Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Spinning Straw Into Gold: Women, Transformation and Inclusion

Although the idea that mobile technology necessarily promotes female entrepreneurship and autonomy provides a compelling empowerment narrative for philanthropic organizations working with corporate partners, such as the Cherie Blair Foundation, stories of the success or failure of women's businesses in the developing world don't necessarily fit the plotline of high-tech social uplift, and globalized political subjects may actually sustain themselves without high-cost and low-trust services supposedly designed for the unbanked.

This panel on gendered labor began with a talk via Skype about "Understanding the Transformative Value of Tongan Women's Kau Tou Lalanga: Mobile Mats, Mobile Phones, and Money Transfer Agents" by Charmaine 'Ilaiu Talei  who detailed production and trade practices of a "kau tou lalanga," which was a collective of Tongan women who collectively wove each others’ fine pandanus mats on a remote archipelago for sale or barter to Tongans living abroad in communities around the Pacific Rim in diasporic settlements in cities such as San Francisco and Brisbane.  'Ilaiu Talei documented the women's work and conducted semi-structured interviews with the agents who served as the intermediaries for their wares. Such "mobile mats" were "in themselves cashless forms of customary value" of the kind studied by Adrienne Kaeppler of the Smithsonian Institution and Phyllis Herda.  In one business arrangement called "Iate," an overseas or local customer could request a specific order, which the collective would coordinate weaving. The mats were usually woven at a price per foot, and once complete they were sent to the customer overseas who sent money back to the collective through a money exchange medium, such as Western Union, for the money to be "dispersed as wages amongst the collective."

As 'Ilaiu Talei observed, "'Iate is most often performed between weaving collectives and a local customer or local trading agent," although there were exceptions when weavers and customers handled communication through a lead weaver.  The mobile telephone might play a critical role, because "communication was important in negotiation," but it served as a communication rather than a financial services device.  Those without phones might rely on using their children's phones or those of other younger relatives to manage the details of transactions. Nonetheless, money transfers were not important in the system of cash installments. 

"Mobile Value-added Services for Inclusive Growth: A Study of Women Micro-entrepreneuers in Fiji" by Milind Sathye and Biman Prasad focused on mobile value added services (MVAS), which were considered to be "anything beyond standard voice calls," according to Sathye, including SMS and entertainment content, as long as it could be ultimately leveraged to improve access to finance and the growth of women-owned micro-enterprises (WMEs), although researchers emphasized enterprise and commerce in their study.  The study included snowballing sampling and identified three areas of chief concern for the women: 1) access to credit, 2) access to capital, and 3) access to insurance. Although initiatives such as the multi-campus business school MOOC 10,000 Women from Goldman Sachs might be ridiculed, Sathye also described a longing for "access to business training and mentorship."  He also described logistical hurdles, such as the problem of not allowing women to run microenterprises in their own homes, which made day care centers difficult to operate. There were also problems in interoperability, particularly between Vodafone and Digicell, who refused even to share mobile towers. The women in the study were reported to be "oblivious" to many services offered from banks and thus willing to bear "exorbitant rates of interest" for informal financing, often at over 50%.  However, the bankers researchers interviewed described expecting customers to come to them rather than investing energy in outreach.

"A Participatory Look at Women Traders' Cognitive Understanding and Perceptions of the Use of Mobile Money Systems in Northern Ghana"  by Dennis Chirwaurah, Seidu Al-hassan and Deborah Elzie shared work in progress about the difficult attempts at realization of the development agenda of the government to ensure that women were empowered.  Al-hassan told how women were encouraged to join cooperatives and how the majority of them were employed in small business enterprises, which could benefit by improving businesses with the use of mobile phones.  Researchers looked at whether or not the increasing use of mobile phones for mobile money systems actually facilitated business transactions.  They examined the experiences of a hundred rural women traders in the upper-east region of Ghana through in-depth interviews about possible improvements to their living conditions.  94% of their interview subjects were married, and most did not use banks.  They claimed that "things of value to us are basically those ingredients" needed to save for an important family guest or for a sick person.  The women also valued storage for funerals. 77% of them had had mobile phone experiences for 1-5 years only, and 64% reported low network services as a major impediment to adoption.  As in the case of IMTFI studies in other regions in the developing world, only 18% indicated an interest in using mobile money for storing value for future use.  Researchers looked at ten communities and met with representatives of rural women's groups as well.  They closed by insisting that design must be inclusive  to be effective.

Discussant Elizabeth Berthe of Mercy Corps reiterated the themes around relevance and the importance of social networks, and the question and answer session raised issues about how commercialization might actually sometimes undermine women's position and how comprehensive research might be stymied by the fact that men and women often kept separate accounts.

1 comment:

  1. very good article, very useful to add to our knowledge. thank you for sharing