In a continent such as Africa, villagers can be very isolated. Mobile phones shorten distances; they connect everyone to every place on earth. At the Women’s Forum last week in Deauville, France, Cherie Blair, British barrister and founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, made it clear that, for her, helping Africa develop its economy has to be based on new communication technologies. She and Sanjit Bunker Roy, educator, social activist and founder of the Barefoot College in India, are both convinced that women are at the center of all this.
From the 10th to the 12th of October some 1,200 people gathered in Deauville to get an overview of the models for economic growth in the world, from women’s perspective. In a session called ‘Creating growth from the bottom up’ Cherie Blair and Sanjit Bunker Roy developed a discussion on entrepreneur women in developing countries.
Cherie Blair is very involved in the empowerment of women. Her Cherie Blair Foundation for Women helps women entrepreneurs to overcome barriers and develop a business to sustain their families. “With the right support, women can overcome the challenges they face and play an important part in the economies and societies in which they work and live,” says the Foundation’s website.
Sanjit Bunker Roy is a social entrepreneur in India. His unusual project aims to develop a new kind of profile among African women. They select illiterate grandmothers from villages all around Africa. The women are offered the opportunity to travel to India for 6 months to train as solar engineers. “They had never travelled away from their villages. When they come back they are no longer grandmothers, they are tigers,” explains Bunker Roy with joy. “And in Africa grandmothers can be as young as 35, it’s not like they were very old.”
Both Cherie Blair and Sanjit Bunker Roy agree that communication technologies are at the center of the economic development of Africa. “Banks are not reaching villages,” says Cheri Blair. “But mobiles do. There are 7 billion people on earth and 5 billion mobile owners. Mobiles give access to banks, finance and capital.” Managing finances and savings is a parameter for growth.
Africa does not function in the same way as other continents. According to Bunker Roy, developing industrial firms and energy plants should not be the first step toward developing the African economy. He explains that “a decentralized system is the solution for Africa. There should be a solar panel on every roof. Everyone is part of this.”
The Cherie Blair Foundation, in partnership with the GSMA and Vital Wave Consulting, has published a study on “the mobile phone gender gap in low and middle-income countries.” They showed that women who owned a mobile felt safer; they felt they were more connected and independent.
As Cherie Blair explains, “there are women that have ideas, they start a business but they face major barriers in the development of their project.” Mentorship is one way to help them connect with someone with a lot of experience. “This helps them get to the next step.” Mobiles are essential in the way that they can connect people in a one-to-one relationship across the world. Information is what women lack in a lot of countries. In radical countries, where women are oppressed, the first things to be eliminated are the schools for women. When women are educated they realize their rights and want to obtain them. Isolated people need information to improve their everyday life. To develop a project, it is quite similar. In 2007 a study by Deloitte stated that a 10% increase in mobile phone penetration rate was linked to an increase of 1,2% GDP of low and middle-income countries.
Cherie Blair’s Foundation is already trying to tackle this issue. A few months ago, in Nigeria, they launched a mobile phone application called Business Women. It provides tips and information 4 or 5 times a week, on how to develop a business, how to communicate etc. “We hope to reach some 100,000 women by the end of 2013,” she says.
What shows through between the lines of both Cherie Blair and Sanjit Bunker Roy is that, while empowering women, these initiatives are indeed creating female role models. These women gain a new understanding of themselves. They learn new skills and they are very willing to share them with others. As a consequence, the women around them observe the kind of strong people they have become. Their families, children and husband see these women as models. This is all about changing minds and giving women the place and the recognition they deserve.
Find out more:
TEDx of Bunker Roy: http://www.ted.com/talks/bunker_roy.html
Exhibition "Elles changent l'Inde" at the Petit Palais in Paris, France http://www.petitpalais.paris.fr/fr/expositions/elles-changent-linde
ZMQ "Technology for Development" social enterprise pioneering in using mobile phones to reach out to grass-root communities http://www.nightscience.org/#!workshop-2012/vstc7=quraishi-hilmi/vstc3=guests