FinDev Blog

A Win for Women in Rwanda

How mobile money – and concerted efforts by government and mobile money operators to promote it - has helped reduce the financial inclusion gender gap
Woman smiling and looking at her mobile phone.

At last, there are good signs of progress in the quest for gender equality in financial services. The latest Findex data shows that the global gender gap in financial inclusion has gone down to 6 percent after persisting at 9 percent for many years.

Mobile money helps reduce the gender gap in Rwanda

In Rwanda, FinScope results show that the percentage of Rwandan women who are formally included increased from 63 percent in 2016 to 74 percent in 2020 . This progress is largely due to the growth of mobile money. Roughly 71 percent of Rwandan women have some type of formally registered financial service, including mobile money, compared to just 34 percent that have bank accounts but no mobile money. The gender gap in the formally included population decreased from 11 percent in 2016 to 8 percent in 2020.

But more progress is still to be made. Rwanda has a strong commitment to gender equality, cascading down from the Constitution to sector-level strategies across the economy. Under the government’s National Strategy for Transformation 1 2017-2024, gender is a cross-cutting priority, and there is already strong leadership from the top: more than 60 percent of all parliamentarians are women and half the cabinet consists of women.

In this context, even a modest gender gap remains a thorn in our side.

The impact of mobile money fee removal during the pandemic

Thus, it was particularly good news when the mobile money data analysis conducted by insight2impact in 2021 showed a win for women. The government of Rwanda’s move to remove mobile money fees during the COVID-19 lockdown period was remarkably successful, with almost 700,000 new subscribers joining in just three months, more than doubling the total number of subscribers. Women in particular capitalized on the move to remove mobile money fees. Their share in subscriptions increased from 34 percent pre-pandemic to 40 percent of all subscribers at the height of the no-fee period.

Unfortunately, these relative gains were again eroded when fees on transactions were reintroduced. While overall subscriber volumes stabilized at well above pre-COVID-19 levels, women’s share in unique subscribers again dropped to close to where it was pre-lockdown.

Chart showing number of unique subscribers per week by gender

Figure 1. Trend in number of unique mobile money subscribers in Rwanda per week, 2020 pre- and post-lockdown. Source: i2i analysis.
Note: Red shaded area denotes the dates of the first nation-wide lockdown from March 22,   2022 to May 3, 2020. Fees were removed at the start of the lock-down and reintroduced at the red line on the graph – in mid-June 2020.

What motivates women’s decisions around mobile money?

These trends would suggest that women are particularly price-sensitive when it comes to transaction fees. It could also mean that the return of pre-lockdown modes of shopping where cash payments rule, such as at marketplaces, meant that fewer new women customers were enticed to try out digital payments, or that fewer of them now needed to sign up for mobile money to receive money transfers.

Our qualitative research helps us understand pre- and post-fee-removal mobile money trends and gives some glimpses of what motivates women’s decisions around mobile money:

“I know that the fees were brought back. It impacted the number of transactions we do because now we are charged. Despite that I am still using it.” – Female customer, Gasabo

“It has affected how much I use [mobile money]. Now we are in poverty because we don’t work so we would prefer something less expensive.” – Female customer, Karongi

“I don't pay anything using [mobile money], I pay cash for all the things I need because traders want cash…” – Female customer, Huye

“I mostly pay everything with cash apart from paying medical bills at health centers because they have refused to get paid in cash. The reason we don’t give up on paying with cash is people’s mentality and what we are all used to. For example: Moto taxis always prefer to get paid in cash.” – Female customer, Nyagatare

Getting women back to mobile money after fees were re-introduced

The government and mobile money operators paid attention. The largest operator launched an awareness campaign to let consumers and small merchants know that most transactions – those below about $3.40 – were actually still free, and urged small merchants not to add transaction fees on such transactions. Given the prominent role of women as market traders and consumers, this campaign had specific relevance for women.

The government, likewise, raised awareness in line with its cashless agenda. Because of the close link between policy and market forces, there was extended dialogue between the government and mobile money operators throughout the period of fee removal and reintroduction for person-to-person and, eventually, person-to-business transactions.

And it paid off. By early 2022, women represented 46 percent of Rwandan mobile money subscribers who had been active in the past six months. And this share is on the rise. In January 2022, 62 percent of new subscribers were women, a proportion that has been growing steadily. A win indeed in the quest for greater women’s inclusion.

Chart showing the gender of new subscribers each month

Figure 3. Gender of new mobile money subscribers, 2019 to January 2022.
Source: Rwanda Economic Digitalisation Programme, in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation; analysis conducted by 71point4

Key factors in achieving this noteworthy win for women

This remarkable gain for women showcases the power of data. In many ways, the analysis of what happened in the wake of the fee removal and reintroduction served as a wake-up call. But data alone wasn’t enough – there were stakeholders ready and willing to act: the Ministry of ICT, the telecoms regulator RURA and, importantly, the mobile money providers.

Ultimately, women themselves deserve the most credit. They voted with their feet, or in this case their wallets, to show that providing good value and clarifying fee structures will pay off.

But of course, there’s still more to do…

While we’ll take the win, that doesn’t mean that all the work is done. Unfortunately, once we dig deeper into the subscriber data, we see that women don’t use mobile money for as many things as men do.

The diagram below segments a sample of mobile money subscribers for the period March 2019 to January 2022. The segments which use fewer payment types are dominated by women. As the diversity of payments increases, so does the male share. The high diversity segment is majority male.

Chart showing the demographics of different types of usage of mobile money

Figure 4. Mobile money subscriber segmentation by gender: March 2019 to January 2022.
Source: Rwanda Economic Digitalisation Programme, in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation; analysis conducted by 71point4.

So, the win is only a half-time score. More is needed to make mobile money in Rwanda an instrument of economic empowerment for women.  And it goes the other way as well. As women continue to become economically empowered, who knows where the trend line for mobile money transactions in Rwanda may go?

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