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Are mobile phones the solution for rural women’s entrepreneurship?



Government statistics assert that 81% of India’s employed individuals work in the informal sector or the unorganised sector, with 64% of this group engaged in non-agricultural form of employment. This non-farm sector comprises both — micro enterprises providing products and services, and artisans who form the second largest livelihood group in rural India. Entrepreneurs in these sectors operate in product specific clusters using existing indigenous skills, primarily as home based enterprises. Some of such enterprises are the sole domain of the women entrepreneurs, helping them achieve social and financial independence within their socio-cultural boundaries.


Largely fragmented, unorganised and often isolated, these women entrepreneurs face several obstacles (majorly social, economic and market related) that discourage them from entering entrepreneurship. Social norms dictate restrictions on their mobility and burden them with domestic responsibilities. Furthermore, poor financial literacy, a lack of credit history, and limited previous business experience also reduce women’s credit-worthiness (Shastri & Sinha, 2010). Women entrepreneurs also lack the know-how and the resources to market themselves and their products effectively. Thus, they are unable to leverage mainstream markets. Disadvantaged and disempowered, therefore by both geography and gender, uneducated and untrained women in rural India face significant challenges in efficiently developing independent enterprises as a means of financial security.



Michael L. Best and Sylvia G. Maier (2007) observe, ‘ICTs (Information and communications technology) have been identified as one of the most effective tools to bring about gender and economic development almost simultaneously.’ It is posited that with ICTs, women get 24/7 access to worldwide e-business channels, which can be operated from anywhere in real time (Hilbert, 2011). While this may be true, rural women have found themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide with regard to traditional IT (Information Technology).

However, newer and smarter technologies that converge IT with communications (C) and ensure the availability of voice, video and web on personal phones — hold great promise for these rural women. Mobile applications are going a step further in fashioning this technology to address specific purposes. While IT requires these women to adapt to technology, mobile platforms and applications can be effectively adapted to address the unique socio-cultural, political and economic needs/sensitivities of this constituency making it easier for them to navigate and operate.

Our study is aimed at identifying use cases of mobile phones and mobile applications that mobilise rural women into self-employment and entrepreneurship. We have identified Gujarat and Tamil Nadu as the two states of interest for this study. Both states have had rich entrepreneurial ecosystems and well established histories of using technology for the socio-economic upliftment of rural communities, particularly the emancipation of rural women. Organisations such as ‘Self Employed Women’s Association’ (SEWA) in Gujarat and the ‘Foundation Of Occupation Development’ (FOOD) in Tamil Nadu, have successfully trained women entrepreneurs in better managing their microenterprises using mobile technologies.

Our study aims to identify the various ways in which mobile phones have addressed the livelihood related challenges as described above. It will also explore how mobile phones have helped to bring down the barriers in self employment and entrepreneurship for rural women in these states. Lessons from such use cases will then be translated into policy imperatives that other states could follow.

Several studies, including the UNESCO project in Nabana, have given valuable insights about the benefits of ICTs, however, very little is known about its contribution to preserve and promote the livelihoods of rural women. Our study will adopt a mixed methods approach which combines qualitative and descriptive quantitative research methods, to assess the ability of ICTs to sustain and grow women’s entrepreneurship in rural India.

Can digital inclusion really bolster the empowerment of rural women and facilitate their increased participation in the entrepreneurial ecosystem of rural India? Stay tuned, to find the answers.


References:

Best, M. L. & Maier, S. (2007). Gender and ICT Use in Rural South India. Gender Technology and Development, 11(2)

Hilbert, M. (2011). Digital gender divide or technologically empowered women in developing countries? A typical case of lies, damned lies, and statistics. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.wsif.2011.07.001.

Jain, S. (2007). ICTs and Women’s Empowerment: Some Case Studies from India. Delhi University.

Shastri, R.K. & Sinha, A. (2010). The Socio-cultural and economic effect on the development of women entrepreneurs (with special reference to India). Asian Journal of Business Management, 2(2), 30–34.

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