Bridging the Digital Gender Gap with Free Smartphones

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of an inclusive digital economy, underpinned by universal access to fast, reliable internet and a range of digital services. But for many people around the globe, especially women in developing nations, connectivity is limited because they don’t own a smart phone. A mobile phone has proven to be an invaluable economic asset and an important tool toward women’s empowerment, autonomy, mobility and communication.  Smartphones can have such a powerful impact on women’s lives, we should simply be giving them to women for free.

KEIPhone was founded to connect and empower women by providing them with free smartphones. Smartphone use is proven to reduce poverty and increase women’s empowerment.  Owning and using a smart phone will increase the incomes, productivity and resilience of women.  A woman simply owning a smart phone (compared to a feature phone or no phone) is proven to increase her household’s income by between 16% to 24%. Agricultural productivity and profitability also increase with the ownership of a smart phone. Increased incomes as well as increased use of mobile money are proven to increase household resilience in the face of external shocks.

A key to economic growth and development is to ensure that women own smartphones, but that ownership remains far from universal. Across Asia Pacific and Sub-Saharan Africa, 34%[1] and 55%[2] of adults still do not own a mobile phone and 52% and 74% do not use mobile internet. These individuals tend to belong to the most marginalized groups: they are disproportionately rural, illiterate, and poor. They are also predominantly female.[3]

The largest mobile gender gap is in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa where women are 23% and 13% less likely than men to own a mobile device and 51% and 37% less likely to use mobile internet. Limited levels of mobile ownership and use by women not only reflect existing gender inequalities, but also threaten to compound them. If not addressed, women risk being left behind as societies and economies digitize[4].

Mobile phones are the most significant means of internet access in poor countries, particularly for women. Yet, internet access requires a smart phone, which most people don’t have. In Uganda where we will be piloting KEIPhone only 13% of women and 19% of men own a smart phone, compared to overall phone ownership rates of 65% for women and 80% for men.

Affordability is the number one barrier to women’s smartphone ownership, followed by low digital and literacy skills. Beyond these issues are the gendered social norms that are the underlying causes of gender inequality. But these social norms aren’t static, and research in India has shown that when large number of women in a community are given free phones, gender attitudes towards women’s phone ownership can change rapidly, becoming more acceptable. So if we overcome the affordability issue and given large numbers of women smartphones we can improve gender equality by changing social norms.

Bridging the Digital Gender Gap with Free Smartphones Desire', a refugee in Bidi Bidi camp

When I visited the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Northern Uganda I met Desire’, a South Sudanese refugee. She is young, talented and ambitious and had become a mobile money agent, at that time she was the only female mobile money agent in the camp. But she didn’t own a phone so she wasted half her income renting a phone, income that she could have been using to invest in her business or improve her families living situation. Similarly, I met many women who were unable to receive their monthly refugee payments digitally, because they didn’t own a phone. They had to pay commission fees to receive the payments in cash, wasting funds they could ill afford to lose. It’s possible to buy a good quality smartphone in Uganda for $100, but that seems an impossible amount of money to amass for Desire’ and the other women in the camp. Yet it’s a relatively small amount of money when you think about the impact it could have on their lives.

Giving women free smartphones is simply the smart thing to do. But with over 182 million women in Sub-Saharan Africa and over 370 million women in South Asia needing phones, it’s also a solution that can’t be implemented through charity. There needs to be a commercial solution to address the challenge. KEIPhone is such a solution, designed to address the problem of the digital gender gap, and the barrier that lack of phone ownership presents to women to achieving resilient livelihoods and becoming economically empowered.

[4] ibid

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