What’s your favourite mobile app? A time-saving travel planner, a banking app or social networking site? There are so many apps that make life a little easier. And then there are apps that make life better.
Over 1,800 women in Gujarat, India, are using an app that is transforming their businesses – and their lives. Women like Sajjanben. By the age of 22, Sajjanben had lost her husband and had two young children to care for. After attending trainings with the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), she was inducted into their Rural Distribution (RUDI) network, a women-led cooperative which buys produce from local farmers, processes it and sells it on.
The RUDI model was simple. But its operations were not. Placing and receiving stock orders could take up to 15-20 days. Saleswomen like Sajjanben – known as ‘Rudibens’ – would spend long hours travelling to and from depots to place orders, only to repeat the journey to collect them on another day. In addition, there was no real inventory management system, which meant the Rudibens would often arrive to find that the goods they needed were unavailable.
With funding from the Vodafone Foundation in India, we worked with SEWA to overcome these challenges. We started by conducting research to understand the needs of both the Rudibens and RUDI management teams. It quickly became clear that a mobile solution could improve efficiency. While the majority of women had little or no access to computers, many owned mobile phones.
This is how we came up with ‘RUDI Sandesh Vyavhar’ (RSV), a bespoke application designed to improve RUDI’s management of sales and inventory. By pressing a few buttons and sending information via SMS, Rudibens can use the RSV app to place orders quickly and easily. These orders are then dispatched, arriving within 2-3 days. The app also generates real-time reports on the number of orders taken, sales made and outstanding payments – figures that the women would previously have recorded on paper or by memory.
The app also allowed the RUDI management team to track performance by product, geography and even by individual saleswomen. For example, it enables the team to monitor which products are in high demand and ensure that stock levels are replenished to meet demand. Last year we developed an enhanced version of the app to include a more streamlined ordering process and order confirmation messages, as well as an improved reporting system for RUDI’s management team.
We also worked with SEWA to deliver technical training to enable the women to get to grips with the new system, as well as capacity building training on key business skills, such as marketing, financial management and customer care.
The RUDI network – and the Rudibens – have achieved impressive results over the course of this project, which recently came to a close. The network is operating in more districts of Gujarat than ever before, reaching over 3,000 villages and sourcing produce from over 4,000 farmers. It has also extended operations into the neighbouring state of Rajasthan.
And Sajjanben? Since using the new system, her monthly sales have increased from Rs.6-7,000 (approximately $90-105) to Rs.35,000 (approximately $530). She has bought her own house and delivered marketing training to 40 other Rudibens. But the most powerful impact on her life goes beyond figures, as she explains, “Previously, I did not receive any respect in my village, but now people take my advice”.
The success of this project reaffirms my belief in the power of mobile technology to transform lives. It shows that even the most basic mobile tools can open up extraordinary opportunities for women. As Sajjanben herself says, “I never thought that you could buy and sell from a small mobile phone – this is all very simple.”
Her experience shows why we urgently need to close the gender gap in mobile phone ownership across the world. Earlier this year a World Bank report found that technological advancements have driven economic growth, productivity and efficiency across the world – but that these ‘digital dividends’ are not being fully realised because vast swathes of the global population – predominantly women – remain offline and unconnected. Worldwide, for example, women are 14% less likely to own a mobile phone than men. And in some villages in India, women are even being banned from owning or using mobile phones.
As technology continues to shape our societies and economies, we must ensure that women are not left behind. After all, connected women are empowered women.
Read more about our project with SEWA here.