The beauty of modern technology is that it has vastly speeded up communication and the transmission of information, helping businesses to become more efficient and productive. But this acceleration poses a real challenge for many small business owners who can get left behind if they aren't "up to speed". It's worse for those entrepreneurs living in rural areas in countries with limited access to the kind of information technology we take for granted, like a computer or a phone landline. But for the women entrepreneurs in these same areas those difficulties are multiplied by cultural traditions that often prevent them from being included in local business networks and markets.
This is the reality for women business owners living in rural Gujarat in India, where a group of them have come together and work for a large cooperative, 'RUDI' , to sell agricultural produce from local farmers. The women, known as 'Rudibens*' act as sales agents for the RUDI distribution network, selling food and goods in their own villages. Demand is often very high for the produce but it also fluctuates from season to season. And in order to fill their local orders for the produce, Rudibens have to travel long distances to bigger towns with RUDI centres, wasting time and money. By the time too that these orders are processed and delivered to the rural villages, the level of demand has often changed and they will have lost money they might otherwise have made. For the many women and families that rely on RUDI sales for their livelihood, the inefficiency of the system is a real problem.
Manjula, for example, started a business selling RUDI products after her husband died, leaving her with three children to support but no income. But because she has to travel to process the orders she receives and finds it a struggle to get childcare, she makes less money. And often the orders that she makes are not delivered until weeks later, by which time demand has changed leaving Manjula with produce she can't dispose of and less income.
To address these difficulties that stunt business growth for women like Manjula and other Rudibens, my Foundation has partnered with the Vodafone Foundation in India and the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), which oversees the RUDI network, to develop a mobile application tailored to their needs. The women already have basic mobile phones but the special app will allow them to engage in real-time communication with the RUDI management, check supply levels and text orders instantaneously. As a result, the burden of time and travel costs for will be reduced and processing efficiency will dramatically increase. This translates directly to higher income and more time for the women to invest as they choose, such as developing their businesses and caring for their families.
Through this initiative we are reaching 2,000 women entrepreneurs in India, and are also, over a three-year period, providing support with broader business development and financial literacy training .And we will be tracking the progress of the initiative to make sure that these women derive the maximum benefit from it.
It is, of course, in all our interests that the Rudibens succeed. For just as mobile technology - and the opportunities it opens up - is going to be increasingly important for future prosperity, so is the role of women.
Making sure that everyone - whatever their gender or background - has access to mobile technology is vitally important for our ambitions to tackle global poverty and spread prosperity.
Cherie Blair will be speaking at the Vodafone Foundation and London Business School's Mobile for Good Summit in London on 10 December 2012 www.mobileforgoodsummit.com
* The word "ben" means "sister" in Gujarati, but is also used to show familiarity and respect to women.
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