Spices and SMS: How Mobile Phones Transform the Lives of Women

Written by Sevi Simavi. This was originally posted on the Huffington Post.

In February, I wrote about our award-winning work with the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and the Vodafone Foundation in India. This month I travelled to India to visit the women who are taking part in the project, “RUDIbens” as they are called, and to expand into the neighboring state of Rajasthan. I was truly inspired by the RUDIbens’ hard work, determination and accomplishments, and I left Gujarat even more convinced that when done right, mobile technology truly transforms lives, particularly those of women.

Established by SEWA in 2004, the Rural Distribution Network (RUDI) is an agricultural cooperative with 3,000 members, most of whom live in India’s Gujarat state. RUDI products, which are recognised for their quality and affordability, are sold through a network of RUDI saleswomen known as RUDIbens. Together with SEWA and the Vodafone Foundation in India, we launched the RUDI Sandesha Vyavhar (RSV) mobile application, enabling RUDIbens to place orders and manage and track their sales via a basic mobile handset.

The capacity of mobile phones to change women’s lives is developing at a rapid pace, and the RSV mobile application is an example of real results in a short time. Take Shantaben for example, an illiterate woman from Chikhodra village, who works as a saleswoman for RUDI. She buys agricultural products such as lentils and spices from the RUDI distribution centre and sells them to households in her village. The money she earns from these sales constitutes an important and often crucial source of income for her and her family.

Before the introduction of the RSV application, she would have to place orders for products by travelling a full day from her village to a processing centre, costing her valuable time and money. When placing and collecting orders, she would only be able to procure whatever products were available on that day, as the processing centre could not forecast demand. Further, she could only get two bags of available products – the maximum she could lift and carry back to her village on her fragile shoulders.

Since learning how to use the RSV application, she is now able to place orders remotely via her mobile phone. Because this information is received in real time by the processing centre, they are better able to manage their inventory and ensure that the products RUDIbens’ customers want are available. With the time and energy saved from travelling, and being able to respond to the demand of her customers, Shantaben’s sales have increased three-fold. As a result, with the extra income, she’s able to hire transportation so she doesn’t have to carry the load on her shoulders. She is investing her extra income into a savings account and paying her grandson’s school fees.

These RUDIbens are living testimonies of how women’s economic empowerment is so much more than just increased incomes. It’s more meals being cooked, healthcare being paid for, pensions saved and children being sent to school. Additionally, learning how to use the application has increased their confidence. Each of the RUDIbens I met during my visit were proudly talking about how their earnings are directly benefiting their households and communities. What moved me the most and will stay with me for a lifetime was Suriyaben’s reflection on the benefits of the RSV application: “My dignity rose in my community. Others in the village look up to me as a leader. Because of my work, I get the respect of a college educated woman.”

Indeed, these women carried themselves with dignity, and the pride they took in their work is a testament to how empowering women economically pays huge dividends. Simple phones and technologies that were developed to cater to the needs of these women are truly transforming lives in ways unimaginable.

The RSV application is the winner of the 2014 GSMA Global Mobile Award for Best Mobile Product, Initiative or Service in Emerging Markets and the 2014 Billionth Award for Women & Children.