Why Kenya needs a gender inclusive digital transformation

Kenya National Library Service Kakamega branch Senior Library Assistant Collins Sitima (right) train Kakamega prisoners and waders on how to operate World reader digital book devices which comply with Kenya education curriculum during the official launch of digital reading. [Benjamin Sakwa,Standard]

The informal sector also referred to as Small and Micro Enterprises (SMEs) or the “Jua Kali” sector that includes basic value addition, cottage industries, retail trade and vendors, food kiosks, second hand clothes, shoes, building materials, personal care products and much more, is the largest employer in Kenya. This sector accounted for 83 per cent of employment in 2020 according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS).

Both men and women have heavily invested their time and savings to earn a living from these enterprises. In addition, online shops encouraged by the abundance of digital platforms are now accessible on the most basic of smart phones and have resulted in explosion of merchandise and delivery and retail trade businesses.

In every transaction, the exchange of goods and services is followed by the exchange of currency. Since the advent of Covid-19, cashless transactions have grown in popularity as a means to limit personal contact.

The major beneficiary of this situation is digital money transfer. Needless to say, a phone is necessary hardware to send and receive cash digitally.

A keen look at the digital landscape reveals that access is still limited or unavailable to a large population. The trend mostly does not favour women. The reasons include lack of cash to purchase ‘airtime’, digital literacy, access to appropriate phones and sometimes the need to seek authority from a male relation to use the gadget.

A study dubbed “Kenya’s Digital Economy: A People’s Perspective”, shows that 22 percent of Kenyans use mobile money services solely for sending and receiving money or purchasing airtime or data while 3 percent are non-users of digital services.

The study finds that women — regardless of the depth of digital usage whether super users, basic or non-users — typically face stiffer challenges in using digital services largely due to acute difficulties in gaining access to the internet or affording digital services.

Overall, according to this study, 35 percent of women are advanced digital services users compared to a higher 54 percent of men. 50 percent of women use mobile internet in Kenya as compared to 71 percent of men. This gender divide is well known but the study highlights a particularly wide gender gap between specific female segments and their male counterparts including female rural youth, adult female farmers or homemakers and self-employed women.

Additionally, 37 percent of women are more likely to frequently run out of mobile phone airtime and internet data, than are men at 31 percent. Due to limited exposure, use and ownership 43 percent of women say they need help in using digital services compared to 31 percent of men.

Despite the litany of challenges faced by women, they are determined to be active participants in the digital economy and are just as likely to believe that digital devices and services are making their lives better as is the average Kenyan. One of the respondents, Rose, 52, affirmed these sentiments “Nobody wants to be left behind with these kabambes [feature phones] or small phones. Everyone wants to know more and to be part of the digital world.”

Although the challenges faced by excluded women are neither simple nor homogeneous, this study does shed light on some advanced digital services that are reaching some portions of “typically left-behind” women and helping to improve lives. There are scores of applications that have made doing business faster and more convenient including mobile banking, online shopping, transport and spatial navigation.

However, a lot more needs to be done to ensure that participation in the digital economy is far more inclusive and enables women from all cadres to fully benefit from all the opportunities it has to offer.

 Female rural youth make up 11 per cent of the population and face acute affordability challenges and strong cultural barriers. Female rural youth at 44 percent have only limited access to financing schemes such as M-KOPA for purchasing devices and more frequently run out of airtime and data (44%) than does the overall population (34% and 34%, respectively).

 In addition, this segment also faces greater cultural barriers. 40% of female rural youth must seek permission to travel to places to use digital devices and services compared to 30% among their male counterparts.  Adult female farmers who also double up as homemakers are another hard-to-reach group for which current efforts may represent a path toward greater and deeper inclusion in digital services.

Fifty-two per cent of adult in this group have no access to the internet. Over half (54 per cent) say they need help in using digital services, compared to 3 percent of all Kenyans. However, some digital agricultural programs are having an impact with female farmers and demonstrating new models of how to serve and reach women.

DigiFarm, a program led by Telco giant Safaricom, is a multi-provider platform offering farmers digitally-enabled extension services, input purchases and market linkages designed to reach more female farmers.

According to a recent study by Mercy Corps Agrifin Program, over 70 per cent of female farmers on the platform experienced up to 70 percent increase in their income, yields and farm productivity was up by 73 per cent, which is expected to further increase through a compounding effect.

Although much remains to be done to fully address exclusion among female farmers, programs such as DigiFarm are pushing in the right direction.

Self-employed women are also a segment primed for greater adoption of advanced digital services. A low 36 percent of self-employed women use digital services to support their livelihoods (compared to 54 percent men).

Over half of the women (56 percent) say they need help in using advanced digital services but are unable to find it (compared to 44% among men).  

Despite the challenges this segment faces, female entrepreneurs aspire as much as their male counterparts to fully utilise digital tools for business and to learn more about how e-commerce and digital marketing can assist them to expand their businesses.

As innovative services continue to encourage more inclusion, more research and focused efforts are required to bridge the gap for other segments, such as people living with disabilities, that are not yet being reached by innovations supporting use of advanced digital services and include all Kenyans in the digital transformation journey.

No doubt an exciting roadmap ahead.

The Writer is the Regional Director and Partner, Dalberg Advisors