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5 learnings for connecting women to smartphones

Valuable insights into digital inclusion efforts from the SmartPhone, Smart Business pilot that NetHope and Strategic Impact Advisors launched in 2021.

July 8, 2022

In its most recent 2022 report on the mobile gender gap, GSMA again reported that women in low and middle income countries cite affordability and digital literacy skills as two of the top three barriers to their mobile phone and mobile internet use.[1] GSMA also reported that progress has stalled on closing the gender gap between women and men’s smartphone ownership, which stands at 18%. So the work remains. We aren’t giving up and will keep finding ways to make progress in women’s access and usage of digital tools.

In 2021, NetHope and Strategic Impact Advisors set out to test an approach to increase smartphone ownership and mobile internet use by women micro-entrepreneurs in Ghana. The project was designed around a series of five learning questions (see Box 1) to evaluate how business women in Ghana weighed the cost and benefit of acquiring and using entry-level smartphones and data plans. Using funding from a grant from Visa, Inc., the learning project generated interesting insights into the value women micro-entrepreneurs perceive in smartphone ownership and offers lessons for others on how to create pathways to close the gap in women’s smartphone ownership, its sustained use, and as a tool that supports their participation in the digital economy.

In this blog post, we share the insights that came out of the pilot based on the five learning questions we set out to answer. We derive our insights from data collected in a baseline survey of 604 women to qualify for the pilot, an endline survey of 135 of the 483 women micro-entrepreneurs in Accra and Kumasi, major cities in Ghana, who participated in the pilot, as well as phone use data provided (with participants’ consent) by MTN Ghana for all 483 participants.[2]

Insight 1: Price (GHC 200 or less) and performance (more than 1GB of RAM) of smartphones matter.

Of the 604 women who participated in the baseline survey to qualify for the pilot, 85% cited cost as the primary barrier to their acquisition of a smartphone. These women micro-entrepreneurs indicated they did not currently own a smartphone and reported an average monthly income from their business of $43 USD. To assess the possible tipping price point for purchase, we surveyed women on their willingness to pay at four levels of subsidy, as shown in Table 1. More than half of the women indicated they would purchase the phone at a price of GHC 185 (a subsidy of 50%) and 96% indicated they would purchase at a cost of GHC 95 (a subsidy of 75%). A price point of GHC 200 or less may be needed to promote smartphone ownership by women micro-entrepreneurs at this income level. 

Table 1:

To optimize participation, we elected to use our grant funding to subsidize the smartphone purchase price at a subsidy of 75%, which allowed women to purchase the phones for GHC 95. At this level of subsidy, 90% of the eligible women chose to pay the price to participate in the pilot. We also paid for 500MB of monthly data, that along with 500 MB of free data bundled with the phone, providing each micro-entrepreneur with access to 1 GB of data each month from August through January.

The phone we used in the pilot (iTel A14+) was an entry-level smartphone with 512 MB of RAM/16GB ROM. The limited technical capacity of the phone constrained its performance and we received complaints from our local partners that women found the phone slower than anticipated and that they experienced challenges with the phone freezing. Despite these challenges, 67% of the 143 endline survey participants indicated they would continue to use the Itel Phone. We interpret this as an indication that they found the phone useful and/or may not have the purchasing power to buy a new phone or a phone at a higher price point. Conversely, 30% of respondents stopped using the Itel smartphone purchased in the pilot — 55% of them moved to a different smartphone and 43% to a basic phone.

Insight 2: Women micro-entrepreneurs used smartphones to conduct personal and business mobile money transactions.

Women in Kumasi and Accra were familiar with mobile money. Of the women surveyed in the baseline, 66% indicated that they used mobile money (whether for personal and/or business use) at least once a week, including 57% just for business use. Women’s use of merchant accounts to conduct business transactions was less common.

During the pilot, data from the mobile network operator shows that women micro-entrepreneurs’ weekly use of mobile money increased; however, it is not clear if those transactions were business or personal transactions. For mobile network providers and mobile money providers, this blend of personal and business financial activities conducted provides a compelling case for targeting women micro-entrepreneurs for both voice and data services.

Insight 3: Women used smartphones to benefit their business activities.

In the endline survey, 67% of women micro-entrepreneurs reported that the smartphone improved their businesses. On average, women’s estimated profits increased by 49% during the pilot period. Micro-entrepreneurs who used a smartphone saw, on average, a larger profit increase compared to the total sample.

The data show that business savvy matters. Women who reported they are confident in their business abilities used the smartphone functionalities (apps) at a higher rate than those with less confidence. The data also show that women micro-entrepreneurs who invest in building their digital capabilities are likely to be more successful smartphone users. Women who listened to two or more episodes of the “Hey Sister!” digital financial literacy series preloaded on the phones rated their business skills higher.

Insight 4: Women micro-entrepreneurs used their smartphones in their businesses mostly to advertise their products and as a communications device (for calls and text messages).

The four most popular uses of data by the pilot participants were for web browsing, YouTube, WhatsApp and Facebook. They used access to these platforms to advertise their products and also used the phone to communicate with customers and suppliers through phone calls and text messages.

Participants’ use of data trended upwards, from an average of 2.9 to 3.5 GB per month. Of all phone numbers surveyed, 40% showed average monthly data use below the free amount of 1 GB.

Insight 5: Despite challenges in phone performance, women are likely to continue on their journey to becoming active digital users.

In the endline survey, 76% of women participants reported they are likely to continue to purchase data for their smartphones because of their value to their businesses and personal lives. This result shows that easing the pathway to smartphone acquisition can create more sustained digital activity. This shift is more unlikely to happen if relying solely on market dynamics to push prices down and push quality up. For women with limited monthly income to benefit from smartphone ownership, it will require concerted efforts both to address the entry cost point and quality of entry-level smartphones and build women’s digital financial capabilities and business confidence. Women reported these access and capabilities issues as key elements of broader smartphone adoption and use.

At the end of this pilot, we shared these insights and findings with key stakeholders in Ghana including representatives of the MTN Ghana and the Bank of Ghana. Both the provider and government regulator found the data insightful and are using it to inform their strategies to continue to create an inclusive digital economy in Ghana.

  • MTN plans to use the findings with their commercial team to inform new targeting and distribution strategies to reach women entrepreneurs and advance their smartphone use.
  • The Bank of Ghana, a long-standing advocate for financial inclusion, is planning to use the learnings to structure future partnerships to promote women’s use of e-commerce and social media platforms. Seeing the link between economic behavior and smartphones, the central bank also plans to evaluate the role of possible tax subsidies to promote smartphone acquisition and strategic alliances that could support continuous smartphone subsidy programs through government and private sector stakeholder collaboration.

This pilot demonstrates the valuable role that promoters of financial inclusion, such as NetHope and Visa, Inc., can play in testing approaches and developing learnings of value to financial regulators and financial service providers. We were pleased to see the data and learnings prove valuable to the Bank of Ghana and MTN, as these are the actors that can provide sustainable solutions to digital inclusion. The project, while small in size, also shows that we don’t need to wait for randomized control trials or rigorous studies to develop action plans. We need more initiatives that test different approaches and provide market feedback to produce new strategies to tackle the ongoing challenges faced by women business owners in their digital adoption journey. Regulators and providers may not invest in this type of data gathering alone, presenting an opportunity for all those committed to digital inclusion to work together and find approaches for further civil society and public-private sector collaboration.


[2] Due to challenges with data collection and a limited final survey sample (135 women), the findings outlined here should not be interpreted as evidence of impact, but rather learnings to inform future work.

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