“I run a tea, coffee and snacks takeaway… earlier when the phone would ring I would rush to take the order of home delivery and fell at times … hurt myself (laughs) … now with a smart phone … SMS sits and I respond later …”
“I have no time … so busy … looking after kids, cooking, and this shop that I run … I can’t even check how much money is in my bank account … no time to go to the bank … but the smart phone changed my life … I can transact even outside business hours and on holidays … receive payments, pay bills … the bank is in my pocket.”
These comments made during our study of women micro-entrepreneurs in Fiji typify the positive impact smart phone technology has on women’s lives. The women we spoke with run small service or retail businesses, such as fish and chip shops; tea & coffee outlets; garment-making enterprises; or day care centres. They come from poor families and want to supplement the family income. But they face several hurdles and are mostly time-poor as well as economically poor.
Smart phone technology has the potential to change their lives. They can do most transactions online using a smart phone. They can pay council bills, electricity bills, do bank transactions, pay their suppliers, receive money from their clients and other such activities, in the comfort of their home or business place. It saves time, energy, and money: which can help expand their business capacity, as well as allow more time to care for children and family; increase their social interaction and provide a general enhancement in well-being.
The smart phone has changed lives of these women
Fiji – a Pacific Island Country- has a population of about 900,000 spread over about 100 inhabited islands, around 30% of whom live below the national poverty line. Studies worldwide have found that poverty hits women particularly hard. It impacts their health as well as that of their children, and negatively impacts education. Impoverished women also suffer a lack of respect in a male dominated family, and are caught in a vicious circle.
How can we empower them to improve their lot?
Governments across the world, including Fiji, have implemented several programs for women’s economic development. These bureaucratically run programs have their own limitations.
‘It is the women who are not coming forward’ said one of the bureaucrats interviewed by our team. It was an interesting – perhaps typically bureaucratic comment –– where the women are faulted not the system. But a woman CEO of Consumer Council told us: ‘It is not women who need fixing, it is the system that does’.
The smart phone has changed lives of these women. They can access all government programs online, communicate with banks, government and council without the need to make time-consuming trips, receive and make payments to suppliers which helps them to get better terms, and importantly, it gives them more time to look after their family as well as grow their business.
Why then have smart phones not been more widely embraced in Fiji? What are the policy, industry and consumer-level barriers? And how can these be overcome? These are some of the questions that drove our research.
The lack of policy architecture, lack of critical mass for mobile phone operators to provide the services cost-effectively and expensive smart phones, as well as the high running cost at the consumer-level stood out as the main barriers. We have suggested that the Fijian government needs to develop a suitable policy architecture, and mobile phone operators need to share mobile towers which can reduce their capital cost. In addition, providing suitable financial incentives and training to women micro-entrepreneurs could help overcome some of these barriers and improve the lives of disadvantaged Fijian women.Our research was funded by the IMTFI (University of California) established by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and included five researchers. More information about our project and its outcomes can be found here. A research paper produced out of this project is published recently in Global Information Management, an A-rated journal.