In the village, the mobile phone is an equaliser

My village would be recognisable to many people in East Africa, even across Africa. There is a sense of community, entrenched in the everyday interactions between the people and their families. The village is neither rich nor poor and most of the people subsist on farming. You know many of them by name.

When you visit, you make sure you greet everybody—the ones you used to date, the peers who did or did not go to school but are doing very well in their lives. You greet the others who are not doing just as well. You marvel at how some of the elders are ageing gracefully.

You remember the time when a landline was a status symbol in the village and owned by only a few.

You are not surprised that the mobile phone and the use of the internet is now "everywhere". It is cheaper and has become a necessity for the many governments and financial services it has placed in your hands.

Most of the landlines have been abandoned and their owners adopted the newer technology.

In this instance, the mobile phone becomes something of an unexpected equaliser. Its benefits do not discriminate. It places opportunity, big and small, in every hand.

But you are also aware that many of the people you know don't own a phone. My village is not unique. It is a fact that many don’t own a phone in rural areas far and wide. And, they miss out on a lot according to research.

GSMA, the global body representing mobile phone networks, notes how the mobile phone has been a “powerful tool for delivering life-enhancing information, services and opportunities to millions who have not had the opportunity to access them before.”

Those without one are excluded from reaping its dividends and often are the marginalised. GSMA also finds that adults who still do not own a mobile phone tend to belong to the most marginalised groups: they are disproportionately rural, illiterate and older.

The marginalised are also predominantly female.

Women lag behind the men in phone ownership and benefiting from the transformational power of digital technologies.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimates that the proportion of all women using the Internet globally is 48 per cent, against 58 per cent of all men.

More men than women use the Internet in every region of the world except the Americas, which has near-parity.

ITU data also show that while the digital gender gap has been shrinking in the Commonwealth of Independent States (former USSR states) and Europe, it is growing in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The gap is widest in developing countries, especially Least Developed Countries.

It also confirms a correlation between the mobile phone ownership gender gap and the Internet gender gap: countries where the mobile phone ownership gender gap is large also have a high number of women not using the Internet.

Another finding shows that the usage gap is also reflected in mobile spending. Across low- and middle-income countries, female mobile owners spend on average 17 per cent less than men on mobile services.

This spending gap is evident even in countries where there is not a gender gap in mobile ownership or mobile internet use.

Other findings show that barriers inhibiting mobile ownership and mobile internet use for women include affordability, literacy and digital skills, a perceived lack of relevance, and safety and security concerns.

Affordability, particularly of handsets, is the top barrier to mobile ownership, while literacy and digital skills are the main factors limiting mobile internet use among those who are aware of it.

Their lower levels of mobile ownership and use not only reflect existing gender inequalities, but also threaten to compound them.

The mobile phone equalises the economic opportunity, both for the network, the user and the nation. The GSMA estimates that closing the gender gap in mobile internet use across low- and middle-income countries could add $700 billion in GDP growth in these countries over the next five years.

It also observes that if mobile operators could close these gender gaps in low- and middle-income countries by 2023, this would provide an estimated additional $140 billion in revenue to the mobile industry over the next five years.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.