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Narrowing the mobile gender divide will bolster emerging economies  

October 17, 2017 • East Africa, General, North Africa, Opinion, Southern Africa, West Africa

Narrowing the Mobile Gender Divide Will Bolster Emerging Economies

Rachel Samrén, EVP Chief External Affairs Officer, Millicom

The telecommunications sector plays an important role in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). One of the greatest challenges the world faces in achieving these goals is narrowing down the gender gap and ensuring that the SDG Agenda accomplishes the same progress for women as it does for men.

Most people think of the gender gap as a “women’s issue.” That cannot be further from the truth. It’s not just a women’s or a gender issue – it’s one of the biggest challenges our society faces today.

Being part of a provider of cable and mobile services in Africa and Latin America, we have learned that accelerating digital inclusion and closing the gender gap in mobile usage brings huge economic benefits for emerging markets. Women are more likely to address the basic needs of their communities when they are connected to the internet. So, by helping to close the digital gender divide, we can help foster economic growth and entrepreneurship.

The mobile gender gap is wide in our markets. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 67% of women are unconnected. It’s 49% in Latin America and the Caribbean.

As mobile operators, we have the opportunity – and the responsibility – to break down these barriers and create products and services tailored to women.

At Millicom, we are working to do this. We are promoting external programs to support the advancement of women, and they are making an impact. In Honduras, for example, we train indigenous women on how to use their smartphones to create mobile money wallets and set up social media profiles to market their handicraft products. This has stimulated entrepreneurship and helped to grow the economies of their communities.

At the core of digital inclusion is financial inclusion. In rural Africa and Latin America, having a bank account or a mobile device is not a given. It’s often the exception. Millions of people in these markets face tremendous barriers to access the same services that most people in developed markets take for granted.

But there is a solution. With mobile financial services, we can integrate women into the financial ecosystem and offer products and services customized to their needs.

World Bank research shows that women save on average 10% to 15% of their earnings, regardless of how low or unpredictable their incomes may be. Women are inherently responsible savers. This means that if we increase women’s access to technology, their lives and those of their families and communities will likely improve.

We are already seeing plenty of examples. One of my favourite ones is that of a group of saleswomen at a local fish market in Chad. They set up a joint account through Millicom’s Tigo Paaré, a shared savings product. As a result, they increased their individual savings and overall revenue, allowing them to jointly invest in refurbishing the hangars they use to sell their products. Tigo Paaré enabled these women and others elsewhere to form their own community banks to keep their cash safe and save it for future investments.

Through Tigo Money, a service of ours that allows people to manage funds through mobile devices in Latin America, we are encouraging entrepreneurship by allowing businesses and individuals to accept online payments from unbanked customers. In El Salvador, for example, women can collect payments from direct sales through the platform and engage in e-commerce without the need of a formal financial institution.

These are just some of the solutions to close the digital divide. But a lot more can be done, and how better than together with those who can impact the mobile ecosystem. Mobile network operators have a responsibility to come together to set common goals and forge a strategic partnership to widen the reach of projects and close the mobile gender gap.

One collaborative effort already underway is the Connected Women Initiative which is spearheaded by GSMA, the corporate body representing mobile network interests around the world. Most of Millicom’s operations have committed to this initiative. Tigo Tanzania, for instance, is committed to increasing the share of women customers of our mobile financial services from 35% to 40% by 2020. As of April 2017, they were already at 38%.

It’s not just about finance though. With mobile technology, we can help solve basic life needs. In 2013, we launched mBirth, a mobile SMS-based application, for registering births in Tanzania. Parents in rural villages who can’t easily get to registration offices can instead have their child officially registered in the government database by text message administered jointly with UNICEF and Tanzania’s Registration Insolvency and Trusteeship Agency (RITA). Six months after we introduced mBirth, the rate of birth certificates increased from 9% to 40% in the pilot region, helping to reduce the risk of early marriage, child labor and early recruitment into the armed forces.

These are just a few examples of what can be done to reduce the digital gender gap and improve society for all. It is a cause that we must pursue because, in the words of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, “The need to invest in women is not a charity case, it is the empowerment of humanity.”

By Rachel Samrén, EVP Chief External Affairs Officer, Millicom


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