Mobile Money In Africa Bucks The Trend For Gender Imbalance Around Tech Products

According to the World Bank, women are 50 percent less likely than men to use the internet in Africa, and significantly less likely than men to own or use a cell phone.

But recent findings, cited in an article by Susan Johnson, a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Development Studies at the University of Bath, suggest that when it comes to mobile money, the gender gap is closing to the point of equality.

The difference between men and women who have access to a mobile money in sub-Saharan Africa is just 2.5%, albeit in favour of men, as compared to formal bank accounts, where the gap widens to 7.6% (32.7% of men have a formal account, and 25.1% of women).

Perhaps surprisingly given how topical mobile money accounts in Africa have become and how much effort companies such as M-PESA and multi-national mobile operators have put into marketing their mobile money services, only 12% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population have a mobile money account, whilst 29% have an account at a formal banking institution.

Why is mobile money gender imbalance different?

Johnson suggests several reasons why mobile money accounts may be narrowing the gender gap and “solving the constraints of formal financial inclusion”. Women in Africa are traditionally less mobile than men due to the fact they tend to be the heads of their domestic households and are needed at home, but mobile banking renders geography obsolete. No more travelling to the bank every time you need to process a transaction.

Mobile money is better for smaller payments, that formal accounts are not set up to deal with adequately. Technology has made mobile accounts secure and reliable, private and confidential – much more so than standing in a queue at the bank, for example.

But Johnson also suggests that these factors only partly explain the increasing gender equality of mobile banking, and argues that “to fully explain the gap, we must ask how men and women are using mobile money in these contexts and what this means for analysis and policymaking.”

Essentially, Johnson argues, mobile money accounts put female family members – especially mothers – at the centre of a network that is often maternal at its core. Exchanging funds using a mobile network therefore becomes a means of strengthening family ties and emphasising the strength of relationships. “Forming lifelong bonds of support”, is how a study of the social networks around mobile money among Bukusu women in Western Kenya, conducted by Sibel Kusimba, puts it.

It is estimated that 33% of households in Kenya are headed by women, who increasingly see mobile money as a key resource for guaranteeing the survival and success of the family unit. At the same time, these often small payments which translate into signals of affection can be done “without disrupting widely shared ideals of patrilineal solidarity and household autonomy”, according to Kusimba.

The Value of extended family networks supported by Mobile Money

Johnson is set to release further research involving analysis of financial diaries from five regions across Kenya which apparently suggest that women who own a mobile phone tended to receive a higher value of resources than those who did not, and that the more women present in a mobile network, the higher the value of resources submitted – especially where married women, and women who are the heads of a family unit, are concerned.

There is further evidence to suggest that male members of wider networks e.g. cousins, uncles etc. often generate the largest volumes of mobile transactions, emphasising the male / female bond the mobile enhanced network can create.

Marketing campaigns by the likes of M-Pesa, whose latest campaigns depict young, urban, upwardly mobile men sending money home to their mothers based in rural areas, are attempting to strengthen these kinds of trends, and establish mobile money at the centre of family life.

Johnson concludes that “By understanding these networks, we’ll begin to understand what both men and women actually do with their money, how it connects them to others and what financial services can do to facilitate this.”

The Money Cloud View

Gender imbalance is an area that has plagued the tech industry from both an insider and outsiders’ perspective – are products too often designed with men in mind?

It’s empowering to see that mobile money is working for women in Africa just as much, and perhaps even more so, than men, and if it is happening in early adopting Africa it is likely to become a global trend. Over the longer term, tech may even have a role to play in the disruption of traditional gender roles across sub-Saharan Africa. Whatever may be, may be, but this certainly looks like progress.

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