What stops women accessing the mobile internet?

July 26, 2011 | Connected Women | Global | Global | Julia Burchell

In the first of our series of guest blog entries, Shikoh Gitau, Founder, Ummeli Trust (pictured below) explains some of the challenges women in low- to middle-income countries face when trying to access the mobile internet from feature phones.

You have heard it is said that over 1.5 billion people across the world are in abject poverty, are in extreme hunger or can barely make it from one day to another. On the other hand, hardly a day passes without hearing the gospel of the mobile. This rhetoric of mobile phone as the messiah is one that has brought the usually warring functions of academia and industry into a common ground. We have heard of the poor farmers of a lakeside village whose revenue increased because of calling beforehand for the prices, the woman who is able to receive medical care through a mobile assistant or the child who can now receive world class education through their PDA.

This rise and rise of the mobile phone, the convergence of media and the landing of inter-terrestrial internet cables in a number of African coastal towns, seem to have taken the mobile phone anthem into a crescendo. The potential of the internet being in millions of African hands makes every development and academic commentator want to pack their bags to come observe the phenomenon. Admittedly, it is rather exhilarating watching African teenagers acting as those elsewhere in the world, as they text, IM and Facebook anything in their vicinity and in their heads; who would not want to study this change as it happens?

But, while I see the massive benefits that can come from accessing the mobile internet to those on low incomes in developing countries, I will be the first to admit, that in reality, it is really hard to get online on your mobile phone. And by mobile phone, I do not mean your Android, Blackberry or iPhone; here I mean a simple feature phone from mobile phone makers that have customized them for Africa – or indeed, a Chinese imitation of the same. Regardless of their origin, many feature phones come with basic browser capabilities and 2.25 inch screens. In a study carried out in early 2009, we explored the challenges, practices, and understanding of mobile-only internet use in a resource-constrained setting. We trained eight women in an NGO’s collective in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa – none of whom had used a personal computer – how to access the internet on mobile handsets they already owned. Six months after training, most continued to use the mobile internet for a combination of utility, entertainment, and connection, but they had encountered barriers, including affordability and difficulty of use. In the research, we discovered seven things that inhibit the adoption of mobile phones amongst our users, who, as a group of semi-literate women and first time internet users, are considered to be prime potential beneficiaries of the mobile internet revolution. These challenges were:

GPRS Settings Unlike the assumption that internet capable phones allow for ‘plug and play’ scenario, this was not the case. There was need for complex multistep menus, or a visit to the phone shop or to a knowledgeable friend in order to get the phone online. The different mobile service providers each had their unique settings and instructions to get the handsets online. This meant knowing how to download the various settings and knowing which settings were needed for what kind of handset on which service provider. In a community that was highly cost sensitive, this also meant having the means to pay to download this information.

Security Settings Once online, the assumption of the users was that they would be able to navigate and browse to any site they wanted straight away. However, the service provider had set-up the internet gateway such that it would route all browsing through their landing page. The page contained End User Legal Agreements that users had to agree to before proceeding into the world of the internet. This gate keeping made many a user give up as the text did not make sense to them.

WAP/Menu/Hard Key Confusion We found that every phone has a different button and/or menu to get to the WAP/internet application. Even different handsets serviced by the same provider were not consistent. This made it difficult to access the internet on a new phone or to teach/be taught by a friend with a different handset.

Webmail chicken and egg Email identifiers unlock the internet, something experienced web users take for granted. For virtual all services eg Facebook, job services, one needed an email address, but the challenge at the time was none of the major webmail providers allowed for mobile based account creation. Therefore an email address had to be created on a PC on behalf of the users in order for them to be able to access the internet online.

Unfamiliarity with passwords Internet services work on the assumption that assume users know the difference between a PIN and a password, where this was not the case with our users: there was great confusion between the two. While a PIN needed four or five digits, a password required a combination of characters with a minimum of eight characters.

No mobile-friendly websites As much as we wanted people to go online and stay online, there was nothing to keep them there; at the time of the study we could not find any mobile-friendly user-facing website within the community.

Limited Functionality The obvious challenge that the mobile phones on which we were training the users had low memory and processing and were not to be comparable to a computer.

Having presented this work in numerous occasions, and being a firm believer of Moores Law, I thought time and human innovation will correct some of the more technical challenges, but fast forward into 2011 and I may be working in a different country (Kenya) with different users (young urban small-scale traders), but I am shocked to discover that the problems they encounter when trying to access the mobile internet are the same. The mobile phone anthem may be getting louder in developing countries, but unless MNOs, handset manufacturers and website designers acknowledge and address the challenges outlined above, the poorest people who stand most to benefit from the technology, won’t be able to join the song.

Share your thoughts on Shikoh’s article and how these challenges can be overcome below.

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