September 2016

Power in her hands

Tata Communications, in partnership with MasterCard, has set out to financially empower 100 million women in the developing world through smartphones

Women experiment with a smartphone at a workshop to financially empower women through smartphones in Odisha, conducted by Tata Communications and MasterCard under the Clinton Global Initiative Commitment to Action

The summer of 2016 saw a group of women in rural Odisha, in eastern India, discover a whole new world of promise and possibilities. Most of them are illiterate, speak Oriya and live well below the US$1.90 a day, the global standard for extreme poverty.

They are the first participants of a bold worldwide initiative conceived by Rangu Salgame, CEO,  growth ventures and service provider group, Tata Communications, who says: “We have all seen and experienced the transformative power of the internet, particularly through the smartphone. We believe that there is now the opportunity to harness this power to financially empower women at an unprecedented scale.”

Diminishing the gender gap
As the women in Odisha swiped and scrolled their phone screens for the first time, curiosity and excitement took them on a unique journey of exploration aimed at diminishing the online gender gap.

”In the coming decade, three billion people will join the online world. While the first three billion on the internet came mainly from the developed world, the next three billion will almost all come from developing regions, creating an opportunity to catalyse social and economic change at an unprecedented scale. However, among the first 3 billion, 200 million fewer women than men are online.” says Mr Salgame. “If we do not address the underlying problems that led to this disparity, an even greater gap will likely exist as the next 3 billion come online.”

In September 2015, MasterCard and Tata Communications announced a partnership leading up to the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting. The vision is to financially empower 100 million women, both current and future entrepreneurs, in developing countries through effective access to transformative mobile platforms. As part of the Next 3B initiative, this vision is anchored in the partnership between the two companies to leverage opportunities created by the next 3 billion coming online.

Watch beneficiaries in Odisha, India, speak about how the Tata Communications-MasterCard project is financially empowering their lives using smartphones and technology

“What excites us is that we now have the opportunity to give women access to digital tools that include making and receiving electronic payments, managing financial risks and much more. This is an important step towards their participation in the labour force, improving their livelihood and ending the cycle of poverty,’’ explains Walt Macnee, vice chairman of MasterCard. “We became a founding partner of the Next 3B initiative because of the priceless possibilities.”

As a first step, the partners joined forces with Brightstar Corp and Tone and the NGOs Trickle Up and Kiva.

At the heart of Next 3B and its projects is a deep conviction to create innovative partnerships, approaches and business models that generate social change. “The needs of the next 3 billion people who come online will be radically different from those that brought the first 3 billion. Our hypothesis is that livelihood will be the key enabler of smartphone adoption and hence there’s a need to create local and connected ecosystems that leverage the internet for scale and reach,” says Mr Salgame.

One step at a time
The partners have embarked on the journey of realising this vision by taking a non-linear implementation approach, as is often taken in the technology sector. This approach is based on demonstrating success through well-designed field pilots, as well as initiating and creating network effects that lead to scaling. Very critical in this model are the ‘last mile partners’ — microfinance finance institutions and NGOs — who directly reach the target women through established channels and ongoing relationships. These partners have credibility with their participants and bring insights and capabilities to enable change.

Trickle Up is leading the first pilot execution in India. The NGO has many years of experience helping women in Odisha start or expand businesses as a pathway out of extreme poverty and marginalisation. Working closely with Tata Communications, Brightstar and other project partners, Trickle Up identified sites, met with local women to understand how they might use smartphones, helped design apps useful for people with limited literacy and numeracy, and worked to solve the many challenges that are part of any ambitious innovation.

“We work with people who are often overlooked by other NGOs and government programmes, so bringing the computing and communication power of smartphones has enormous potential to reduce extreme poverty and inequality around the world,” says Bill Abrams, president of Trickle Up. “We were delighted when Tata Communications invited us to help realise its commitment to reach the last mile of poverty.”

It is only the beginning
The partners started with a workshop in early 2016 where the women were provided with smartphones, applications and content customised to their needs and their environment. This was the first time many of these women had interacted with any kind of technology and the reaction from the participants was extremely positive. The women were happy to discover something new that could help to change their lives and they were eager to offer feedback. “It was fascinating to hear the ideas they came up with for how they could use the smartphone. The ideas included connecting with the local kirana (grocery) store and taking pictures of their paddy crop to share with the local panchayat office,” said Mr Salgame.

Members from the Tata Communications, MasterCard and implementing partner teams at a workshop to financially empower women through smartphones in Odisha, under the Clinton Global Initiative Commitment to Action

The insights generated at the workshop and through subsequent interactions were used to improve the content and applications for launching the pilot.

Soon, hundreds of women in Odisha will have a smartphone in their hands as the pilot project expands. As Mr Salgame points out, once financial inclusion becomes a reality, the women will be better equipped to take advantage of education and healthcare opportunities for their children and family. In turn, this will have a significant impact on the wellbeing of future generations. “Empower a woman, and you empower the whole community,” he says.

Millions to go
The Next 3B programme intends to establish scalable models that can be easily replicated by corporations and NGOs in other countries.

“This has been an exciting journey. What started as a conversation has now become a movement. The next step is to institutionalise and capitalise on the momentum,” says Mr Salgame, whose personal commitment to women’s empowerment has seen this project become a significant CSR engagement. “I am confident that we now have the opportunity to create lasting improvements in the lives of millions around the world.”