The Utility Gap

By now, the statistics are familiar to anyone who’s interested in gender issues. GSMA estimates that 1.7 billion women in developing countries don’t own a mobile phone. Women are 14% less likely than men to own a phone, unless they live in South Asia, where they are 38% less likely. Putting phones in the hands of 200 million women (bringing them to par with men) would yield $170 billion in revenues to various industries by 2020.  The potential benefits of owning a phone are also well-known: information, livelihoods, financial independence, social empowerment, a sense of security. It’s not good for families (or for national economies) to deny women these benefits. Often, however, discussions of gender disparity focus on the access gap. Women don’t have access because they can’t afford a device, service is unavailable, or phone ownership is discouraged for cultural reasons. Thanks to concerted efforts by governments, operators, and the development community, the access gap is closing in many areas, but it is giving way to something a little trickier: the utility gap.

The utility gap is less about access and more about the perceived and actual value of owning a phone. It’s the root of the problem expressed in many studies on digital health, finance, and social services – i.e., even the people who have phones and Internet connectivity aren’t using the tools available to them.   A lot of people (not just women) seem content to use phones only for communication, with entertainment, social media, and mobile money making inroads in some locations. The utility gap is that yawning space between how the phone is currently being used and the potential value of the phone if a person is aware of and able to pursue the full range of mobile services.

Development organizations can increase the impact of their programs by narrowing the utility gap. Here are six concrete ways to drive the expansion of a phone’s utility beyond simple communication:

  1. Focus activities on areas of most importance to women – health, finance, agriculture, education – rather than just increasing access.
  2. Identify the value specific groups of women place on various functions of phones and the Internet through research.
  3. Support awareness campaigns that match women’s priorities with relevant mobile functions and services.
  4. Design content, apps, services, and solutions with the right language and literacy level.
  5. Provide training and support – particularly by women.
  6. Measure the perceived and actual utility of programs, and share results with other organizations.

“If you build it, they will come,” is a magical concept for a movie. But a mobile-enabled insurance program is about as useful as a baseball diamond to a person who’s never seen either one.

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