themselves poor.”
What we’ve known as “aid” has often been squandered by despotic local rulers. In contrast, China “invested” $900 million in Africa in 2004 into roads in Ethiopa, pipelines in Sudan, railways in Nigeria, and electric power in Ghana. All this is part of a well-orchestrated plan for China to be the dominant foreign investment force in twenty-first-century Africa. Business investment and trade rather than handouts, that’s Dambisa Moyo’s prescription.
Jeffrey Sachs (2005) parses poverty for us. One sixth of humanity lives in extreme poverty and struggles daily for survival. “We need to insure that all of the world’s poor, including those in moderate poverty, have a chance to climb the ladder of development” (Sachs, 24). A bold set of commitments exist known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), signed by all 191 UN member states.
In order for the poor to climb that ladder of development, we maintain here that there ought to be two key components to a global campaign to eradicate poverty: the education of women and the expansion of mobile phone business use among the poor, including women.
Cups of Tea as Part of the Solution
Millions of people around the world (including leaders of the U.S. military) have read the American Greg Mortenson’s story Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time. In this book and his later volume Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace With Books, not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mortenson relates his efforts to partner with local village leaders in constructing schools. The locals donate the land and provide the labor to construct the buildings; Mortenson’s organization provides the materials and he spends much of his time building relationships with local elders.
Schools are managed and staffed by the village. Religion is not part of the curriculum. All schools admit both boys and girls and they are designed to allow privacy for girls in their toilet facilities since this is one issue that has prevented female attendance in the past. Notably, schools located within a village or nearby also means that girls do not have to travel far under unsafe conditions.
These efforts have resulted in over 131 schools with over 58,000 students in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But Mortenson dedicates his second book “to the 120 million school-age children in the world who are deprived of their right to education.”
What are the payoffs when women are educated and can start up their own businesses? Barbara Herz and Gene Sperling report in their study for the Council on Foreign Relations (2004):
So far we’ve examined the dramatic growth of cell phone technology, evolving concepts of how to aid impoverished populations, and the direct impact of women who are supported with education and business opportunities. Next we will examine one country in particular and then a specific business sector – mobile banking.
India ’s Digital Divide
More than three billion people, most of them living in Africa and Asia, still don’t own mobile phones (Corbett, 2008). As this number will dramatically shrink within the next decade, mobile technology will change the global economy in ways experts are just beginning to understand. One thing is certain, though: mobile devices are becoming the most omnipresent and influential technology ever invented.
This transformative power of mobile technology can already be witnessed in developing nations around the globe, especially in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. India, for example, is the world’s fastest growing cellular phone market. In March 2010, 20 million new subscribers registered in India. Today, almost half of the 1.2 billion people in India own a cell phone, and the wireless industry represents two percent of the country’s GDP, making it the second largest mobile phone market in the world after China. This tremendous growth has created the most affordable cellular market in the world with an airtime cost of less than one cent per minute (Bajaj, 2010).
In contrast, landline networks are expensive to build and maintain. They require a permanent address and the ability to pay a monthly bill. But poor people often lack both and therefore prefer cell phones, which offer mobility and flexible payment plans in the form of prepaid cards. So it is not surprising that there are only 40 million landline subscribers in India (Bellman, 2009), and that worldwide mobile phones now reach more than twice as many people as landlines do.
In addition, the “digital divide” associated with the personal computer and the Internet does not appear to apply to mobile technology. The number of mobile phone users has surpassed the number of people with personal computers and Internet access. These latter technologies are not only costly but demand literacy, which is often a rare skill in the developing world. In contrast, the basic function of the mobile phone simply requires the user to dial a number to put a call through. It that sense, the mobile phone is more open and inclusive.
Women in particular have discovered the mobile phone as an empowering tool, allowing for more independence as they build their own small businesses. Mobile technology has played a major role in the progress of women around the world as it adds to their economic power and gives them a voice in patriarchal societies.
The mobile phone has also become an important factor in the global fight against poverty. As we mentioned earlier, proponents of “dead aid” believe that pumping international aid into poor countries is less productive than encouraging economic growth through commerce and trade. “Mobile has become a new income-generating tool,” the Bangladeshi mobile entrepreneur Iqbal Quadir said. “One study showed that more than 40 percent of rural cell phone use in Asia is for business” (Lasica, 2006, 34).
Unlike many other industries, no part of the world has a monopoly in mobile technology. Much of the innovation in wireless telephony actually takes place in the less developed world today; and there’s a baffling degree of variation in how the developing world has adopted the cell phone (Adler, 2006, 8).
One major difference compared to the developed world is that in poor rural areas mobile phones are often initially acquired not by individuals but by households. One 2007 survey of five Asian countries – India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Thailand – found that only a minority of residents, particularly among the poor, owned a mobile phone, but that a majority at all economic levels had access to one. In India, for example, 80 percent of households on the bottom of the economic pyramid share one mobile phone (Adler, 2008, 9).
But not only families share mobile phones. In many parts of the developing world entire villages share a cell phone. In Nepal, for example, it’s not uncommon for farmers to bring their vegetables to a local person with a mobile phone, who then acts as a commissioned sales agent, using the phone to check for market prices and arranging for the most profitable sale.
In recent years, however, the need to share cell phones is decreasing as the cost of mobile telephony has dropped dramatically. In Afghanistan in 2002, for example, phones cost $400 and airtime averaged $2 a minute. By 2008, mobile phones were less than $50 and minutes dropped to less than 10 cents (Gross, 2008). In Sri Lanka, wireless companies’ average cost per user is $3 per month (Adler, 2008, 8). Their profits often remain high, however, since the drop in prices has resulted in an explosion of new registered customers.
The lives of these customers have been revolutionized by mobile phones in magnificent ways. In Africa, people who had to travel for days to talk to their relatives now talk to them daily on a mobile phone. Villagers call the police or a doctor instead of walking for miles to find one, and news of births, deaths and weddings now travels much faster. In Bangladesh, villagers even connect to the Web by plugging their cell phones into Internet centers supplied by Grameenphone, a non-profit sister concern of Nobel laureate Mohammad Yanus’s internationally acclaimed microfinance organization Grameen Bank. They then look up weather reports, call their relatives abroad, and even arrange relationships online.
Another of these hybrid services that combines mobile and Internet technology is DakNet. Pioneered in India, DakNet, is a kind of “drive-by-WiFi” service that connects rural villages to the Web with WiFi-enabled kiosks that residents use to send and receive e-mails, negotiate government services, conduct job searches, and make travel arrangements. These kiosks first store users’ data offline, then send it to a vehicle with a small wireless mobile access point (MAP) that passes through the village. Once the MAP-equipped vehicle returns to the city, where it can connect to the Internet via a cellular network, the data goes out on the Web (Adler, 2008, 30).
The mobile phone’s biggest impact on the developing world, however, has been in the area of m-commerce – the ability to make purchases and conduct financial transactions on the cell phone. One of the innovative mobile services that make m-commerce possible in the developing world is CellBazaar, which was developed by mobile entrepreneur Iqbal Quadir when he was an MBA student at MIT. Quadir saw a need for this kind of mobile service in his native Bangladesh, where 30 million people had mobile phones but only one million had ATM cards. The Craigslist-type mobile service, which was developed in partnership with Grameenphone, connects buyers and sellers in an online market over mobile phones (Sullivan, 2007, 142).
In Congo, a system called Cellpay offers residents the opportunity to walk into small shops and pay for goods from food to electronics on their mobile phone. The customers simply punch a few buttons on the phone to transfer money into the shopkeeper’s bank account. The store owner then receives a text confirming the payment. In order to pay bills and transfer funds, users simply have to sign up for the service and make cash deposits into their Cellpay accounts (Sullivan, 2006).
The Cellpay system has also created an entirely new “airtime economy.” In noisy street markets in Kinshasa, for example, men and women set up little shops where they sell airtime. They buy the minutes in bulk from wireless companies and resell them to customers for a small profit. The salesmen just need to enter the amount of airtime and the recipient’s phone number to transfer the minutes to the buyer. Many of those who buy minutes then pass them on to relatives in the same manner. There are other cell phone related businesses as well: for a small fee some people type text messages for those who are illiterate; others set up generators people can use to charge their phones for hours for as little as 30 cents (Sullivan, 2006).
India is the one country that serves as a prime case study for the economic impact of mobile phones. The Aspen Institute in India convened a roundtable of some of the world’s leading mobile entrepreneurs in 2008 to discuss how mobile communications empowers India. A report on the roundtable detailed the reasons for India’s incredible mobile growth. The findings hold true for the growth of the mobile industry in most of the developing world.
India’s exploding mobile phone market can be attributed to: cheap handsets (more than a quarter of all handsets are second hand and cost around $20), prepaid cards (90 percent of India’s mobile subscribers have prepaid plans and sometimes buy credit as low as 20 cents to keep lines open), low-cost service options (average revenue per user is $6 compared to $50 in the U.S.), and the policy that the calling party pays, where the recipient of a call is not charged (Adler, 2008,v).
Most of the growth takes places in urban India, where the “teledensity” was 22 times higher than in rural areas in 2007. However, rural teledensity is approaching urban levels of a decade earlier (Adler, 2008, 12). The cell phone is often the first purchase a villager makes when he or she has saved enough money. Some statistics show that more people in India have access to cell phones than to toilets (Cohen, 2010). People in rural areas often own a cell phone even though they don’t have electricity. As a result, some villagers travel almost 20 kilometers a day to get their phones charged.
A study by Harvard economist Robert Jensen illustrates why poor people go to such lengths to access mobile technology (Adler, 2008, 14). In 1997, Jensen studied the prices fishermen in India’s Kerala state received for their catch before they used cell phones to conduct business. The prices varied greatly since the fishermen had no way of knowing in advance where the buyers were and what they were willing to pay. Four years later, 60 percent of the fishermen and almost all of the buyers were using mobile phones to coordinate sales. As a result, the prices stabilized as fishermen eliminated waste and increased their profits while consumers paid less for the fish.
The biggest demand for cell phones comes from rural customers who typically make less than $1,000 a year. A Feb. 11, 2009 story in the Wall Street Journal further illustrates the impact mobile phones have on how rural villagers in India conduct business:
In the village of Karanehalli, a cluster of simple homes around an intersection of two dirt roads about 40 miles from India's high-tech capital of Bangalore, Farmer K.T. Srinivasa doesn't have a toilet for his home or a tractor for his field. But when a red and white cellular tower sprouted in his village, he splurged on a cellphone.
While the way his family threshes rice -- crushing it with a massive stone roller -- hasn't changed for generations, his phone has changed the way he farms. He uses it to decide when to plant and harvest by calling other farmers, to get the best prices for his rice, coconuts and jasmine by calling wholesalers, and to save hours of time waiting on the road for deliveries and pickups that rarely come on time.
"Life is much better with the cellphone," he said from his rice paddy in the shadow of the new tower. "I bring it with me to the fields and anyone can reach me here."
Mr. Srinivasa, like close to half the 800 people in his village, uses Idea Cellular Ltd. as it was the first to bring them service. He paid the equivalent of about $60 for his Nokia phone, and spends about $6 each month for service. Like most rural users, Mr. Srinivasa uses his phone to make voice calls -- he doesn't know how to text message or to download emails. On average rural Indians use their phones around 8.5 hours a month, up 10% over the past year.
As the above story illustrates, a small number of Indians use their mobile phones for data services. These so called value-added services accounted for only seven percent of wireless revenues in 2007; more than half of these revenues came from text messages (Adler, 2008, 14). Three years later, data remains a niche application in India’s wireless industry, even though the government auctioned off 71 licenses for 3G networks to seven companies for a total of $11 billion in May (Baja, 2010). There are very few smart phones (only about 40,000 iPhones are in use) in India, and, according to The Economist, most companies are likely to use the high-speed networks to carry voice calls and text messages rather than mobile Internet services.
Some text message services have already had a transforming impact in India, however. These short message services include a Google service that allows users to retrieve business listings, movie show times and weather reports via text messages; there’s also a texting service that provides information about HIV/AIDS and one that gives sugarcane farmers advice on better agricultural methods and marketing strategies. The latter service replaced one based on Internet kiosks located in 56 villages. Advantages of the SMS-based service included lower maintenance costs and wider access (Adler, 2008, 16). Texting has potential growth in education areas also.
The Aspen roundtable defined two areas where mobile technology will have the biggest impact: m-government and m-commerce.
M-government has the potential to make access to government more democratic and transparent while increasing efficiency. Previous e-government projects in India have not been successful due to the cost and complexity of computers and Internet connections. But m-government has its own challenges such as usability, reliability, privacy and security.
Nevertheless, the roundtable shared one example where m-government is already working. In 2007, the Orissa Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Department introduced an SMS-based reporting system that tracks livestock health and breeding services in the state. About 10,000 field staff submit reports on the state’s 28 million cattle on a weekly basis. This was much quicker than with the previous paper-based system. The method also reduced response time and was credited with helping to keep on outbreak of bird flu in the neighboring state of West Bengal from spreading into Orissa (Adler, 2008, 18).
Mobile Purchases, Loans and Banking
M-commerce is expected to have an even bigger impact than m-government. Several Indian banks have already introduced mobile banking that allows customers to check account balances and pay bills. “Mobile commerce can be regarded as the successor of e-commerce,” said Nripendra Misra, the chairman of India’s Telecom Regulatory Authority (Adler, 2008, 53).
One particularly important aspect of m-commerce is mobile banking, which has the potential to give the masses of the developing world currently without banking access to financial services. Several developing countries have introduced simple, low-cost mobile banking systems. The G-CASH system introduced in the Philippines in 2004, for example, enables users to send remittances, make donations, settle loans and pay bills with a simple text message (Lasica, 2006, 34).
A similar system introduced in Kenya in 2007, M-PESA, also uses SMS to conduct financial transactions, including making deposits and withdrawals, transferring money and buying prepaid airtime. Anyone who wants to use the system can register with one of the local agents, typically small shopkeepers, across the country, who accept and hand out cash payments to M-PESA users. Once a user has deposited the money, he or she can send it to someone else by entering the recipient’s phone number. After receiving the text message, the recipient can pick up the cash from any agent who takes a small fee. As of March 2008, a year after the program’s introduction, 1.6 million of the 20 million Kenyans had used the system to transfer $145 million (Sullivan, 2007, 140).
In Cambodia, mobile banking has been promoted by WING, a subsidiary of the Australia and New Zealand Banking Group. WING’s service allows customers to save, make purchases and transfer money to both customers and non-customers on mobile phones. The service is not tied to a mobile number and therefore available to customers who have access to a cell phone owned by a family member or friend. Among WING’s target groups are Cambodia’s 300,000 garment workers who regularly send half of their $20-30 salary home at transaction fees of up to 10 percent. WING provides the service at much lower cost (Firpo, 2009).
In addition, WING is partnering with the microfinance institution VisionFund, whose branches serve as deposit and withdrawal points for WING customers. Through WING, VisionFund also has the ability to disburse its microloans and collect payments.
The partnership between WING and VisionFund, as well as the connection between Grameen Bank and Grameenphone, illustrates how the mobile phone has become a darling of the microfinance movement. Microfinance institutions are interested in community development and bringing a wide range of financial services to those who have not used banks. They have discovered the mobile phone is the most powerful tool in accomplishing this.
Today some 10,000 organizations annually offer an estimated $1 billion in microfinance loans to millions of customers worldwide. These microloans, however, only reach somewhere between five to 10 percent of the world’s poor. Mobile technology, many economists believe, might be able to expand that reach. In developing markets, only about 37 percent of the population has access to formal banking, while more than 50 percent have access to mobile phones, according to a McKinsey report (Beshouri, 2010). For every 10,000 people, developing countries have one bank branch and one ATM but 5,100 cell phones. So it is easy to see how the cell phone is becoming not only the computer but also the bank of choice for the poor.
Among other things, mobile banking has improved the flow of remittances, which is the largest source of income for many people, especially women, in developing nations, by making it cheaper and quicker. In Kenya the M-PESA, for instance, system is commonly used to transfer money from richer relatives in urban areas to poorer family members in rural areas.
The growing availability of mobile banking in the developing world will drastically change the financial habits of the poor, who today primarily store their money at home, with a friend or buy assets such as cows or chickens to store value.
Over the past year, over 150 mobile money services have launched around the world, according to data from the GSM Assocation’s Mobile Money for the Unbanked Program. The trade group conducted research together with McKinsey that showed that about one billion people in emerging markets have a mobile phone but no access to banking services. It estimates that by 2012 this population will reach 1.7 billion. The study further estimates that about 45 million people without traditional bank accounts use mobile money, and this number could rise to 360 million by 2012 if mobile operators were to achieve early adoption rates.
The Erosion of Centralized (Including Religious) Authority
One of the authors of this paper (Plude) has been studying interactive communications for almost three decades (Plude, 1981, 1986, 1994, 1996, 2001, 2005, 2007), with special reference to the need for dialogue both within the Catholic Church and in terms of the Church’s interaction with global cultures and communication flows.
Plude proposed a model of cooperative interaction in her Harvard doctoral dissertation, under the direction of the MIT scholar Ithiel de Sola Pool (Plude, 1981). She later developed an extensive model or “map” of the development of interactive communication ranging from the feudal society of oral traditions and monastery scriptoria to today’s world of wireless technology and on-the-spot digital networks (Plude, 2007). Using four grids this model shows parallel tracks between cultural contexts, media formats and structures of social and religious thought. Reviewing the links shows that the increasing diversity of media channels – especially those media formats that allow ‘talk-back’ – seems to facilitate a number of things: decentralization; economic, political, and religious liberation; and the decline of hierarchy, for example.
Plude concludes that as talk-back forums and technologies develop, it becomes more difficult to control the communication content of inter- and intra-group exchanges. Liberation movements emerge and become stronger, fueled by “people-on-the-streets” power – people who are connected instantly by cell phones and Internet social media.
All this represents a huge challenge for centralized, hierarchical religious institutions. However, people in communities of faith just keep on interacting!
The Grassroots Outreach
Now that we know of the m-powering dimension of mobile technology for the global poor, perhaps religious groups, churches and other institutions can systematically support public policy in this area; they could also help people at the bottom of the pyramid rise up by organizing the distribution of low-cost mobile phones through group buys in cooperation with cell phone manufacturers. With four billion people in the developing world this represents a fertile field for nonprofits who want to aid people in poverty to help themselves through a technology that empowers them. And if most of these phones were manufactured in the countries that, too, would begin to erase local poverty. Many of the workers manufacturing these phones would, of course, be women.
It’s important to note that mobiles enable economic activity that leads to growth but they do not primarily create that growth. They are a necessary but not sufficient condition for growth and poverty elimination. Other enabling factors include: education, health care, sanitation, electric power, transportation – all leading to local and national market development (Donner, 2008, 34).
Manuel Castells has spoken extensively of our network age, including networks of information, production, and exchange. He also refers to the marginalized existence of people around the globe in both rich and poor nations, framing isolation and exclusion in informational terms – he calls this “the Fourth World.”
People in India and all the other people inhabiting this Fourth World – women and men and children – can be aided by mobile technology with each individual using a mobile phone in ways that match basic human needs.
Shouldn’t communicators and people of faith help in meeting this challenge?
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