Digital Inclusion and Development

couples training
A couple participates in the Livelihoods of Women Program in Blantyre, Malawi in July 2021 that aims to increase women’s smartphone ownership and digital literacy.

One of the most important technological advances over the last quarter-century has been the global spread of mobile phones. Mobile handsets have revolutionized not just communication but also access to information, use of financial services, and public engagement. This research program addresses big questions about the potential transformative effects of mobile technology and digital financial services on society, politics and the economy using careful, rigorous experimental methods. To date I have been involved in co-leading four major studies.

  1. The Economic Impact of Mobile Phone Ownership: Results from a Randomized Controlled Trial in Tanzania
  2. Mobile Phone Ownership, Women’s Empowerment and Public Engagement in Tanzania
  3. Strengthening Women’s Smartphone Ownership and Property Rights in Malawi
  4. Evaluating Interoperable Payment Systems: The Next Frontier in Digital Financial Services

The Economic Impact of Mobile Phone Ownership: Results from a Randomized Controlled Trial in Tanzania

Stella Ombella of REPOA talks to a participant as part of a series of qualitative interviews we did at the end of the study.

Our first study, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Financial Services for the Poor program and in collaboration with REPOA in Tanzania, implemented a large-scale randomized controlled trial among around 1,350 women non-phone owners across five different regions of the country. We find that over thirteen months mobile phones, especially smartphones, increased households’ annual consumption per capita by 20% compared to control. Consumption gains operated through women’s control and use of the smartphones. However, treatment effects were attenuated by handset turnover (handsets sold, exchanged, lost or otherwise not retained). By endline only 34% in the smartphone condition still possessed their handsets. This highlights the economic benefits of closing the mobile gender gap but also the tenuous nature of productive asset ownership for women in low-income households. Read more: “The Economic Impact of Mobile Phone Ownership: Results from a Randomized Controlled Trial in Tanzania.” CSAE, Working Paper #2021-05.

W&M’s Global Research Institute provided valuable seed funding that enabled us to launch this research project.

Mobile Phone Ownership, Women’s Empowerment and Accessing Land Rights in Tanzania

HAKIARDHI trainer leads a land rights workshop in Songea, Tanzania in July 2017.

One of the primary motivations for our study in Tanzania was to better understand the impact of mobile phone ownership on women’s empowerment—that is, whether owning a mobile phone increased women’s individual efficacy, household influence, and pursuit of legal rights. In addition to self-reported survey measures, at the end of the Tanzania RCT we worked with a land rights organization, HAKIARDHI, and Innovations for Poverty Action-Tanzania to hold a series of a workshops in which women could learn about land rights, land tenure and land collateral. Eighteen land rights workshops were held in 5 different regions of Tanzania. Despite Tanzania’s Land Act of 1999 enshrining women’s equal rights to own and use land, customary practices still discriminate against women. Land rights thus represent an important gendered issue. Consistent with this, some 1000 women attended these 18 workshops—spending on average about 1/3 of one’s weekly income in transport costs to attend. Yet, owning a mobile phone over the previous year had no effect on participation. Instead, consistent with a canonical literature in sociology, social networks proved to be a key driver of participation—if one’s friends attended, one was more likely to go; if one’s friends stayed home, one was more likely to stay home. Put differently, mobile phone ownership did not empower individuals to act independently of one’s social network. If anything, mobile phone ownership appeared to amplify network effects.

Research for this project was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United States Department of Agriculture.

Strengthening Women’s Smartphone Ownership and Property Rights in Malawi

A couple uses their new smartphone during the program pilot.

One of the core findings from our Tanzania study is we found that getting smartphones into hands of women — and thus closing the gender smartphone gap — had substantial economic effects on low-income households. But for these gains to materialize, the women had to retain control of the smartphone. Yet, only some 33% of participants had the smartphone on their person at the end of the study. This points to the importance of not just increasing access to tech but strengthening women’s property rights over mobile technology and shifting community norms to uphold those rights.

In 2021, supported by a Gates Foundation Grand Challenges Call-to-Action Award, we have replicated our Tanzania study but with greater focus on women’s property rights over smartphones. To do so, we have teamed up with the Institute of Public Opinion and Research (IPOR) based in Zomba, Malawi and the Girls Empowerment Network (GENET) based in Blantyre, Malawi to develop a program designed not only to improve women’s digital literacy but also strengthen their property rights over smartphones. One way we sought to do this is broaden participation of the smartphone program to include participants’ husbands. Thus couples could learn together how to use the smartphone technology, including mobile money, the internet and WhatsApp. But just as importantly the couples, in a community setting with other couples, could affirm the smartphones belonged to the women and collectively agree to respect women’s property rights—with the goal of shifting community beliefs to uphold digital equality.

Couples’ training on smartphones and women’s property rights in Blantyre in July 2021 led by Takondwa Kaliwo (right), GENET program manager.

This project is currently in the field involving 1500 participants and the following study conditions:

  • couples treatment (n=400): Women provided with a SIM card, cost-free smartphones and the couples training as described above to strengthen women’s property rights over the smartphone and community recognition and enforcement of those rights.
  • individual treatment (n=400): Women provided with cost-free smartphones, a SIM card, and smartphone training.
  • cash placebo (n=400): Women receive an unconditional cash grant the equivalent value of the smartphones (roughly $70 USD) upon program enrollment
  • pure control (n=300)

We plan to have initial findings from midline data collection in the first part of 2022.

Evaluating Interoperable Payment Systems: The Next Frontier in Digital Financial Services 

In many emerging economies one of the key benefits of owning a mobile phone is its use for sending and receiving money. The next frontier in digital financial services is the deployment of interoperable payment systems, which enable seamless, instantaneous transactions and hold great promise to accelerate economic growth, financial inclusion, and revenue mobilization. Working with Russell Toth from University of Sydney and Tiffany Tsai of National University of Singapore and Rebecca Rouse and Hussam Razi at Innovations for Poverty Action, we are studying the impact of interoperable payment systems in Pakistan, Tanzania, and beyond.