Now Scientific Fact: Mobile Money Can Lift Women Out of Poverty

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For nearly four years, we have been sharing information about the various ways that gender and mobile intertwine in our Gender and Mobile newsletter. In our latest issue, we offered our perspectives on two recent reports from MIT and Georgetown and the GSMA which examined mobile money as a tool for women’s economic empowerment.
Mobile Money Can Lift Women Out of Poverty
In the Science journal article “The long-run poverty and gender impacts of mobile money“, Suri and Jack (2016) have caused waves with the finding that access and use of M-PESA has lifted an astounding 2% of households out of poverty.
The gender link here is that households led by women experienced the most profound effects of this phenomenon – propelled by their new-found ability to exhibit more financial resilience and to save money by using the service.
Moreover, mobile money also appeared to help women move out of agricultural employment and into entrepreneurial or retail employment pursuits. The catalysts for these changes, according to the study authors, is that women have appropriated M-PESA in ways which help them enhance the efficiency of how much time they spend working and how much money they save.
To quote the authors:
For women, the route out of poverty might not be more capital, but rather financial inclusion at a more basic level, which enhances their ability to manage those financial resources that are already accessible. Thus, although mobile phone use correlates well with economic development, mobile money causes it.
When Mobile Money Programs Are Done Right
Yet, these findings come from Kenya, a mobile money juggernaut whose successes are pretty much unparalleled anywhere else in the world. The relative successes that women have realized there are not shared elsewhere in East Africa.
The GSMA Connected Women team recently completed qualitative research with women in Rwanda to understand why the gender gap in mobile money usage exists there, and what can be done to overcome it. In line with other research studies, they found that female mobile money customers tended to be more price-sensitive, less confident, and have less trust in mobile money services than men.
Nonetheless, even these women identified the ability to save money in their mobile wallets as a source of empowerment, and preferred mobile money because they felt they were more prone to make unnecessary purchases if they had cash on hand.
6 Approaches of Successful Mobile Money Programs for Women
So, what can be done in a situation where there is supply (mobile money service offerings) and demand (women who want to use mobile money services), but a gulf still exists that prevents the two from connecting? The GSMA Connected Women team recommends three useful approaches:

  1. Make mobile money a competitive alternative to cash – as discussed in the previous blog post, women (both regular and power users) are more likely than men to be price sensitive, and to look for cheaper alternatives when making financial transactions. This is truer for female regular users than for female power users, who tend to value the convenience of the service over the transaction fees. With this in mind, mobile money providers need to be creative if they want to increase uptake of the service among women, for instance by creating targeted promotions that incentivise women to adopt and use the service.
  2. Promote group savings via the mobile money – all the women interviewed during this research in Rwanda reported saving money via the bank or a local savings group. They also reported storing money away in case of emergencies, which happened primarily via the mobile money account. Providers seeking to improve the attractiveness of mobile money services for women should consider offering group savings products that target existing female savings groups. Introducing the mobile savings account to an already-existing and trusted savings group, would not only allow the provider to reach new women, but also to teach women how to use it in a network where they are supported and encouraged by their peers.
  3. Consider women’s preferences for distribution and marketing – women in our sample were more likely than men to report instances of poor customer service and to blame these instances for the poor trust they had in mobile money. Also, women suggested the creation of fixed locations and small houses where mobile money agents could host their customers, to enable customers to return when issues arise. From a marketing standpoint, it is also important that women are portrayed in billboards, TV ads, and radio ads, to avoid giving women the sense that the service is not for them.

Based on our experience, Panoply Digital would like to add 3 other traits to this list.

  1. Train more female mobile money agents. They can support women’s mobile literacy upskilling. One of the main reasons M-PESA took off to begin with in Kenya was that there was a well-trained workforce of mobile money agents recruited to help push the service. Part of their skillset included helping customers understand the advantages of mobile money and being able to show them how to use the platform. If more female mobile money agents were trained, they could be a vital mechanism for bridging the supply and demand gap by training other women and even girls how to use mobile money effectively. In doing so, the confidence and trust issues that women have towards mobile money could be addressed simultaneously.
  2. Experiment with different mobile money transaction fee models which might enhance adoption in the long run. If women who are price-sensitive find mobile money transaction fees comparatively steep, tweaking how revenue is generated through these fees could be worthwhile. For example, offering a free mobile money transaction after making a certain number of fully paid transactions could promote loyalty while providing a unique selling point to distinguish a mobile money service from its competitors. A win-win situation.
  3. Don’t just offer mobile money: Capacity building in financial literacy could boost mobile money service use even further among women. In the Suri and Jack (2016) study, part of what made the women more financially resilient was their ability to exercise more control over how and when money was saved and spent. It seems that this knowledge was independently and perhaps incidentally acquired. Deliberate work to build financial literacy skills linked to their mobile money usage could therefore amplify the benefits documented for female users. This could further empower women in ways that make positive contributions to their families and the wider economy.

Are there other ways you think that mobile money might be used as a tool to encourage women’s economic empowerment? What potential challenges do you see in this area beyond what has already been noted? We invite your comments and ideas!
By Dr. Ronda Zelezny-Green and Alexandra Tyers of Panoply Digital