Home Mobile Financial Solutions Bending the Gender Gap with mobile money

From times immemorial women have been fighting against various prejudices and repressions in society to get their voice heard and better their lives. In the last century many women have distinguished themselves in science, business, politics and popular arts. Indeed the world would’ve been a much poorer place to live without the contributions of these pioneering women.

While the developed world witnessed major advancements in women’s rights, the third world and underdeveloped countries lagged behind. In the absence of top down implementation of socio-economic policies and initiatives, the women in these countries have to take the lead in society’s transformation and break out of the vicious cycle of gender inequality and poverty.

But lack of access to capital and deeply entrenched socio-economical prejudices have created a barrier to their progress. From a historical point of view, women, especially in developing and third world countries have always found it difficult to access capital vis-à-vis men creating a gender barrier in their socio-economic-political development. This gender financial access gap between developed and underdeveloped countries is apparent from World Bank Global Findex data. Globally, 58 percent of adult women have an account compared to 65 percent men – a 7 percent gender gap in account ownership. In developing countries, the gap widens to 9 percentage points, and in some regions such as South Asia this gap is a huge 18 percentage points1.faoggSource: World Bank Global Findex

It should hardly come as a surprise that the countries with the largest financial access gender gap are also the countries where the socio-economic conditions of women are the worst. Without any recourse to banking or any other mode of financial access, the women fail to exercise any degree of control over family budget. And without any control over household spending, these women are not in a position to take care of themselves or their families.

On the other hand, a child whose mother controls the family budget is 20% more likely to survive – according to an estimate provided by FAO. With more control over the budget, there is more food on the table, more priority on health and education, which all leads to healthier and happier and more prosperous families in the long run. Moreover, with quick and easy access to capital, women can start their own business and thus take full ownership of their destinies and not leaving it to the fickle nature of the government or nature. Thus the single most important thread running through all women’s poverty alleviation as well as socio- economical-political empowerment initiatives is the closing of the financial access gender gap. This not only enables women to take control of their lives but also the lives of their children and families.

In this context, Mobile money has massive potential especially when it comes to closing the financial access gender gap. Already, we are witnessing the financial access gender gap narrowing significantly in countries where mobile money has made inroads into the financial system. For example, in Kenya and Zimbabwe, where mobile money has overtaken formal banking system, financial access gender gap is lower than the regional average. In fact, for EcoCash, Zimbabwe’s largest mobile money service, women constitute 52% of the customer base2. From tailored mobile money services for women and family-oriented marketing to deploying female agents, mobile money providers have played a huge role in creating gender parity. This article shows how the mobile money operators are transforming the lives of women in the developing world.

As per a GSMA Report, achieving gender parity in account ownership can unlock an estimated $20 billion market opportunity for the African mobile industry in the period 2015-2020. Mobile money providers recognize this opportunity and are working to leverage it3.

Mobilizing Savings

Multiple researches have proved that women are better at saving than men. Owing to their penchant for savings and financial management, women are able to bear multiple financial burdens for their family including paying for school fees, food, emergencies, celebrations, births, funerals and much more. However, due to cultural norms, low literacy and restriction on movement, women mostly save at home (and stay away from formal banking). Without access to traditional financial instruments of savings these women invest in low yield investments, like livestock which is prone to diseases and depletion in value. Some cash is always kept handy under the mattress to meet day to day needs, but this only puts them in a great deal of physical danger since crime rates are so high.

In the absence of formal banking infrastructure, a number of traditional savings club have taken deep roots in Sub-Saharan Africa. Savings club is steeped in the rich tradition of informal savings groups in Africa which explains its popularity. It is a popular group savings and lending mechanism with each member contributing regularly to a cash pool that they borrow from on a rotating basis. The pool is patronized by women as it allows them to form groups with other local women or with fellow local church-goers. In a traditional Savings Club, the members deposit cash on a daily/weekly basis in a box with three locks (keys of these locks are with three different members). Due to use of cash, traditional Savings Club have multiple operational challenges related to handling cash, ensuring security, maintain transparency and keeping records.


Mobile money providers such as EcoCash Zimbabwe, Tigo Chad and Airtel Money Uganda have introduced mobile money-based Savings Clubs to overcome these challenges. Any registered mobile-money customer can set-up and participate in a Saving Club. The group chairman initiates account opening via mobile and invites members to join in. The chairman also selects members (usually three) who approve of funds being withdrawn via multiple SMS sign-offs. All members receive SMS for any activity on group and can also check club’s account balance anytime. To earn interest, the money in Savings Club is moved to a linked bank account using mobile-phone. Mobile savings club thus provides a more secure, transparent, rewarding and convenient experience for women. It empowers them to take decisions that are beneficial for themselves and their families.

EcoCash Savings Club in Zimbabwe is one of the most successful mobile money-based Savings Club with Women constituting 60% of the customer base4. With EcoCash Savings Club the Mbereko Women’s Groups at the Border Church Clinic, in rural Marondera District of Zimbabwe provides access to emergency finances to pregnant women and new mothers. With group savings and access to pooled funds, pregnant women or new mothers now have money to take care of themselves and their babies. Additionally, EcoCash has set up a Green Kiosk booth to help various women’s group to operate EcoCash agency business, providing liquidity to community savers.5

Tigo Cash in Chad has introduced a Savings Club service dubbed Tigo Paare. Sales Women in Chad (involved in importing, transformation and resale of products from Lake Chad) contribute daily to Tigo Paare group account. The collected money is used to fund a member’s shop or project each month6 

Putting health first

There is a stark difference in the health conditions of women across the globe. While in high income countries woman’s life expectancy at birth is 83 years, in low and mid income countries it drops to 72. The situation is worse in Sub-Saharan Africa where life expectancy at birth is just 60 years7. There are a number of reasons for these low numbers such as maternal deaths, poor nutrition amongst girls and high prevalence of HIV amongst females. Maternal death is the primary reason for low life expectancy rate in developing countries. In fact, 99% of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries. More than half of these deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa and almost one third occur in South Asia8. Lack of funds is one of the prominent reasons for high numbers of female deaths in developing world.

By providing quick and easy access to funds, mobile money can help in improving women’s health in more than one ways. Governments and NGO use mobile money platform to distribute funds directly to the unbanked and the economically backward women which helps in reducing maternal deaths and eradicating malnutrition. Since the money is transferred directly the aid money reaches the intended recipients without any leakages.

Insurance companies are enrolling women for health insurance policies via mobile phones enabling them to pay premium and receive claims via mobile money. Mobile money is also being used by individuals and NGOs to crowd source funds for ailments like cancer which require huge medical expenditure. In Uganda Justine Nyachwo collected funds via mobile money for cancer treatment of her friend Carol Atuhirwe, a Uganda Christian University student9.

Mali has a maternal mortality rate of 587 per 100,000 live births, one of the highest in the world. In order to make pregnancy and delivery safer Orange Money in Mali partnered with the NGO Population Service International (PSI) and NSIA, an insurance company, to launch a linked savings and insurance product targeted at pregnant women. Orange Money users can open a mobile savings account with a minimum initial deposit of XOF 3,000 ( ̴ USD 5). Once the account has been opened users can save money anytime with a minimum deposit of XOF 100 ( ̴ 16 Cents), by moving money from Orange Money account to Savings account via mobile phone. When savings balance reaches XOF 40,000 ( ̴ USD 44), the user automatically gets enrolled for a 12 month life/disability and maternal health insurance. Orange Money pays XOF 100,000 ( ̴ USD 165) for child delivery complications including haemorrhage, eclampsia and dystocia, XOF 50,000 ( ̴ USD 82) for the C-sction and XOF 150,000 ( ̴ USD 260) in case of death or permanent disability. Patients who do not attend prenatal consultations only gets 75% benefit. This encourages women to seek prenatal care. Additional Orange money used female actresses to market this insurance product effectively and relate with women.10

In India, the State Government of Madhya Pradesh, with partner Vodafone M-Pesa, disburses financial aid to mothers, who receive the payment directly on their mobile phone. The beneficiary is informed with an SMS mentioning the amount of the health subsidy, the withdrawal code & procedure, facilitating cash-out at any Vodafone M-Pesa agent. Direct disbursement to the mothers has resulted in reduction of the money being collected by the fathers and therefore never reaching the intended beneficiary in some cases.11

Vodacom Lesotho in collaboration with Lesotho Ministry of Health issues Transport Vouchers to HIV infected women and children using M-Pesa mobile money service. HIV care and treatment is free of cost in Lesotho. By providing funds to the women and children to travel to the clinic the government is eliminating one more barrier in getting cost-effective treatment.12 

Educating the future

“If you educate a woman, you educate a family, if you educate a girl, you educate the future.” – Queen Rania of Jordan.

The female literacy rate in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa is as low as 57% and 52%. The local governments in these regions are aware that educating females is necessary for creating an egalitarian society. Hence, to enhance female literacy rate, governments have started various initiative like giving stipends and providing mid day meals to girls who attend school13.

Mobile money can catalyze various government initiatives to improve female literacy. Mobile money can be used in disbursing government stipends which is a big motivation for parents to send their daughters to school. NGOs can now disburse funds directly to parent’s mobile money account which allows them to buy school uniform, stationary and books for their daughters. Parents or students can use the platform to pay for school fee, university fee or examination fee without having to travel to the educational institution. Similarly, university students can access lectures and books from international faculty and authors online and pay via mobile money. Students can also crowd source fund for their projects using mobile money. The possibilities are endless.

Telenor Pakistan under the Sindh Education Reform Program (SERP) is disbursing education stipends to female student via EasyPaisa mobile money service. The aim of SERP program is to improve literacy rate amongst girls belonging to BOP families in rural area. The program was started in June 2014 in 23 remote districts of the Sindh province, with 425,000 students receiving stipends.14

Fostering entrepreneurship

The agent network has an important role to play in the mobile money ecosystem. Mostly, it is the men who run the mobile money agent business but operators have slowly recognized the benefit of hiring female agents. Female agents are able to bond with female customers in a better manner which helps to increase the uptake of mobile money amongst female customers. This is an important point of consideration as the operator may operate in a country where social norms may restrain interaction between men and women. With more female agents handling new registrations these concerns are quickly taken care of which helps to increase the female customer base.

Besides increasing the female customer base, the agent business model is fueling the entrepreneurial ambitions of many women in the third world and developing countries. These empowered female agents stand tall in the society as they run independent businesses and earn enough to support themselves as well as their families. In many countries where women are unable to move outside their homes freely due cultural and social norms, mobile money helps them to run a business from their home. Home-based mobile money business helps women to fulfill their financial needs and entrepreneurial goals, while adhering to the cultural norms of the society.

In Somaliland mobile money agents have to take photo of their customers at the time of registration. With a significant Muslim population, most females in the country wear niqāb and do not remove their veil in front of male agents. This hindered uptake of mobile money amongst women. To overcome this barrier Telesom ZAAD hired female staff to register new ZAAD female customers. This proactive step, helped ZAAD to increase number of registered women subscribers from 17% of the customer base in 2009 to 24% in 2010.15

Hafasa Aubi, an Afghan economics graduate is a private mobile money agent in Afghanistan. She operates from home and offers mobile money services such customer registration, cash-in, cash-out, top-up and bill payments to neighbors and local business people. She earns a 7% commission per transaction. Aubi, who is just 23 years, is able to earn enough to fund her higher education as well as support her brothers and sisters. Mobile money has enabled Aubi to run a business independently, while following cultural norms. Aubi is one of the 1500 Afghan women who have taken mobile money agent training.16

hafasa-aubi-doing-a-mobile-money-transactionHafasa Aubi doing a mobile money transaction

Image Source: https://www.usaid.gov/results-data/success-stories/mhawala-golden-business-opportunity-afghan-women


1 http://datatopics.worldbank.org/financialinclusion/indv-characteristics/gender

2 http://cassavaconnect.com/index.php/mobile-money#1461686817194-15bfde88-e87f

3 http://allafrica.com/stories/201607120034.html

4 http://cassavaconnect.com/index.php/mobile-money#1461686817194-15bfde88-e87f

5 https://www.econet.co.zw/media-centre/general-news/ecocash-savings-club-launched

6 http://www.millicom.com/media/millicom-blogs/blog-tigo-paare/

7 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.LE00.FE.IN

8 http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs348/en/

9 http://allafrica.com/stories/201604160019.html

10 http://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Connected-Women-Orange-Mali-Case-Study-FINAL.pdf

11 http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/telecom/vodafone-india-ties-up-with-madhya-pradesh-for-mobile-based-disbursements-under-government-program/articleshow/48269519.cms

12 http://www.itweb.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=151328

13 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.LITR.FE.ZS

14 http://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/programme/connected-women/unravelling-the-shortlist-for-the-global-mobile-awards-2016-best-mobile-service-for-women-in-emerging-markets

15 http://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/2014_DI_Reaching-half-of-the-market-Women-and-mobile-money.pdf

16 https://www.usaid.gov/results-data/success-stories/mhawala-golden-business-opportunity-afghan-women

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