Kenya Gender Digital Divide
Photo Credit: Kendra Poole, DAI

Bridging Kenya’s Gender Digital Divide

By Kendra Poole, Communications Specialist, DAI’s Digital Frontiers

In partnership with USAID and the Microsoft Airband Initiative, grantee M-KOPA increases Kenyan women’s access to affordable smartphones, advancing women’s economic opportunities, and fostering more inclusive Internet connectivity.

How M-KOPA’s “Kuza Chama” Initiative Helps Bridge Kenya’s Gender Digital Divide

Monicah Mutio Mangi, an entrepreneur with a small convenience shop and a mother of one, is finally the proud owner of an M-KOPA smartphone. “I had a phone before, but it had some problems,” Monicah shared. “I was arranging my [finances] to buy another one. I had some money, but I had [to pay] emergency school fees. So, I had to use that money. But when I met the M-KOPA people, they told me how they work, and then I was able to pay [it off] easily. I used to pay it daily… Now I own it,” she said.

Monicah uses her smartphone to promote her shop, where she also operates a small eatery, cooking and selling popular potato dishes in the evenings. “It’s making my [business] run smoothly. Even if you can’t afford it monthly, you can pay it weekly or daily, even,” she said. This flexibility is what initially attracted Monicah to M-KOPA’s pay-as-you-go (PAYG) smartphone, a technology and financing model making waves across East and West Africa. By making an initial deposit followed by regular digital repayments, customers can begin using an M-KOPA smartphone immediately for communication and Internet access, paying it off gradually and in small installments.

M-KOPA, a fintech platform that offers millions of underbanked customers access to life-enhancing products and services, witnessed a successful launch and rapid market expansion of their PAYG smartphone in 2019. “After launching our PAYG smartphone, we realized—when looking at who our smartphone customers were—that we had a large gender gap,” said Rebecca Glas, Head of Impact at M-KOPA. “At the time, about 70 percent of our smartphone customers [in Kenya] were men, and only 30 percent were women… So, we wanted to really look at that and figure out how we could be intentional about research and strategies to bridge that gap.” Despite increased smartphone penetration across the country, Kenyan women are still 27 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone.

To address this gender gap in their customer base, M-KOPA partnered with the USAID/Microsoft Airband Initiative, a public-private partnership that addresses the gender digital divide by bringing meaningful connectivity and Internet access to more women in remote areas of the world. “Through our existing partnership with Microsoft Airband, who helped us develop and pilot our first PAYG smartphone, we were able to continue that partnership in a very focused and meaningful way, using the USAID/Microsoft Airband grant to identify pathways to deliver greater impact for women through smartphone and digital access,” said Glas.

One of the pathways M-KOPA found was to reach women through existing community savings groups called chamas. “When we say ‘chama,’ a chama is a group of people who come together with a common agenda,” explained John Kiok, the Sales Project Lead for M-KOPA’s “Kuza Chama Initiative.” “Kuza means ‘to empower, to grow,” said Kiok, highlighting M-KOPA’s interest in women’s empowerment.

“[We] recognized that particularly in Kenya, chamas are such ubiquitous and strong organizational networks for women,” added Glas. “We saw this as an opportunity to meet women where they are and develop specific, direct sales channels for them. We also realized that, when it comes to women’s digital access, chama women tend to have higher access barriers because they tend to be more rural, tend to be older, and tend to have less access to education (though, of course, it varies from chama to chama).” Chamas were ideal avenues for M-KOPA to not only expand and diversify their customer base but also to bring affordable connectivity and advance digital inclusion efforts across Kenya.

Using the power of their extensive sales network, M-KOPA identified chamas across Kenya whose members were predominantly female, and M-KOPA sales agents began attending chama meetings to provide digital skills training and chama-specific product offerings. After successfully piloting ten chamas, M-KOPA expanded the Kuza Chama Initiative rapidly, building relationships with over 600 chamas across the country.

Monicah is a part of the Uma Tui Kyandili Women’s Group, a chama in Machakos County in eastern Kenya. Magdalene Mueni Kiilu, who founded the chama in 2017, always intended the group to be composed entirely of women and empowering for its members. “[We] started the chama to create a community of women who could help and support one another,” said chama Secretary Mary Makau. “If someone is going through hard times, we help them. If they are sick, if they are elderly, if they fall on hard times, we help them through.”

Monicah joined the Uma Tui Kyandili chama two years ago. “When you are among all women, you feel good,” she said. “They give you advice, and they give you ideas for jobs… They become friends.” Monicah was particularly grateful that the chama introduced her to M-KOPA, giving her the opportunity to purchase a smartphone.

Enthusiastic about how the smartphone has transformed her personal and professional prospects, Monicah recently put down the deposit and began paying for a second M-KOPA smartphone—this time for her younger brother—and is even considering applying to join M-KOPA’s sales team. Many women in the Uma Tui Kyandili chama have either purchased an M-KOPA smartphone, are actively saving to make the purchase, or have gone on to purchase additional phones for children, parents, and friends.

“With chamas, it’s a network effect… Once a woman does tap into it and does access her first smartphone, and can do that through affordable credit provided by M-KOPA, the word spreads,” commented Glas. “I imagine what was exciting for Monicah was that she had a point of contact, an access point, a very clear access point that she felt comfortable engaging with.”

The partnership with the USAID/Microsoft Airband Initiative, and the implementation of the Kuza Chama Initiative specifically, have been transformational for M-KOPA. “I think the reason [the USAID/Microsoft Airband grant] has been so impactful for us as a company… is that it really enabled us, as a social impact-focused company, to dig into some of the gaps we’re seeing in our impact and to challenge ourselves to improve and reach more women,” said Glas. “It allows us to develop and test these intentional pathways for impact in a way we wouldn’t be able to do as easily without the Airband support.” Through direct-to-women sales channels, such as Kuza Chama and other initiatives, M-KOPA is committed to financial and digital inclusion for women and to closing the gender gap in their customer base.

The USAID/Microsoft Airband Initiative is implemented by DAI’s Digital Frontiers project, a buy-in mechanism that works closely with USAID Missions and Bureaus, the private sector, and international and local development organizations to identify successful and sustainable digital development approaches and scale their impact globally.

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