By Shelley Spencer, NetHope Payment Innovations Project Manager, and CEO of Strategic Impact Advisors
What does it take to build an equitable and inclusive digital world? Not a new question for NetHope or its members but one that continues to be front and center as digital transformation continues to shift economic activity to digital platforms. Individuals need digital access and digital skills whether they are seeking job opportunities, looking for suppliers, seeking to sell their wares or paying their child’s school fees. A person who lacks digital access is destined to fall behind. We know, this is especially true for women!
Today, the challenge is less about building networks. ITU reported in 2021 that 93% of the human race live within reach of a 3G signal (I remember when getting a 3G signal was a big deal!). The challenge today is about opening the gateways for access through individual device ownership and data plans that enable use of the mobile internet. The form factor of the phone and its power to deliver inclusion is becoming more and more important. We need to get smartphones and access to the mobile internet to women - who GSMA reports are 15% less likely to own a smartphone than men and 37% less likely than men to use the mobile internet if they live in Sub-Saharan Africa (a gap that has stagnated since 2017).
There is a bright spot, smartphone prices are falling and ownership by those living in low and middle income countries (LMICs) is increasing. We also are seeing financing plans emerge, including using the Pay-As-You-Go model to reduce the upfront cost of buying a smartphone. Women in LMICs however, are still more likely than men to own a basic phone rather than a smartphone according to GSMA. Now more than ever, we need to explore new models for getting women over the initial entry barriers of costs and digital literacy skills, cited as top barriers by women in the GSMA 2021 study. That’s why NetHope, with charitable funding from Visa, Inc., will be testing how reducing the cost of smartphone acquisition can bridge the smartphone gap for women entrepreneurs in Ghana through its Smart Phone, Smart Business project. Working with local partners, Jireh Microfinance, Kumasi Hive, and Sustainable Development and Relief Associates -- organizations that already support women entrepreneurs -- NetHope will be distribute 500 smartphones to women at a reduced pricing in Ghana.
Buying the device alone is not enough, to unlock the power to use the device, women need to be able to purchase data to use the mobile internet. Want to sell your goods on Facebook or What’s App? You need data. Want to seek the lowest price goods through a Google search? You need data. Want to compare loan offerings to expand your business? You need data. In Ghana, ITU calculated the cost of a mobile data bundle at a cost equivalent to 5.7% of adjusted per capita income of Ghanaians whose income places them in the lowest 40% income bracket. This is more than double the Broadband Commission on Sustainable Development’s target affordability goal of internet access falling below 2% of GNI. In our Smart Phone, Smart Business program, NetHope will couple the smartphone with 1G of data for six months to provide women participating in the project the ability to explore the mobile internet to support their economic livelihoods and digital behaviors. We hope the women in this project will use this time to assess the value of using their purchasing power to invest in a data plan beyond the pilot to continue their digital activity and see whether it provides a ROI.
Finally, we know that access at any price is not enough if you are not confident in using the phone or equipped to use mobile services safely. That is why we are preloading the smartphones with the Hey Sister, Show Me the Mobile Money digital financial literacy, audio lessons. The 25 lessons in the campaign include episodes on how to use apps, understand digital loan offerings and three lessons targeted specifically to women entrepreneurs the explore in which the series’ characters explore: (1) How to manage finance for your business, (2) How a digital “footprint” can grow opportunities for your business, and (3): How you can your phone to expand sales.
As NetHope celebrates its 20th Anniversary, we are rapidly moving beyond the mere provision of Internet access in the developing world, which was core to our founding. We recognize that available Internet access in the absence of the right tools in the hands of those who can best leverage it has little impact. This Smart Phone, Smart Business program is just an example of how NetHope is testing concepts that its near 60 member organizations can then replicate globally. Let’s get to it and find some answers! Want to learn more about our decade-long work to advance digital financial inclusion? Check out our new one-pager!