Earlier this week I attended the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona – the world’s largest annual gathering of mobile industry experts. I returned with blisters on my feet but buzzing inside from the energy and spirit of innovation that I witnessed at the event.
The conference featured some big announcements, such as the launch of Windows 10 by Microsoft and Samsung Galaxy 6 by Samsung, both giants in the mobile industry. I had feared that amidst the glitz and glamour of new commercial products and technologies, the voice of the ‘Mobile for Development’ (M4D) sector would go unheard, but once I was there I realised that nothing could be further from the truth.
Apart from being a hub of commerce and gadgetry, Mobile World Congress is also a space where those organisations working towards improving people’s lives through mobile technology can come together to share ideas and knowledge. The cornucopia of information, research and insights on programmes that are leveraging mobile technology for social good was both heartwarming and overwhelming. I was proud that my team – along with our Founder, Cherie Blair – were present amongst this distinguished crowd.
Cherie was interviewed by Gerald Rasugu from the GSMA Mobile Money for the Unbanked (MMU) team, and there could not have been a better person in the role of the interviewer than one of the pioneers of Kenya’s M-Pesa agent network himself. Cherie spoke passionately about the role that mobile technology can play in enabling more women across the world to access life-changing financial services and economic opportunities, saying, “Mobile technology allows the world’s less well-off people to access the world’s knowledge.”
She also highlighted research conducted by the Foundation ‘Women Entrepreneurs in Mobile Retail Channels’, which shows that women excel at sales within the mobile value chain, and provide companies with a great way to access untapped markets. One example of this work is our project in Nigeria ‘Mobile Financial Services for Women in Nigeria’, which we have developed in partnership with Visa, First Bank Nigeria and the Youth for Technology Foundation. This project is supporting the participation of women in First Bank of Nigeria’s agent network and seeks to enhance their skills through tailored business training conducted by the Youth for Technology Foundation. These women agents will, in turn, provide Nigerians in rural and under-served areas with mobile financial services, thus fostering greater financial inclusion in the country.
Another major feature at Mobile World Congress was the eagerly anticipated launch of GSMA’s updated report into the gender gap in mobile phone usage, ‘Bridging the Gender Gap: Mobile Access and Usage in Low and Middle Income Countries’. The Foundation collaborated with GSMA on the first gender gap study back in 2010, and I was delighted to find that real progress has been made over the last five years. In 2010, we found that women in low and middle income countries were 21% less likely to own a mobile phone than a man, and that there were 300 million fewer women owning mobile phones than men worldwide. GSMA’s new report shows that these figures are falling – to 14% and 200 million, respectively.
Clearly, the gender gap in access to life-changing mobile technology is narrowing. Some of this progress can, of course, be attributed to factors such as exponentially increasing mobile phone penetration rates and reduced handset costs. But the fact remains that this progress would not have been possible without the concerted efforts of the development community, policy makers and the mobile industry.
Witnessing the enthusiasm and dedication of my fellow practitioners in the Mobile for Development sector has left me feeling reinvigorated. As I go back to my desk and immerse myself in my work, I know that this enthusiasm will stay with me as I endeavor to take further steps towards realising our vision of a world where women across the world are empowered through mobile technology.