What will it take to close the mobile money gender gap?

  • By Joanne Kiskis
  • Thursday, December 12, 2019

Many fintech breakthroughs of the last decade belong to a large, assorted category that I’ll call wealthtech. In this group, you’ll find revolutionary tools that help people with a bit of money become people with a bit more money—tools like robo-advisors that help with investment planning or AI engines that streamline the insurance process. These solutions are designed for those with a toe-hold in the financial system already, which usually means those who live in high-income countries where the vast majority of adults have a bank account

Most mobile money platforms are doing something different. This is fintech uniquely designed for the very poor, particularly those in developing countries where banking penetration drops to just 41%. And because mobile money platforms are designed for this audience, they’re working. In 2018, the mobile money industry added a record 143 million registered customers, capping a decade of astounding growth that would make those in the wealthtech industry salivate. 

And yet despite successfully reaching the very poor in general, mobile money is failing on its promise to help one vulnerable group in particular: women in low-and middle-income countries (LMICs). 

SNAPSHOT: The mobile money gender gap

Although research demonstrates that mobile mobile money lifts people—particularly people in female-led households—out of poverty, far fewer women than men have access to it. 

That’s especially true in LMICs, where women are 10% less likely to own a mobile phone than men. Those who do own a mobile phone don’t typically use it in the same way that men do—they access a smaller range of services, limiting mobile’s potential to positively impact their lives. In South Asia, for example, women are 58% less likely than men to use mobile internet, even though mobile is the primary means of internet access across the LMICs. 

With fewer women than men owning a mobile device, and with those who do have a mobile device accessing fewer services, mobile fintech solutions face a struggle to reach those most in need. In the developing world, women are 33% less likely than men to use mobile money, despite the fact that women often manage domestic cash-flow (in some parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, nearly half of all households are led by women). 

Why is this happening, and how can leaders and innovators in the mobile money industry change the story? 

Strategies for closing the gender gap

Addressing this disparity between if and how women access mobile money could reinvigorate our global fight to end extreme poverty, which affects 10% of the world’s population

There’s a strong business case for it, too. If mobile operators in LMICs manage to close this gender gap by 2023, they stand to increase their revenues by $140 billion and add $700 billion in GDP growth over the next five years. 

In response to these pressing needs, industry players are redoubling their efforts to understand the root causes of this gender gap and experiment with possible solutions. Last year, the GSMA launched their Gender Analysis and Identification Toolkit (GAIT), which gives operators access to a machine learning algorithm designed to scrape reliable gender-segregated data from overall mobile usage data. By addressing what they call “an information gap” first, the minds behind GAIT hope to empower mobile operators to turn insight into action and close the gender gaps that persist in their markets. 

How? Helpful theories about how to drive mobile money engagement among women in LMICs abound. It seems to me that those with the greatest potential share one of three themes: education, distribution, and collaboration. 

Education: Develop a realistic strategy for nourishing financial and digital literacy. One of the most stubborn barriers disproportionately affecting women’s access to mobile money is a lack of financial education and digital competency. This is a deeply complex and multifaceted problem; how do you empower women to use digital tools and take control of their money in areas of the developing world where more than 700 million adults are illiterate

The answer is to develop educational strategies that reflect the reality of these women’s lives. Online or printed materials aren’t helpful when your target audience may not be able to (or inclined to) find, read and retain your message. Instead, use in-person facilitators who are fluent in the local language and culture. Send them into remote areas with the skills and knowledge necessary to introduce financial concepts and facilitate conversations about the advantages of digital tools and mobile money. Build trust and fluency one woman at a time, and empower each new customer to become an ambassador in her community. 

Distribution: Build an agent network that reflects women’s communities. Data from the GSMA reveals a strong correlation between the number of female agents in a provider’s distributor network and that provider’s number of female customers, which suggests that female agents are powerful assets for reaching underserved female customers in emerging markets. 

This may have to do with the trust factor, noted in many sources as a key barrier facing women who have never engaged with mobile services before. By relying on established local networks to help broadcast the value of mobile money—that is, by recruiting women who speak the local language and share cultural touchstones with target customers—providers can seize an opportunity to incubate trust and develop positive relationships inside of established communities.

Collaboration: Make it easier for women to meet identification requirements. In many parts of the developing world, women are far less likely than men to have the identity documents necessary for opening a mobile money account. Only 21% of women living in Chad have proof of identity, for example; it’s no surprise, then, that the gender gap in Chad’s mobile money subscribers is 45%

Overcoming this barrier will require a close and collaborative relationship between the regulators who set the rules and the mobile operators and technology partners who develop platforms under the auspices of those rules. Right now, such collaborative efforts are not the norm; only 11% of regulators who mandate mobile SIM card registration allow MNOs to verify customers’ credentials against approved government databases, which would streamline the validation process for accessing a mobile device in the first place. More could be done to introduce flexible and realistic identification requirements, both for mobile SIM registration in general and mobile money account ownership specifically. 

While regulatory reform plods slowly forward, MNOs need innovative technical solutions that invite women to own an account without necessarily meeting inflexible identification thresholds. A tiered offering that provides access to a limited mobile money platform with a balance restriction is one example, and it works; research shows that once women have a mobile money account, even a limited one, they’re just as likely as men to become regular users, so removing these barriers to entry is vital.

Conclusion

Advances in wealthtech might capture headlines and drive entire industries in the west, but mobile money is where the game truly changes. It has the potential to dramatically reduce—even eliminate—financial exclusion in the developing world, thereby potentially lifting millions out of extreme poverty. 

But these results are only possible if everyone in our industry, from regulators to MNOs to technology innovators like Telepin, work together to address the vast and persistent gender gap currently holding millions of women back from engaging with this vital service. By ensuring that women have equal and easy access to mobile money, we can help broker a much brighter financial future for the next generation.