#06 innovation
Reema Nanavaty

The Value of Information: Mobile Technology Helps Micro-entrepreneurs

In the information age, knowledge equals power and, increasingly, profit. Money is often scarce for the millions of Indian women who make their living in the informal sector. But apparently women are willing to invest in information provided through mobile phones if it raises their incomes and improves their livelihoods. A leading women's organisation from India is developing new ideas for how to provide poor Indian women with the information they need.

"We were surprised at how hungry poor, rural women were for communication and information." (Reema Nanavaty)

In the information age, knowledge equals power and, increasingly, profit. Money is often scarce for the millions of Indian women who make their living in the informal sector. But apparently women are willing to invest in information provided through mobile phones if it raises their incomes and improves their livelihoods. A leading women's organisation from India is developing new ideas for how to provide poor Indian women with the information they need.

Market information via SMS messages

The Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) is a trade union comprised of over 1.3 million female members in India – of these about 630,000 reside in the state of Gujarat – who work in the informal sector. One of SEWA's objectives is to achieve "livelihood security", which it defines as having work, food and social security, for its members by enhancing their bargaining positions. The mobile phone is an excellent tool for achieving these objectives. A survey in Gujarat revealed that nearly one third of SEWA members – around 177,000 women – owned mobile phones.

The agricultural sector provides a powerful demonstration of how information delivered using mobiles can increase women's incomes. Each day SEWA sends agricultural workers SMS messages with up-to-date spot and future commodity prices for each market so they can determine when and where they can get the best price for their produce. This also enhances the women's ability to plan crops and make informed harvesting decisions. A SEWA member posts the prices on a PC-based "notice board" in the village for women without a mobile phone. Women have not only been able to increase their incomes; they have also saved money by not having to travel in order to get the latest market prices. Similarly, workers on the saltpans use mobiles to get the latest market information, using it as a basis for their selling strategy.

Sharing mobile phones

Another SEWA initiative is Fone Frend. "Fone Frends" are female micro-entrepreneurs who give people access to a mobile phone and other value-added services on a per-call basis. It is based on the "shared access" model in which a mobile phone is used as a public phone. But in contrast to an ordinary phone, a cell phone offers more services, such as mobile banking or tele medicine. Fone Frend targets thousands of underemployed or unemployed women in areas where there are limited economic opportunities. The ultimate objective of the initiative is to expand access to information and telephony. It links cellular companies with Fone Frend entrepreneurs in India's underserved areas, providing an additional or new source of income.

SEWA has also compiled the requirements of their female members and rural communities for the value-added services, which helps ensure they receive the appropriate information through mobile phones. Some of the main required service categories are:

Voice-Based Services – voice messaging, broadcast voice messages in local languages
Financial Services – savings and credit services of women's Savings & Credit Groups, banking services of local or national banks, insurance premiums, payment collection services
Agriculture Services – spot & future prices of the local markets for crops, online expert guidance for farming
Health Care Services – emergency response, tele medicine, details of nearby health care facilities like doctors, hospitals, laboratories and health camps
Educational Services – exam results, study materials, competitive exams, E-education
Other Services – bill payments, telecom services etc.

Even with the extremely competitive mobile phone rates in India, a phone call or SMS message is a significant outlay for SEWA members. These women are making the investment because they recognize that their livelihoods and the lives of their families will improve as a result of the information they obtain from their mobile phones.

Mobile database administration

Currently, SEWA is implementing a new mobile phone-based membership management system to track the development and growth of its members on a regular basis. All SEWA members transact with their organisation every day – by making deposits in their savings groups, partaking of insurance schemes or making use of livelihood options like crafts, gum collection, dairy or agriculture. These transactions are mostly conducted at the member's doorstep in a remote village or sometimes in the village cluster during a pre-designated time frame. Every member's basic details are also maintained by SEWA in manual records at the districts and on legacy systems in the main office.

But SEWA's management does not have a consolidated database of its members and their profiles. There is no register of the members' economic status, their different trades and the variety of services they use, like banking, health or insurance. Hence, there is a strong need for an integrated management information system to help capture the needs and consumption patterns of SEWA's members, analyse them and use them for cooperative projects with service providers, the government and the private sector. This could allow SEWA to provide better services and products to its members at an affordable price.

SEWA is therefore planning to set up a mobile-based "Information & Telecommunication Facility Centre". This should act as a hub for the organization and its members and allow dissemination of information in both directions. Apart from establishing a database, this centre will also satisfy the information needs of its members. It was found, for instance, that rural members need information closely related to their daily lives, consisting primarily of the market prices of their commodities and the availability of various government schemes or legal aids, for instance. The centre would reduce the time, effort and cost of acquiring information on members and would also help SEWA provide services to its members effectively and precisely.


"I used to wonder about this machine called a mobile phone. It does not have any wires connected to it, so how can people communicate with each other? Then, through SEWA's capacity building programs, I got to know that a mobile works through satellite connectivity. Once I began to use the mobile, I realized it had many advantages. Whenever there is a need I immediately call up the SEWA Graamhaat or wholesale market and inquire about the prices. This also helped me in getting direct orders from the wholesale market, leading to a considerable elimination of middlemen. Therefore now I am recognized as a businesswoman, growing and selling sesame seeds, and not just somebody's wife or sister. Ever since I have begun to use an electronic weighing machine, people rely more on me. They are sure that my weights and measures are accurate. After this, I also learnt how to use a computer. I am now using it for maintaining my micro-business transactions, which helps my work to a great extent. Earlier I was afraid of counting 100 rupees, but now I conduct my business in thousands of rupees."
(Jasuben Malek: An agriculture worker, Village Sedla, District Surendranagar, Gujarat)

Successful Fone Frend businesses

Lilaben Parmar lives in a small village of about 500 households with her handicapped daughter. She is a SEWA member and organises other women in her village. Lilaben is part of Fone Frend and provides telephony services in her village. Her handicapped daughter, who is usually at home, uses this to earn her livelihood. On an average people in Pritampura village make 40-50 calls from their Fone Frend per day and for special occasions and festivals the number increases up to 200.
(Lilaben Jenabhai Parmar, Village: Pritampura, District: Anand)

Asmitaben's economic situation was not so good, and she was planning to start some kind of micro-enterprise to help her generate livelihood for her family. She decided to participate in Fone Frend. She has started providing telephony services from her home. After some time, she also started selling provisions and grocery items in her phone shop. Now a customer who comes in to buy one of these products may also make a call via Fone Frend and people who come to make calls can also buy other products. This way Asmitaben was able to establish a microenterprise and is earning her livelihood from it. She has about 50-60 customers daily who come to make Fone Frend calls.
(Asmitaben Lalsinh Bhuriya, Village: Khodiyarnagar District: Anand)

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