“Chicken or egg”: How to increase women users on digital platforms

Nandini Harihareswara and Georgii Nikolaenko

Even in 2022, women’s participation in formal economies across the world is often limited.

As entrepreneurs, women experience limited access to hired labour, equipment, technology, training, finance and markets. For women retail customers, their ability to travel and move around, participate in markets, gain employment, and open and use financial accounts can often be defined by country specific and local gender norms. Coupled with lockdowns and social distancing, the challenges women face to access services and goods have become even more pronounced because of the pandemic.

However, digital platforms can be an important avenue to empower women across the world. If designed correctly, these platforms offer the opportunity to access skills, markets, customers, partnerships, and more. In a world, where women and girls tend to be digitally excluded more often than men, many women users – both women entrepreneurs and women retail customers – struggle to partake in the digital economy and connect to digital platforms.

Advancing digital and financial inclusion with the help of digital platforms can help ensure that women are not left behind and have access to services to increase their quality of life. But what can we do to help more women log on to digital platforms?

UNCDF organized a technical assistance workshop (‘Chicken or Egg’) to help partners from the Women Enterprise Recovery Fund (WERF)* find solutions to engage more women on digital platforms. The WERF is helping ten private sector partners from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal and Viet Nam with COVID-19 economic recovery and digitalization solutions for women enterprises. These solutions represent a range of cutting-edge, innovative business models, including agritechs, insurtechs, digital supply chain financing, e-commerce platforms, digitally enabled lending, and digital and financial literacy training portals.

Why was there demand for a gender-lens technical assistance workshop?

Women’s economic empowerment is a priority area for UNCDF. All performance-based agreements between UNCDF and the WERF partners require the achievement of specific targets for the number of women users on the partners’ digital platforms. However, many partners struggle with meeting these targets.

Through the technical assistance workshop born out of a series of interviews with the WERF partners over one and a half months, UNCDF Senior Advisor and Lead Focal Point on Gender Equality, Nandini Harihareswara, provided data and evidence-backed solutions to the challenges faced by WERF partners. Many of these solutions leverage the UNCDF Inclusive Digital Economies and Gender Playbook.

The Playbook is a practical tool to help policymakers and practitioners address the common constraints women face across the world in being financially and digitally included in their communities and economies. Applying the insights from the Playbook and other relevant research to the specific challenges the WERF partners shared during conversations in the preparation for the workshop, Nandini shared eight challenges partners face across platforms and solutions on how to overcome them to increase the number of women users, and ultimately help women become the builders of digital economies.

What are the eight challenges and how can we solve them?

1. COVID-19.

The pandemic has forced businesses to close, reduced mobility of business owners, especially women, and, depending on the nature of lockdowns, obstructed the launch, delivery and production of goods and services. To combat the effect of the global crisis, digital finance service providers could offer women-owned businesses smaller lending amounts with more flexible repayment terms. In addition, they could demonstrate via video and word-of-mouth, financial and digital inclusion success stories with similar personas in COVID-19 settings, and allow users to try lending platforms with test user profiles and ‘fake money’ so they do not have to worry about losing funds if they “push the wrong button”. COVID-19 has brought many challenges to entrepreneurs, and it has also in some ways lowered the risk tolerance for women entrepreneurs taking on debt, especially in new, digital forms.

Source: Women And E-commerce In Southeast Asia, IFC, 2021

2. Incomplete user journey analysis.

User journeys are not a single process done in the beginning of product development. It is important to see it as an iterative process deployed at a good frequency. Many partners either had not conducted a user journey analysis, or had only done it once, at the beginning of their product launch. The analysis needs to be conducted with users themselves – not just staff or internal teams – to truly know the differences between “expected” and “reality” for the user experience. The user’s perspective on how long it takes for them to be informed a decision has been made, for example the acceptance of their product for an e-commerce platform or loan approval for a lending product plays a key role in the user journey analysis. The Center for Financial Inclusion provides a helpful overview of how to conduct a user journey analysis.

Source: Charting the Customer Journey, Center for Financial Inclusion, May 2019

3. The lack of investment in data and iterative testing.

While most partners collect sex-aggregated data of their users, not all invest in data collection and usage infrastructure, which includes systems, internal policies, and dedicated personnel. They may know the gender of some people along their stakeholder value chain – including entrepreneurs, retail customers, agents and channel partners – but not necessarily all of them. Comprehensive data collection can and should play a key role in iterated product development.

4. Sub-optimal recruitment strategies.

Recruitment is essential to increasing the number of women users. The WERF partners use one or more of the following three methods of recruitment:

  • Partnerships. 60 percent of partners use organization collaborations as a recruitment strategy. Some of these partnerships also play a role in relationship management between users and financial institutions, mainly banks and microfinance institutions, nongovernmental organizations, local government programmes, and associations. Reaching out to fast-moving goods companies and women’s groups could improve the onboarding of women users on digital platforms. Despite the wide range of partners they have, the WERF partners often did not know or recognize the power structure between the intermediary partner and individuals representing that partner and potential users. The analysis of the gender dynamics and the understanding of the financial and non-financial incentive structure can help the intermediary partners to successfully recruit and retain women users.
  • Informal online commerce. About 40 percent of WERF partners use some form of informal online commerce, for example Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp, as a recruitment tool, but it might be underutilized in some contexts. CGAP gives a very good set of personas to better understand the kinds of users that use informal online commerce as channels, what drives them, and how they can be more easily recruited in their Business Her Own Way: Creating Livelihoods Through Online Commerce Focus Note.

Source: Business Her Own Way: Creating Livelihoods Through Online Commerce, CGAP, 2021

  • Agent networks – About 55 percent of WERF partners rely on an agent network to recruit, manage and retain women users as part of their platforms. Incorporating an agent journey analysis could help determine success factors and “headaches” for agents. This analysis could include the examination of the gender dynamics and incentive structures coupled with a better understanding of the tools and training that the members of the agent networks use through formal feedback loops with the agents. Helix Institute’s report on successful agent networks is a specifically helpful and eye-opening piece of research for such an analysis.

Source: Successful Agent Networks, Helix, 2016

5. First-generation vs second-generation users’ challenges.

Almost all the WERF partners aim to recruit different kinds of women users to their platforms. First-generation women users lack a phone or a bank account, which are often a precondition for using the digital platform. Second-generation women users have a phone and a bank account, but they face secondary challenges – in the words of one of the partners: “They can send a WhatsApp, but they can’t send an email”. The partners’ business models can help these challenges as well as partnering with other organizations who work to increase access to phones and bank accounts.

6. Trust in digital lending.

Some users have direct or indirect poor experiences with digital lending. Trust in new products and businesses can be very low, especially when there is little risk tolerance. USAID and NetHope’s paper The Role of Trust in Increasing Women’s Access to Finance Through Digital Technologies provides a useful framework that connects trust to the active use of products.

The three most relevant questions from this framework to ask to increase trust in digital lending are:

  • Do you think the users understand and trust the product recourse system and how do you know this?
  • Do you have a trusted advocate, and how do you know they are trusted?
  • Do users have a technical understanding of the product?

7. Training vs. lending products.

Most of the digital platforms have both training and lending components. However, the lending product is usually not a strong part of the recruitment process. Including it earlier in the user journey as a “teachable moment,” even with a game with “fake money” or a demonstration product, could make a digital platform more enticing and appealing for users while reducing their risk concerns. Given that digital lending products that do not require collateral address a real problem for women, it might accelerate their understanding of how and why they should use them.

8. Social and cultural norms.

Gendered social norms, or gender norms, are defined as the collectively held expectations and perceived rules for how individuals should behave based on their gender identity.” There are strong links between gender norms and women’s behaviour, linked to their access and use of digital products stemming from women not having a phone or being digitally literate. Second-generation women users are also constricted by gender norms – often their households and communities believe they would be “better at detail-oriented” tasks rather than a management role. As a result, they do not take on the leadership role of the growing enterprise.

CGAP suggests four ways to address gender norms that challenge women’s access to and usage of financial products. These four categories match well with the recommendations to improve recruitment strategies and could be done in combination with such efforts:

  • Leverage partnerships and local organizations. Local nongovernmental organizations, United Nations agencies and others may be already tackling these challenges, and by creating partnerships with them, in addition to using this as a recruitment tactic, may serve to help address barriers to onboarding to digital platforms.
  • Identify champions. Identifying women champions to be digital platforms advocates – including through promotional videos – can help women and their families visualize how to address the relevant gender norms. The champions are those who have had positive gender-transformative experiences with the product that have benefited their community or household.
  • Support capacity-building. Since most projects include a digital and financial literacy training, capacity-building can also include engagement at key milestone periods that could address gender norms in a community. Ideo.org’s Women & Money life stages report gives good examples of how to do this.
  • Engage gatekeepers. “Working with men [and other leaders in a community] is critical as they are often the gatekeepers of customary practices that limit women’s access to resources or public spaces.” Gatekeepers can reflect on their role as enablers for women’s digital and financial inclusion and understand their perspective on relevant gender norms.

Source: CGAP, Technical Guide: Addressing Gender Norms To Increase Financial Inclusion, 2021

Chicken and egg: Supply balancing demand

The “Chicken or Egg” workshop reflects the challenges that private sector partners face in increasing the number of women users. In the old days of digital financial services, this issue reflected the necessary balance between attracting sufficient active customers and increasing the number of agents to create financially sustainable business models. Nowadays, e-commerce platforms need to both increase the number of retail customers and attract vendors to use the platform.

Sometimes the rise in retail customers and the uptake in vendors go hand-in-hand as women bring in their traditional brick-and-mortar customers onto the platforms. Other times it is mutually exclusive. Some digital lending platforms require a user to use their platform for a set time, for three or six months before sufficient data are collected for them to successfully lend to them using a data algorithm as a replacement for collateral as a risk mitigant. But how do we encourage users to actively engage on a platform long enough for them to a) improve their required financial and digital literacy skills and b) generate sufficient data to provide them with an incredibly helpful service?

The answer lies within the eight challenges and solutions shared above. The better you understand and invest in your customer, partnership channels, and data, the more you can create the virtuous cycles to address the “chicken or egg problem”. The research to address this question begins with the 4 Pillars of Ecommerce Profitability.

UNCDF is committed to helping our partners address these challenges as part of our Vision Equal Economies and making Women Builders of Digital Economies.

* The Women Enterprise Recovery Fund is supported by the Dutch Entrepreneurial Development Bank (FMO), the Government of Canada, and Visa Inc. The Fund is jointly implemented by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) Catalyzing Women’s Entrepreneurship programme in partnership with the United Nations Capital Development Fund’s (UNCDF), under its “no-one left behind in the digital era” strategy. The Fund is hosted by UNCDF’s Fund Facility Investment mechanism, through the UNCDF ASEAN programmatic agenda, which is supported by the Australian Government.

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