Admire Bio has the reassured presence of a successful businesswoman, with an edge that reveals she is still hungry for more. Bio, 28, a single mother living with her parents, set up her first internet cafe in the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, only a year ago. She has expanded with two more branches, and plans to go national if she can secure a bank loan.
“My biggest motivation is challenging men,” she says, “to [get women to] say: ‘Yes! I can be successful without you’.”
But things aren’t easy. “Men make you dependent,” says Bio. “Women only get loans with collateral from male relatives. My fiance offered his land. Worse, it’s common to be pressured into sex by bank staff, if there isn’t a man’s backing, when women apply for loans. I’m angry women can’t succeed alone.”
The swell of internet users in her cafe tells Bio she is on a winning road. Access to the internet and computer literacy is an area of much needed growth and investment. Only around 0.3% of the population are described as internet users (pdf), while fibre-optic broadband will not arrive until next year. Bio offers women evening computer courses “to make them stronger”.
Meanwhile, mobile phones are ubiquitous, in urban areas at least, witharound 26% of people owning one (pdf). In the absence of widespread internet access, mobiles have been seen as something of a panacea for development in Africa.
Kenya’s M-Pesa money-transfer is hailed by technology gurus and development experts alike as an example of how poverty can be bypassed and development hastened. However, “banking the unbanked” has been questioned by some, as mobile money often caters for already affluent groups.
M-Pesa’s success inspired Sheka Forna back to his homeland, Sierra Leone, to start Splash. Since it launched in 2009, Splash has convinced around 100,000 people to forsake real money for the virtual kind, effectively using their sim cards as bank accounts.
Airtel’s Zap cash transfer service has changed the way Sierra Leone’s city dwellers buy a coffee or receive their salaries. But Splash’s growth has been slower than the company’s projections, says Forna. “We’re a new brand, and phone coverage is low and expensive. Getting nationwide agents to deal in Splash cash has been hard, with poor literacy and a limited mobile-savvy market.”
Facilitating microcredit repayments through mobiles was the initial spur for M-Pesa. In Sierra Leone though, the technological leap with microcredit has so far been more of a stumble.
Hope Micro was among the largest microfinance institutions in the country. But it suffered a 20% portfolio loss (around $300,000) when half its customers defaulted in 2009. “With no credit-rating agency, customers held the equivalent of multiple credit cards. It’s a blow for women – they’re 85% of our clients,” says SD Kanu, the institution’s director.
Hope Micro embarked on a six-month pilot with Splash to reduce interest rates (currently 36%) and add a competitive edge. “It wasn’t successful,” says Kanu. “Few of our customers are mobile-literate. Splash agents are small shopkeepers and their revenue wasn’t enough to be committed.”
To build mobile literacy, Splash and Hope Micro have started a new pilot: dispersing loans “to get customers used to the idea that their money is actually there”, explains Kanu. In just one month, the pilot has already dispersed $30,000.
The Sierra Leone technology market is still in its infancy, says Trina DasGupta, director of the mWomen programme, which aims to boost female phone ownership with a view to improving access to services and increasing economic empowerment.
Part of the problem is a gender gap in phone ownership; in Sierra Leone, women are 43% less likely than men to own a mobile. “This means poor women are kept in the financial and information dark ages – relying on men who are the primary phone owners,” she says.
This year, the US state department sent a fact-finding mission of women technology experts and entrepreneurs to see how technology can reduce poverty and close the gender gap.
“There wasn’t a businesswomen’s group to introduce the delegation to,” says Naasu Fofanah of Unipsil, the UN’s peacebuilding office. “This was a startling gap. We know effective development comes when women are targeted. The same has to be true when improving women’s ability to do business, for example, with women’s unfettered access to finance and improving their technological knowhow.”
“There’s a need to nurture a culture of real entrepreneurship to allow women to grow. As a first step, we need to put businesswomen on the map,” she says.
Unipsil and local NGO Afford-SL are working with women across the country to establish a national business network. “Once we have this kind of structure we can begin to bridge the gap between urban and rural businesses, for example, through technology, networking and training,” says Manja Kargbo of Afford-SL.
“Yes, I’ll join a women’s network,” says Admire Bio. “I always tell women they can be like me – stronger by saving, investing and doing business with technology.”