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Imagine all the empowered people

Smartphones could transform women’s lives, says Melinda Gates, co-chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Melinda Gates, co-chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

WHO is Sabita?” I was looking right at Sabita Devi when she said these words. She was describing her life as a wife and mother in Jharkhand, one of the poorest states in India, where she has spent most of her days inside the four walls of her home. “No one in my village knew my name,” Sabita told me. Her contact with the outside world was mediated entirely by her husband: who she could talk to, what she could buy, when (and if) she could see a doctor. She was isolated from everyone and everything but her children.
That feeling of being alone and apart is common to women across space and time—just ask any American feminist author over the past century. The solution is frighteningly complex. It involves gradually changing prevailing norms in thousands of cultures, and there is no app for that.
But that doesn’t mean that apps won’t help—a lot. Suppose every woman in the world had a smartphone. That could help shatter their isolation and unleash their powers like never before.
Take health care. When every woman has a smartphone, she will be able to get the right information, at the right time, in the right format. For example, an illiterate Nigerian woman in her first trimester of pregnancy might receive a voice message in the Hausa language describing anaemia and explaining how to get iron supplements. The same system can remind her when she needs to go for a prenatal visit, or take her children for immunisations. Eventually, she’ll be able to use her phone for a video consultation with a doctor when non-routine problems arise. With the doctor’s guidance, she’ll also be able to use her phone to check her temperature, blood pressure and other vital signs to assist with her own diagnosis.


Then there’s farming. Poor farmers stay poor in large part because they don’t have the information they need to get the most out of their land. For instance, they know almost nothing about the nutrient content of their soil, which means they can’t choose the right fertilisers or the crops that will grow best. They also don’t have reliable information about market prices, so they are forced to take the price being offered by whichever trader comes by. Since most farmers in Africa (and many in South Asia) are women, this is a women’s problem. And women farmers are also less productive than men, on average, for reasons ranging from gender bias in agriculture training to how hard it is for women to hire and manage male labourers during the harvest.
But with smartphones, women farmers will be able to watch videos of local farmers providing training based on local soil and weather conditions. They will also have apps that tell them what prices their crops are fetching at various markets, so they can be informed sellers. Using their phones to connect to each other, women farmers can also organise effectively in co-operatives so they can express their demands as members of a powerful group rather than as isolated individuals.
Banking provides another example. Even the poorest women have assets. One of the keys to empowerment is making sure they can control what happens to these. The most striking study I’ve ever read shows that when women determine the family budget, children are 20% more likely to survive—simply because of the things they tend to spend money on (such as food and health care).
Traditional banks haven’t found it profitable to serve customers making transactions in tiny amounts. That leaves poor women to navigate the informal economy, hiding cash, buying jewellery or livestock as an illiquid form of savings and borrowing from moneylenders at usurious rates.
Digital technology slashes transaction costs, though, which means that people can save and borrow money or purchase insurance securely and in small amounts through their phones. This technology is already taking hold in countries like Bangladesh and Kenya, but many emerging digital economies are male-dominated because men own mobile phones at much higher rates than women. In Bangladesh only 46% of women own a phone, compared with 76% of men. Consequently, only 13% of Bangladeshi women have used mobile money, compared with 32% of men. When these percentages even out around the world, it will unlock the economic prowess of a billion people.
It isn’t hard to do
The beauty of this vision is that you don’t need to strain that hard to see it clearly. I am not positing a science-fiction future. More than two-thirds of the people on the planet have access to mobile phones, and, increasingly, these are smartphones. Last year, more than 1 billion smartphones were sold worldwide.
Those statistics are encouraging, but we’re not even close to universal smartphone coverage. Data must get cheaper. Many people with smartphones don’t even use the internet because it is too expensive. And connectivity has to reach the most remote places in the world, where the need for connection—in the widest sense of the word—is greatest.
That still leaves the job of making sure that women own phones in the same numbers as men—and that there are apps designed to address their specific needs. An even larger hurdle is the fact that illiteracy is becoming a girls’ problem, and women who can’t read will never get the most out of their mobile phones.
No technology by itself can usher in gender equality. But, by helping women forge connections they’ve never had, the smartphone can make a big difference.

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