Farming, Culture, eBiz & Harassment: 4 Perspectives on Women in Kenya's Digital Economy

Published by Mark Kaigwa @MKaigwa

I've been using Evernote as my 'second brain' since November 2008.* I've taken thousands of screenshots and captured tens of thousands of notes, stats, and articles. Thanks to this technology, I can go back in time to answer questions or examine my thinking on a variety of topics.

When I'd do social media workshops, I created an icebreaker guessing game. I'd ask participants to guess the percentage of women on Facebook in Kenya. The answers were almost uncannily the same. I'd often hear 70% female, 65% female, or 60% female. 

As it turns out, this had more to do with the algorithm than it did with the actual stats. People perceived that they were seeing more posts by women and assumed that there must be more women on Facebook. 

Whenever I'd capture data, it would tell a completely different story. Men outnumbered women on Facebook. 60% men, 40% women. But, to those answering my question, they figured that it was the women who posted more frequently with men lurking online. 

A screenshot I captured in Evernote in February of 2011. There were 996,180 users on Facebook in Kenya in December 2010 compared to an estimated +11 million in August of 2021. 

Since those early days and anecdotes, I've paid close attention to the gender gap online. In my work at Nendo, we have done work across Africa in the digital health sector examining women's access and the affordability to mobile phones and mobile data.

I was using Facebook as a proxy for real-world research engaging men and women on their digital habits. The dangerous assumption in there is that Facebook is a proxy for the internet itself. This can be challenged in several ways. Still, the simplest I'd posit is looking at the number of internet users in Kenya (use whichever set of stats you prefer - I reference Nendo's 2019 State of Mobile Data report where we showed the contradicting views on the question from the regulator to speculators).

Regardless of which statistic one chose to use, there was a discrepancy between Facebook users and internet users. From as low as 21% to as high as 53%, meaning there would often be a glaring gap in Facebook's penetration in the country compared to total internet users.

From the CIA to the CAK, there isn't a shared view to the question of "How many Kenyans use the internet?" as published here by Nendo in 2019.

This has long been my challenge. Stringing together hypotheses from contrasting data sources. I've longed for a study that would allow me to get impactful gender-related findings but, most importantly, to analyse and cross-tabulate: 

  • age
  • gender
  • urban/rural populations
  • socioeconomic classes

This is why The Digital Economy in Kenya Report that launched on the 10th of August in Nairobi has been something I'm keen to reflect on. It helps patch up many of the gaps left in my hypotheses. Written by Dalberg and funded by Omidyar Network, its subtitle isn't a mistake when it describes itself as "The People's Perspective." The report conducted a quantitative nationally representative sample of 2,456 households in Kenya and has an extensive methodology with all the caveats to explain how to interpret the data. Following the pandemic, it gives a deep dive with a rich data set to posing questions and getting valid answers from the rigour of the research.

That said, here are the 3 (and one bonus) critical findings on gender that stood out to me from the report.

Adult Female Farmers Face Hurdles in Joining the Digital Economy

Agriculture is among the largest employers in Kenya, representing 54.3% of total employment in Kenya (World Bank). For women, specifically, it is 59.3%. 52% of adult female farmers, according to the Digital Economy study, had no access to the internet. Over half (54%) required help in digital services compared to 37% of all Kenyans. 

That's not to say that there aren't female farmers experiencing excellent yields and better outcomes in agribusiness. Safaricom's DigiFarm, a platform focused on extension services, input purchases, and market linkages, engages female farmers and has witnessed significant gains. The exclusion of female farmers is a challenge (and may continue to be) both in access, affordability, and functional literacy; this will be a focus area in the next decade. I'm not sure who will create an on-ramp for adult female farmers to participate in the digital economy from their phones to connectivity and participation, but it is up for grabs.

Cultural Norms Continue to Hold Women Back from Participation

An anecdote I heard a few years ago in an African country (that shall not be named for now) was that a project sought to equip women with greater access to technology and the internet. To do this, they piloted giving the women smartphones. This, they thought, solved for the immediate leap into the information age. 

They didn't anticipate that the women (the majority of whom were married or living with their partner) would end up having the phones taken by their spouses. This puzzled the organisation doing the pilot project. The team went back to the drawing board. In their next cohort, the organisation provided the women with pink and brightly decorated phones for the study. They ended up using them for longer, even though they would have the phones confiscated from time to time.

This analogy, which I can't verify, but it was told to me first-hand, echoes one of the participation challenges. When looking at which groups lag in their involvement in the digital economy, women find themselves excluded, as seen below from The Digital Economy in Kenya's report findings. 

When you then look at why people cannot participate, you zone in on cultural norms that affect everyone quite strongly and consistently across digital services users to non-users. Women experience time limitations and mobility restrictions. Female students even have to go as far as to seek permission to use digital devices, with 34% of them being more likely to need permission compared to 15% of male students. 

Female Entrepreneurs Lag Behind their Male Entrepreneurs in Use of Digital Services

While female self-employed people (business owners) aspire to fully use digital tools for business, including e-commerce and digital marketing, they are yet to participate fully. 36% of these women use digital services to support their livelihoods compared to 54% of men, and 56% of them need help in using advanced digital services compared to 44% of men. 

"Nobody wants to be left behind with these kabambes (feature phones) or small phones. Everyone wants to know more and to be part of the digital world."

Grace - 52-year-old peri-urban selling hardware goods

Caller ID & spam blocking app Truecaller did marketing campaigns that caught my attention. The level of cyber harassment in society, mainly targeted among women, is a scourge. According to Truecaller, 1 in 5 women receive sexual and inappropriate SMSes or calls. These can come from very innocent exchanges, whether a woman pays by mobile money after a taxi ride or pays at a store. That exchange of her phone number could lead to instances of cyber harassment. 

Truecaller's campaigns first came on my radar in 2020 with a series of unscripted interviews like this one from a saleswoman who sells products online. She explained how some customers pretend to be interested in the products only to reveal their intentions later with unwanted advances. Or in 2021, where Truecaller did an outdoor media campaign with billboards across the country encouraging women to use its features to block harassers). Only 2 out of 10 women in the study by Truecaller ever took action. 

The Digital Economy in Kenya report confirmed the national extent of this 35% of respondents sharing they experienced the negative impact of digital devices and services as cyber harassment. Few women sought redress, confirming what the Truecaller study uncovered as a pattern.

Overall, for the internet to grow, Kenya needs to ensure it experiences and optimises equitable growth among women online. The report shines a spotlight on crucial questions for regulators, internet service providers, and online platforms. 

Get the full report here and keep up with the conversation online using #DigitalEconomyKE and #DigitalReportKE.

Disclosure: My article responding to insights was created in collaboration with the publishers of Kenya's Digital Economy: A People's Perspective. I received an embargoed copy of the report and agreed to join as a publishing partner to showcase the report. I do not submit any of my responses or reactions for editorial consideration or approval. The views expressed here and in my articles are my own and do not represent the opinions of other organisations, employers or companies. All that said, do check the report out for yourself, and I'd love to know what you think in the comments. And wherever you are, remember to wear a mask, sanitise, keep your distance, and let the air flow.

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