Technology has changed the way the world works and lives. But many of the world’s poor, particularly women, have limited access to technologies that can help them enhance their economic opportunities. Since 2009, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) has been working in collaboration with ExxonMobil and other partners to help identify ways to bridge the gender divide in technology. Kirrin Gill, ICRW’s director of learning and impact, leads a study aimed at identifying best practices in designing and deploying technologies that can help women advance economically. Below, she discusses some early impressions from the research. Gill responded to questions via email.
ICRW: Why is it important to link technology to women in the developing world?
Kirrin Gill: Technology has great potential for advancing women economically, which benefits not just women, but businesses and economies as well. In many countries, however, technological innovations have not always been successful for women because of a failure to respond to their unique needs and interests. And efforts to increase women’s access to technology such as solar lanterns, cookstoves and irrigation pumps, tend to be small in scale and lack the necessary market linkages to make these efforts sustainable. Our research focuses on how to change this.
ICRW: You and a team of ICRW researchers investigated a variety of alternative energy and agriculture technologies that are helping women earn money and improve their productivity. What is one approach that the team found impressive and why?
KG: In Tanzania, we visited Kickstart, an organization that sells the Super MoneyMaker Pressure Pump, a simple technology designed to help farmers irrigate their crops. The irrigation pumps are inexpensive so most people can afford them without financing. They also have few parts, which are easy to replace and purchase, and they are very simple to operate. Kickstart estimates that about 70 percent of their users are women. They also designed the MoneyMaker Hip Pump, a lighter version that’s easier to carry and use in response to the needs of women and older people.
ICRW: What potential does such a technology have to advance women economically?
KG: A technology like this can have enormous impact on women, who make up a majority of the small farmers in Africa. In fact, Kickstart has found these pumps can increase average net incomes by almost tenfold. The women we met in Tanzania proudly took us around their lush, green fields of crops and talked about significant increases in farm income. Women also gain from opportunities to become the pumps’ dealers or distributors or Kickstart staff.
ICRW: What are you learning from your analysis about what prevents these technologies from reaching poor women?
KG: One of the major challenges in reaching poor women, particularly in rural areas, is to create demand for the technology they are selling and establish financing mechanisms which allow women, who are not always in control of finances, to be able to access the products. Also, it can be difficult to communicate with women in remote areas about a specific technology and how they could benefit from using it.
In the case of Kickstart, it markets its pumps through 10 regional sales managers and 50 sales representatives, who help raise awareness of the pumps and ultimately sell them to farmers. To improve the marketing skills of these teams, Kickstart provides training, incentive programs and ongoing support. The best sales representatives win prizes, such as a motorcycle. Dealers get money for collecting information about users on a form provided by Kickstart, which allows Kickstart to learn more about who is buying their pumps, so they can more effectively reach them and meet their needs. In Kenya, for example, Kickstart has a cadre of female sales agents to help reach women users, but it can be difficult to retain them in these positions because of their family and domestic obligations.
Our research, scheduled to publish in late 2011, looks at several examples of efforts to bring technology to poor women and will identify innovative practices, lessons learned and recommendations.