As a leading force in poverty alleviation, Village Enterprise continuously monitors global poverty predictions, and one trend we see increasingly in recent years is the digital divide. The digital divide is the concept that as technology becomes increasingly present, populations living in poverty who cannot afford nor understand technology become further disadvantaged. The digital divide in sub-saharan Africa contributes to the increase in poverty among rural populations as technology is quickly becoming a vital resource in developing the region.
According to a Global Systems for Mobile Communications report, the mobile ecosystem in sub-saharan Africa supported 3.8 million jobs directly and indirectly in 2018.
Further, increased digital technology adaptation is associated with a larger share of women working in the services sector, nearly two and a half times larger for women than men. Yet, less than 33% of the population has digital connectivity, with a significant gender gap as only 23% of women have digital connectivity. The most significant barriers to technological adaptation in sub-Saharan Africa are affordability, literacy, and digital skills.
One of Village Enterprise’s strategic priorities for the next three years is to develop innovative digital solutions that revolutionize small business development in Africa. Zita Akwero, the Village Enterprise Regional Manager for the northern and midwest Uganda regions, works to decrease this gap through the use of digital technology such as TaroWorks.
TaroWorks is a mobile data collection app that enables users to collect data in low or no network coverage areas. Later—once the user is in an area with better coverage—the data can be sent to a designated online server synced. The Village Enterprise monitoring and evaluation system uses TaroWorks in this way to collect and track data about the delivery of our program’s five components: targeting, business, and financial literacy training, seed capital disbursements, mentoring, and formation of savings groups. Zita, along with other Village Enterprise managers, uses the data to evaluate program implementation and staff performance. The use of TaroWorks increases staff technological competency, making them more competitive in the job market, and exposes poorer rural communities to the power of technology.
With over 80% female entrepreneurs in the Village Enterprise program, Zita understands the significant role technological innovation can play in pursuing gender equality and believes that the TaroWorks platform is the key to jumpstarting this pursuit. She describes its role in her own words below.
Sometimes I sit and imagine what our office would be like if we did not have TaroWorks –it would be filled with paperwork. Every staff member uses the platform, whether it be registering entrepreneurs, completing business grants, or monitoring training session attendance. TaroWorks is the critical engine in our adaptive management system. It enables our business mentors to track our entrepreneur’s small businesses’ health on the dashboards and prioritize mentoring entrepreneurs who are struggling. The system allows for the collection of data in real-time and increased transparency in information sharing. It has improved the efficiency of our program as well as overall confidence in decision-making.
Technology is power in this present era. Most individuals living in rural areas of East Africa—especially women—have limited exposure to technology, which intensifies the correlation between lack of technological access and poverty. Village Enterprise’s program addresses this problem with our business mentors’ ability to demonstrate business health data on tablets to entrepreneurs in the field, thus introducing women to technology they otherwise would not have access to. We observed an increase in mobile phone ownership among entrepreneurs after being exposed to technology through the Village Enterprise program, demonstrating increased comfort with and confidence in digital literacy and skills.
The use of technology in the field also benefits our staff, both in terms of their own skill growth and in their ability to perform their jobs at increasingly high levels of effectiveness. It is nearly impossible to find a quality job in Uganda or Kenya unless you are technologically competent. The use of TaroWorks acts as a form of professional development that will make our field staff more competitive within the Kenyan and Ugandan job markets. And through technology, our staff is empowered to give informed advice and support to our entrepreneurs.
In turn, the technology we deploy, along with our staff’s technological skills, leads to improved business success and technological awareness for our entrepreneurs, most of whom are women.
One of the ways that Village Enterprise’s use of technology supports our entrepreneurs—mainly women—is in helping with schedule tracking. In Africa, women are responsible for the majority of household duties. Many of our female entrepreneurs report feeling overwhelmed with household duties, taking care of their children, and pursuing business ventures; understandably, they often have a difficult time tracking their business goals in addition to caring for their families. Our mentors can use TaroWorks to illustrate a business group’s performance relative to their targets. By showing them their progress, we also remind them of their participation responsibilities. Entrepreneurs are not allowed to miss more than two training sessions before they are expelled from the program. Business mentors use TaroWorks to monitor training attendance and inform entrepreneurs if they missed a training session. These reminders allowed us to re-engage over 1,100 Ugandan female entrepreneurs in 2019-2020 who might not have otherwise realized they missed a training session.
Economic equality is a lofty dream and will remain a dream as long as we fail to look upon ourselves as members of a global nation. Technology presents us with opportunities to work as one, connecting all people—regardless of gender—with collective growth opportunities. TaroWorks is just the start, but we must continue innovating until every individual has an equal shot at sustained success.