Boss Lady

Three startups that empower women in the developing world through mobile solutions


Half the world’s population is disproportionately at risk across the developing world. In poor communities, many women still struggle every day just to access clean water, sufficient nutrition, adequate healthcare and financial security, among other basic resources. In fact, of the 1.3 billion people worldwide in extreme poverty, 70 percent are women and girls.

In the face of these ongoing challenges, innovative startups are working to empower women in the developing world in a variety of areas. Many are using simple technology platforms that can reach the hands of these women to improve their daily lives – leveraging mobile phones to build easy-to-use, scalable technologies. According to the Pew Research Center, 88 percent of the global population owns a cell phone today. The ubiquity and relative low cost of mobile devices makes them highly valuable tools to serve as the basis for connected solutions, even in hard-to-reach areas of the developing world.

Even the best solution needs help getting off the ground. This is where the Vodafone Americas Foundation has the opportunity to step in. We are proud to witness and support the development of some of these novel and exciting solutions through our Wireless Innovation Project® (WIP) competition. WIP is an annual competition that identifies and funds promising early-stage technology projects driving positive social change around the world. The project, now in its 10th year, has supported the development of many life-changing technologies. A recent study showed that the solutions WIP winners have created have touched more than 40 million lives across 40 countries.

Several of our winners have focused their entire businesses on helping women in the developing world. From creating opportunities for financial independence, to helping women grow their businesses, to allowing them to begin to take control of their health, these startups are empowering women through technology in truly groundbreaking ways.

Connecting female artisans to the global marketplace

The artisan craft sector is the industry with the second largest employment figures in the developing world. However, despite it being such a highly populated field, most artisans are living in poverty. Soko, a high-impact mobile marketplace, is working to change that. Soko connects artisans in developing countries to customers all over the world, through innovative supply chain technology and modern designs, which empower artisans to produce goods that would otherwise go unseen by the global consumer.

What’s especially interesting about Soko is that the platform is steps ahead of usual artisan enterprises, as it includes backend platforms to assist the vital needs of the artisan as an entrepreneur. Soko leverages the easy access of mobile, providing services to artisans through just a mobile phone, even if they do not have a computer or bank account. With Soko, artisans can easily plug into the existing supply chain network, produce Soko-designed goods and grow their business and wages by five times. These essential actions may have been unobtainable before. Whereas previously, artisans were dependent on their own bookkeeping skills, Soko allows them to focus on building their business.

The service gives artisans a more advanced, reliable way to grow their businesses, essentially helping to lift them out of poverty. Limited financial literacy and lack of access to banking may have been major factors before, but Soko is helping to bridge that gap. Since winning the Wireless Innovation Project in 2014, Soko has expanded its technical capabilities and focused on creating jewelry collections that aim to employ women exclusively. And, by creating a highly efficient model, Soko enables artisans to retain 25 to 35 percent of their profits – an unprecedented rate.

Enabling financial independence for women in the developing world

More one billion women in the developing world have no access to formal financial services. Millions of these women are taking control of their own destiny by starting Village Savings and Loan (VSL) groups, which act as informal community banks. Each week, members make small contributions to a central investment fund. When a member needs money to expand her small business, send her kids to school or buy medicine, she requests a short-term loan from her group. Unlike traditional microfinance loans, all interest payments are invested directly back into the group. So, when one member’s business grows, everyone benefits.

While these savings groups are changing the game, managing them isn’t always easy. Each month, groups have to calculate hundreds of financial transactions by hand in paper ledger books, while savings are stored in simple lockboxes in the home of a trusted member. That’s where DreamSave comes in. It’s a powerful new mobile app that makes it easy to manage savings groups without all the complexity and risk. Members decide how they want to run their group, and DreamSave does the rest – managing records, calculating interest and making it fun and easy to achieve financial goals.

DreamSave is the first product from DreamStart Labs, a new social impact tech startup that helps women in the developing world realize their dreams of a better life. DreamSave brings together the latest innovations in behavioral science, machine learning and revolutionary technology designed for remote areas with limited access to the internet. In partnership with Project Concern International (PCI), DreamStart Labs is currently working to test and implement their solution with women in Tanzania.

Giving women control over their health

Cervical cancer is a leading cause of death in developing countries, causing nearly 300,000 deaths annually. In fact, almost 9 out of 10 cervical cancer deaths occur in low and middle-income countries.

MobileODT, a medical device startup, built a low-cost enhanced visual assessment device powered by a dedicated smartphone, which allows health workers to screen for, diagnose and then treat cervical cancer in the same screening, reducing the need for a follow-up visit and vastly improving women’s health outcomes.

The tool, called the Enhanced Visual Assessment (EVA) System, is a highly-efficient, cost-effective alternative to traditional cervical cancer screening tools. Hospitals and health workers who could not afford cervical cancer screening tools before, now have the ability to serve the deep needs of women through this affordable and portable system. The EVA System allows health workers in developing countries to take control of their women’s health services – cervical cancer deaths can be preventable when women have access to simple screenings.

Since launching the EVA System, MobileODT has partnered with NGOs and local providers to deploy the system for cervical cancer screenings in  Mexico, El Salvador, India, Ghana and Afghanistan, where there was previously limited access to these crucial health services. Today, the EVA System has been used to screen over 21,000 women in more than 25 countries.

Innovations like Soko, DreamSave and the EVA System are helping to better women’s lives across the developing world, by increasing opportunities and providing easy access to basic resources. By leveraging readily-available technology such as mobile, we can begin to improve outcomes for women everywhere.

About June Sugiyama

June Sugiyama has been the Director of the Vodafone Americas Foundation for the last 17 years. Previously, she served in several roles at Vodafone’s predecessors, AirTouch and Pacific Telesis International. She most recently led the Foundation’s transition toward impact through technology related programs. She also developed the Vodafone Americas Foundation Wireless Innovation Project, a competition designed to seek the best wireless technology solutions to address critical social issues around the world. June served on the board of Northern California Grantmakers and participates in the Arts Loan Fund and the Emergency Loan Fund of the organization. She also serves on the advisory board of the Foundation Center in San Francisco, and served on the advisory committee of the Vodafone Group Foundation and United Nations Foundation Technology Partnership, the board of the National Japanese American Historical Society, the Business Arts Council in San Francisco and Nobiru-kai, a Japanese newcomers association. June received her teaching credential and liberal studies degree at San Francisco State University, masters and specialist credential at University of San Francisco, and has teaching experience with schools throughout the Bay Area, especially in the Japanese Bilingual Programs. See June’s recent posts and activity on her LinkedIn

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