New Service for Women Entrepreneurs in Nigeria Breaks Meaningful Boundaries

This week, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women has announced a new service, produced in partnership with the Exxon Mobil Foundation, designed to support female entrepreneurs in Nigeria.  This new service, called “Business Women,” provides women with texted training messages, delivered through mobile phones, that help microentrepreneurs improve their ability to grow and manage their businesses.  The service was designed according to the findings of extensive research into the needs of female entrepreneurs in developing nations and is being delivered by both Nokia and MTN in Nigeria.

I am impressed and pleased with the potential of this new service, not only to facilitate prosperity among Nigerian women, but also to act as an example for other organizations wanting to support women’s economic empowerment in developing nations.  There are four key points to admire about this new service:

Business Women was developed on the back of goal-oriented research among the people the partners wanted to help.  As simple and obvious as this first step of doing research would seem, I am amazed at the number of groups today (some of them well-heeled and global in scope) who simply barge into developing world communities armed with nothing but good intentions and their own prejudices.  Kudos to Exxon and CBFW for doing it right.  Their report is available here.

The technology is appropriate for the audience.  Again, I am seeing far too many people looking at elaborate computer platforms because they can deliver complex services and messaging formats.  Yet many, if not most, women in the developing world would not have access to such equipment, nor would they have the computer skills, the bandwidth, or the command of English to take advantage of the service if they did.  Cellphones, in contrast, have gained wide distribution, do not require internet access, are more or less affordable, and provides information in small, digestible bits.

The service delivers training information in a gender-neutral manner.  Many entrepreneurship training programs are delivered in mixed sex environments, in which men dominate and, thus, women benefit little.  Further, the ambitious woman in remote areas of the poor nations can be perceived as a serious threat to community norms, a situation that can be dangerous.  If she can access beneficial business information in privacy, as with a cellphone, a woman is more protected from the disapproval that can lead to violence and even purposeful destruction of her business.

The service normalizes the ownership of mobile phones by women.  A recent study conducted by the GSMA (the international trade association for mobile phone providers) showed conclusively what is easily observable on the ground:  in the developing world, mobile phones are overwhelmingly owned by men.  The GSMA has found that men control family members’ purchase of the phones and air time–and they are worried that women with cell phones will tryst with other men.  So, giving a new reason for women to have the phones, thus increasing the phones’ visibility in the community, will likely normalize their ownership by women.  This is important because constrained mobility and communication are still primary means of enforcing gender restrictions in these communities.

All in all, the service seems well researched, appropriately executed and positioned, and full of promise.  It would be good to see more of this kind of work aimed at benefitting women’s economics.

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