Previous research by members of this team found that provision of smartphones to women in low-income Tanzanian households increased annual consumption by 20% over the control group without smartphones (Roessler et al. 2021). With a benefit-cost ratio of more than 2:1, this makes smartphone provision a highly cost-effective anti-poverty intervention. The strongest economic gains from smartphone uptake accrued to those households in which the female participant retained control of the handset —what we refer to as “household property rights.” At the same time, they also reported that their households used the smartphone as well. This points to the importance of strengthening women’s property rights over smartphones and cooperative intra-household mobile technology use. In this study, focusing on 1,501 low-income married women non-phone owners in Blantyre District in Malawi, we aim to systematically test the economic impact of women’s smartphone ownership and enhanced property rights over the smartphones.
Our study has two smartphone treatment arms. One—which we consider the technical efficacy arm or individuals smartphone treatment—provides women non-phone owners with SIM cards and entry-level smartphones; registers them for mobile money and WhatsApp; and delivers training on how to use the smartphone, mobile money and WhatsApp. Participants are informed that they are the owners of the smartphones; all receive a certificate verifying their individual ownership. Overall, we hypothesize that this treatment will strengthen participants’ digital inclusion, technical efficacy to enact their preferences, and, ultimately, improve their livelihoods. As we discuss below, we employ several behavioral measures to ascertain intermediate outputs of increased digital inclusion. We will compare outcomes for the technical efficacy arm group to both a pure control group and a cash placebo control group which will receive an unconditional cash grant the equivalent value of the smartphones (roughly 70 USD) upon program enrollment.
A second treatment group—which we consider the property rights arm or couples smartphone treatment—provides the exact same technical efficacy treatment (SIM cards and entry-level smartphones to the women participants along with individual certificates of ownership; registers them for mobile money; and delivers instruction on how to use the smartphone, mobile money and WhatsApp) but it also delivers a group training with participants and their spouses, who are required to attend for participants to receive the smartphone. (See Figure 1.) The couples’ training is intended to develop beliefs around women’s use of the phone, property rights over the smartphone, and men’s public recognition of those rights in front of community members and GENET trainers. Above and beyond the gains in digital inclusion and technical efficacy, we expect the property rights arm to shift husbands’ beliefs and increase women’s control and use of the smartphone, thus translating into even greater smartphone use. We also expect the property rights arm will strengthen women’s influence over how others use the phone—ensuring it is employed for productive purposes that benefit the household at large. Together, we expect the property rights training and greater smartphone use to lead to higher household economic well-being and women’s economic empowerment at endline. We will compare outcomes for the property rights arm group to the technical efficacy arm, the cash placebo and the pure control group.
Overall, our study’s theory of change can be summed up as follows: the receipt of smartphones and smartphone training will catalyze technical efficacy in terms of increased smartphone use across a range of capabilities (mobile communications, mobile money use, mobile internet, and social media) leading to improved economic livelihoods and, ultimately, downstream effects on women’s empowerment. Moreover, we expect stronger women’s property rights and cooperative use on smartphones to further enhance the technological capabilities they derive from their devices leading to even stronger effects on economic livelihoods and women’s empowerment.
Our study will enable us to estimate the impact of the following:
A. i.) providing women non-phone owners in a low-income country with smartphones + smartphone training compared to ii.) an unconditional cash grant of the same value as the smartphone and iii.) a pure control; and
B. i.) smartphones + couples training to strengthen women’s property rights over the smartphones and shift men’s beliefs about the appropriateness of women owning smartphones to the ii.) smartphone + smartphone training as well as the iii.) cash grant and iv.) pure control.
CONTROL (N=300): No treatment.
T1: CASH PLACEBO (N=400): Distribution of unconditional transfer of the retail cash value of the smartphone ($70) at the start of program plus encouragement of women's right to decide how best to use cash transfer and cooperation with spouses over its allocation.
T2: TECHNICAL EFFICACY TREATMENT (n=400): Provision of entry-level smartphones with certificate of ownership, SIM cards, mobile money accounts, WhatsApp, and training to married women who do not own phones; encouragement of women's right to own handsets and cooperative use with spouses.
T3: PROPERTY RIGHTS TREATMENT (n=400): Technical efficacy treatment plus couples’ training designed around smartphone tech—in which husbands publicly affirm women's property rights over smartphones in front of other community members, and observe other men doing so as well; cooperative smartphone use is encouraged.