Africa’s mobile boom is well documented, and around two thirds of households in sub-Saharan Africa own at least one cellphone. But when it comes to who actually owns them, women are still lagging far behind men. Recent data on the gender gap for mobile phone ownership released by the GSM Association (GSMA) suggests that women are 23% less likely than men to own a mobile phone in Africa and nine percent of women and girls have access to the internet compared to 16% of men .

This was one of the topics addressed at the Connected Women session which was part of the GSMA Mobile 360 Conference which kicked off in Cape Town yesterday.

By making the sure this gender gap is bridged, it’ll not only benefit Africa’s social issues but boost the economy too.

The challenges

The way we are using technology is changing as we increasingly use the internet and software for our everyday services that require more knowledge and skills and again women are getting left behind while men are progressing and have more opportunities to learn about internet services and how to use them on mobiles.

The costs of getting a cell phone have come down compared to previous years and now consumers can even access a smartphone for as little as R5oo, but still a lot of Africans cant afford to buy a cell phone because of little or no income.

“It generally looks like it’s just a women versus men issue in terms of who technology is aimed at, but if we model the data we have collected nationally from individuals, you’ll see that technology is not gender-biased, a recent report by World Wide Worx says 5.6 million women and 5.6 million men in South Africa use Facebook,” says Alison Gilwald, executive director of Research ICT Africa.  “You’ll actually find that the biggest factors are income and education that determine women’s ability to access and use it.”

“The obvious way to deal with that would be to provide better access to education and income.”

Gilwald points out that cultural factors such as patriarchy , domesticity and household responsibilities considered to be a women-only job, also contribute to the mobile gender gap.

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How do we work towards solving this issue?

“The way to achieve better access, whether to men or women, is to get greater efficiency in our markets, more effective regulation to bring down prices, stronger institutions that can regulate more effectively,” Gilwald says. ” With that you’ll get a natural diffusion of the technology and more women who are marginalised will be able to get onto the network.”

“If you really want to address some of the structural issues, you don’t just do that by giving women a pink phone, we have to make sure that girls remain in school and get the same quality of education and that theu can go on to earn the incomes that allow them to get access to technologies,” Gilwald adds.

How will the economy benefit from this

In this day and age, one cannot consider the strength of an economy without recognising the role ICT plays in it.

A report by the Vodafone Foundation states that countries benefit from 1.2% more GDP for every 10% increase in mobile penetration and by granting women greater freedom and investing in girls, nations can improve productivity, increase competitiveness and create greater prosperity for all citizens.

” Women with a mobile phone have greater economic and professional opportunities. An estimated 8% of women could directly improve their livelihoods as a result of mobile ownership. A growth in female subscribers of this scale could deliver a $22.3 billion economic benefit to society in 2020 through increasing women’s access to professional opportunities. It is in the best interests of developing societies to encourage greater access to these technologies for women,” the report says.

A survey in South Africa and Egypt commissioned by Vodafone found that 62% of businesses in South Africa and 59% in Egypt attributed increased profits to mobile phones.

“Eliminating the gap and achieving gender parity in mobile phone ownership would result in millions of new subscribers, a benefit to mobile operators, to the women themselves and to the societies in which they live,” says the GSMA.

“The information, communication and services provided by a mobile phone are helping women save time and money, improve productivity, increase returns-on-investment and maximise household resources. A woman can create and take advantage of new opportunities to increase income for herself and her family via a mobile phone. Four in ten women surveyed across low and middle-income countries report enjoying increased economic or professional opportunities due to owning a mobile phone.”

[Image – cc Future Atlas, “SMS till you drop” — mobile phone ad on van in Kampala, Uganda]