In spite of the rise of mobile money in sub-Saharan Africa, just 12 percent of people age 15 and older now have a mobile account, compared with 29 percent who have an account at a formal institution. But the gender gap for mobile money accounts is lower than that for formal accounts; women have 7.6 percent less access than men to formal accounts (32.7 percent vs. 25.1 percent) but just 2.5 percent less access to mobile money (12.8 percent vs. 10.3 percent). More detailed regression findings for Kenya in particular show that gender is not a significant variable in determining access to mobile money accounts in Kenya – though it is for formal financial institution accounts.
This is surprising. For information and communication technologies generally, the evidence suggests that gender gaps are significant, with the World Bank reporting that women are 50 percent less likely than men to use the internet in Africa and significantly less likely to use cell phones. So the question is: Why is mobile money different?
The standard answer is not necessarily the best
The “go to” answer for this (from groups like the Better than Cash Alliance) is that digital is solving the constraints of formal financial inclusion. Its advantages include: the proximity of agents to women whose domestic constraints render them less mobile than men; the fact that mobile money accommodates small payments with low transaction costs in ways that formal accounts do not; the fact that the technology enables money to be kept securely on the SIM card, and that digital offers a level of privacy and confidentiality that having to travel and walk into a bank does not.
However, if we are to really mind the gender gap we can’t simply presume that mobile money is succeeding by overcoming these rather conventional assumptions about the constraints to women’s financial inclusion. Indeed, from my research, these assumptions seem at best a partial explanation for why the mobile money gender gap is narrower.
Mobile money as a networked technology draws in women
To fully explain the gap, we must ask how men and women are using mobile money in these contexts and what this means for analysis and policymaking.
One obvious use is very straightforward but surprisingly not often discussed in terms of gender dynamics. The “send money home” marketing effort of M-Pesa shows us a clear gendered story of men – in this case probably well-educated, young, urban, employed men – sending funds to their rurally based mothers.
A similar gendered urban-rural story of migrant husbands was detailed by Olga Morawczynski in her early ethnographic research on M-Pesa’s use. This gives us the first dimension of our answer: Mobile money is a network technology that connects people and fits into a pattern of gender relations in which urban-based men earn and remit to rurally based women. So far, so apparently straightforward.
But the key point we must take from this is that “normal” financial services are not networked and hence do not have an impact on adoption by others – it is the networked nature of mobile money in the context of remittances that means women get included.
What’s more, it’s clear that mobile money is now far more than an instrument to enable urban-rural remittances; it has a much wider range of uses for gifts and interpersonal transfers of many types.
Family ties pay dividends
Sibel Kusimba’s detailed ethnographic analysis of the social networks around mobile money among the Bukusu in western Kenya gives us further insight. Doing well means successfully accessing extended family resources and these networks are mostly based in flows within sibling, mother and cousin relationships. Kusimba shows that women – especially mothers – are central to these networks. The contributions from men more often come from brothers and mothers’ brothers than fathers; that is, maternal kin. This is not to say that ties through patrilineal kin are not also important and institutionalized – but it is to point out that women are critical lynchpins to many of these networks.
As Kusimba puts it (page 273), “In a context of rapid social change … the hearthhold based around a woman, her relatives and her children is becoming a basis for lifelong bonds of support.” These exchanges of funds also serve to confirm the strength of relationships, transmitting affection and strengthening emotional ties (see also Johnson and Krijtenburg, 2014). Moreover, since 33 percent of households in Kenya are de jure female headed, mobilising resources for their own children through these ties to male kin is vital to their survival. Even small gifts enable investment in this woman-centric “hearthhold” over time without “disrupting widely shared ideals of patrilineal solidarity and household autonomy,” she says.
Gendered networks of resource exchange
These patterns are supported by further (as yet unpublished) analysis that we have undertaken of the financial diaries dataset drawn from five locations across Kenya. This analysis involved nearly 800 low-income individuals over a period of 11 months, with data on resources received in cash, including through mobile money, and in the form of in-kind goods. We found that having a mobile phone increased the value of resources received by women through mobile money, when compared to women without a mobile phone, though surprisingly the same effect was not evident for men.
Women’s receipts were higher in total across all types of resources received and through the mobile money channel and also when they were married and household heads. Women received more via mobile money when they had more women in their network of close family sending them funds, meaning women were sending higher amounts than men, which suggests a strong woman-to-woman dimension among close family (parents, spouses, children). Yet men also gave more when they had more women in their close family network.
However, in the wider network of family (including siblings, cousins, aunts/uncles), both men and women received higher amounts when they had more men in these networks – further supporting Kusimba’s finding about the importance of male relatives. Moreover, we found that when both men and women gave to women in both their closer and wider family networks, this then raised the amounts they in turn received, demonstrating a reciprocal dynamic at work.
This evidence shows the complex gendered dynamics of finance and its networked characteristics. It is not yet possible to tell a simple story from these findings, but they tell us that in order to understand mobile money adoption, we need to recognise and understand these dynamics – and to move beyond the conventional axioms regarding gendered constraints to financial access. The implications for financial inclusion analysis, policy and product design are significant. By understanding these networks, we’ll begin to understand what both men and women actually do with their money, how it connects them to others and what financial services can do to facilitate this.
 A team of researchers from University of Bath and University of Antwerp with support from FSD Kenya.
Susan Johnson is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Development Studies at the University of Bath. Her main research interest is in investigating the means through which social and cultural factors influence the economy and in particular how these factors influence the operation of markets in developing countries.