Using smartphones to disrupt gender inequality in Uganda

The founders of smartphone loan and training company Kiteka believe that women can be fasttracked into entrepreneurship simply by giving them phones. The project, which launched at the end of last year in Uganda – where 64% of women don’t own a mobile – to provide phones and training to women running small businesses in Kampala.

Co-founder Hephzi Pemberton, 32, who grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, explains how it works: “We bring together groups of 8-10 women every month and we give them each a smartphone on an interest-free loan. They are trained up on how to use it, how to get on to social media, create an email address, and download a few apps that will be useful.”

There are then further monthly group meet ups in which they repay the loans and receive additional business and technology training. The participants are also encouraged to mentor each other, and have their own WhatsApp channel to share their challenges or breakthroughs. Kiteka recruits the women, who might be shopkeepers, salon owners or restaurateurs, with the help of local partners who refer phoneless Kampala traders to them.

Pemberton explains that Ugandan women are 24% less likely to own a phone than men, and if there is smartphone in a household, the woman is unlikely to have access to it. Herself an entrepreneur with a background in investment banking, financial recruitment and microfinance, she says smartphones are essential for helping entrepreneurs at the bottom of the pyramid progress “I basically run my business from my smartphone, and I thought ‘It’s crazy that these people aren’t connected’.

Entrepreneur Judith is now making the most of her WhatsApp group

“We need more women trained up and connected and using all the apps they can to improve their businesses. We want to make sure there is equality of participation, that women in the poorest parts of the world are active participants in the digital world and are reaping the benefits, and are knowledgable about the opportunities that are out there.”

But what kind of benefits can a smartphone bring to a female entrepreneur? Hephzi points to a recent impact survey they conducted with The University of Edinburgh which shows that 80% of Kiteka women had seen an increase profitability, with over 90% reporting that their confidence had increased significantly, and 100% saying they feel safer. “There’s a huge amount of potential with mobile technology because you’ve opened up a whole new opportunity set. It brings access to education, financial services, employment opportunities, and the digital world.”

Anita, who recieved her phone through Kiteka agrees. “Kiteka is helping me and my business in so many ways, but the best is being connected to the world.”

Kiteka's WhatsApp group, IRL

A big recent development is a partnership with Jumia, who Hephzi referred to as “the Amazon of Uganda”, which has agreed to provide smartphones at wholesale rates, meaning the women’s repayments are much lower.

Pemberton and Congolese co-founder Bethy Isingoma have also set up a system to train former Kiteka women to become trainers themselves. “The benefit is enormous as it’s the value of role modelling. It shows them what’s possible, and that someone who’s like them has been on that journey and is now here teaching; it’s really essential and inspirational,” says Hephzi.

There are now 72 women in Kiteka’s Kampala network, but the project’s ambition goes beyond the borders of Uganda. They want to work with 1000 women in the next five years, and are eyeing up Rwandan capital Kigal and Nairobi in Kenya for future expansion.

Read more on the gender tech gap here.

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