Author: Alexandra Tyers, April 21 2015 - I was recently in Tanzania, working with the mobile operator Tigo to conduct participatory research with users of their Tigo Biashara service, which launched a few months ago. Tigo were awarded an Innovation Fund grant from GSMA Connected Women to develop Tigo Biashara, a mobile educational service, which offers business skills training aimed at low-income female entrepreneurs in Tanzania, delivered through voice and SMS platforms.

Tigo Biashara is one of two mobile education services that GSMA Connected Women has awarded grants to – the other one is an English skill development service in Bangladesh, aimed improving employability prospects for rural adolescent girls through lessons delivered on voice and SMS platforms, and developed by BRAC Bangladesh in partnership with Robi Axiata.

The research in Tanzania was looking at understanding the female user experience of the Tigo Biashara service - including both the learning experience and feedback on the educational content. What is interesting about both the Tigo and the BRAC mobile educational materials is that they have been developed specifically for female learners - something that mobile operators or NGOs often find challenging and something that I am often asked about.

Mobile learning has huge potential to give equal access to education, livelihood opportunities and improved life chances for women and girls on a large-scale - a key theme at Davos - so it’s really important to get it right. When developing mobile education materials for low-income women, there are some fundamental points to consider:

  1. Understand and know the target audience - what do they want to learn? Consumer insights research is the way to do this. Tigo conducted extensive qualitative consumer insights research with low-income rural Tanzanian women, and so developed their business skills training based on user demand and what they learned from the research. BRAC and Robi did the same with rural adolescent girls in Bangladesh, and identified that their target audience wanted to learn English with a view to employability in major sectors such as the garment or ICT industries.
  2. Make it relevant. All too often, there is limited existing data on female market segments, and so there is a danger that mobile services are not relevant, and so uptake is low. This is particularly true for women - content and services need to be relevant to their needs. By understanding what their female audience wanted to learn, both Tigo and BRAC developed materials on topics that their users actually wanted to learn, had value to them, and so were more willing to pay for. Tigo created lessons which included advice on how to set up a business and how to choose a location - relevant information for small-scale female business owners such as market vendors. BRAC’s content included lessons on basic ICT terminology - language that female users felt they would need in order to get a job in the ICT industry.
  3. Understand previous experiences of education. How have female users learned in the past? In many markets, low-income women and girls are less likely to have completed, or even attended education, and so their (limited) experience of learning may be negative, or they may have particular expectations or perceptions of what learning is - and may not equate mobile learning with learning at all! This was certainly the case for female users of the BBC Janala mobile education service in Bangladesh. Women may also have lower levels of literacy and confidence because of these lower levels of education - and so any mobile education materials will need to take these things into account. Both Tigo and BRAC built this research question into their consumer insights research - and so when it came to designing the educational aspects, they had a very good sense of their users’ perceptions of education.
  4. Choose appropriate mobile platforms. Low-income women are much more likely to own basic handsets, and so mobile educational materials will need to be developed for platforms that can be accessed from low-end phones – and this is often voice and SMS. Voice (IVR) lessons often work well with female users because of potentially low levels of literacy and confidence. At the same time, SMS lessons can be quite effective in that they meet user expectations of what traditional education entails (i.e. written lessons), and users have something to refer back to. However, if a female user is illiterate or if the SMS platform doesn’t support local written script (as opposed to Roman numerals), there are potential problems. Both Tigo and BRAC solved these issues by offering IVR lessons with an SMS summary sent at the end of each lesson.
  5. Use female characters and a storyline or scenario that users recognise. Users learn more if they are engaged. If the lessons are developed on IVR platforms, it needs to be made entertaining to encourage users to keep listening. One way of doing this is through a storyline, with recognisable situations and characters. Using female lead characters offers an opportunity for positive female role models - especially where users are unlikely to have encountered female characters in their other educational experiences - and enables female users to relate to the content and identify with the characters and situations. Tigo developed a storyline around a female marketplace seller who wanted to set up her own business. The BRAC mobile service followed the story of an adolescent girl who wanted to learn English and ICT skills in order to work in her local computer centre. Both services dealt with different situations and stories in each lesson, similar to a radio programme- which tested extremely well in user testing, and were engaging and interesting, but also relevant.
  6. Consider having a teacher figure. If female users are learning through mobile- a non-traditional learning method - for the first time, it can be challenging for them to recognise that they are learning anything at all, particularly if education is usually perceived as a serious thing that someone does in a classroom – and particularly for women who may have had negative experiences of learning. Having a presenter who doubles up as a teacher figure can go some way to lending ‘educational legitimacy’ in the eyes of the users - but this teacher figure needs to be thought about carefully in terms of age, gender, and what works culturally. For the BRAC mobile service, as it was aimed at adolescent girls who may lack confidence and be afraid of learning, the teacher figure was a woman only a few years older, and so took on the role of an older sister, rather than a scary teacher! Tigo Biashara’s teacher figure was the main character’s father who gave her business advice - a comforting, familiar figure, who fitted culturally and was something that worked well with the target audience of female small business owners.
  7. Use certification and quizzes as motivation. The potential for female users to have low levels of confidence coupled with the perception that learning through mobile isn’t really learning means that users need something tangible to motivate them and keep them going. Both Tigo and BRAC built in quizzes at the end of each section, for users to test what they had learnt, and offered a certification of completion at the end of course - both of which tested extremely well in user testing. Tigo also introduced the potential of getting a loan as an extra motivator for users who complete all of the lessons.
  8. User test, user test, user test. User testing is a crucial part of getting a product right and understanding what female learners need and want from a mobile education service. Both BRAC and Tigo user tested the service and content extensively, to the point where they have good products with relevant content that female users value. You can read more about user testing mobile services with women and girls in a previous blog post here.


At GSMA Connected Women we have been conducting similar research to the Tanzania research with the female users of the Bangladesh mobile learning service. Both sets of research will be published as case studies over the next few months.


Alexandra Tyers was the Insights Manager at GSMA Connected Women until very recently, and is currently one of the directors of Panoply Digital Ltd, a team of ICT4D and mobile for development specialists.

This blog is cross-posted from the ICTworks by Inveneo website, located here.