Clinton Global Initiative

09.24.13

Bringing Mobile Technology to the World’s Women

Getting more smartphones into people’s hands can not only boost economies, but create new opportunities for women.

Mobility took on new meaning at this year's Clinton Global Initiative, as a focus on getting technology into the hands of women surfaced on panels of all concentrations.

In a session headlined by Cherie Blair, founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation of Women, handheld technology was forefront. The wife of British former prime minister Tony Blair recalled being inspired to start investigating girls and mobile tech after a previous CGI, where she noticed women weren't getting a fair share of the attention. Blair shared the stage with Aldi Haryopratomo, the young Indonesian co-founder of Ruma, an organization that trains low-income workers to serve their communities with mobile devices.

“Without access to mobile, so many poor have been cut out of global economy,” Blair noted. According to the statistics screened before the remarks, countries that boost mobile-phone access by 10 percent experience a 1.2 percent economic bump.

But even the $20 needed to purchase a phone is restrictive for the billions living in extreme poverty. And for those of the fairer sex, access remains elusive. Women in Africa and the Middle East are 23 percent less likely than men to have that accessibility. All in all, an estimated 300 million women across the world could have access but don't due to cost, cultural attitude, fear of technology, and environmental limitations like communities without electricity. Blair pointed out another glaring restriction: literacy.

Initiatives ranging from efforts to spread maternal health information to foster saving habits with mobile banking to comparing seed prices for rural farmers are beginning to spread across the developing world. Haryopratomo spoke of a woman he met while riding his motorcycle on a back road in rural Indonesia. She was working at a small snack stand, but had been the first in her family to graduate from high school and had worked in the government before her husband asked her to quit. Now, he's set her up with an Android device where she acts as a mobile money agent for her community, making deposits and payments. She feels like she's making people's dreams come true, she told him. He hopes to hand out a million handsets by next year.

But the statistic that might actually change the tide is the huge incentive for the mobile-industry providers to evolve: they’re currently missing a $13 billion opportunity in lost airtime.

Correction: A previous version of this article cited an incorrect figure for amount of lost airtime. The amount is $13 billion, not $30 billion.