Restricted mobility, low literacy rate hinder rural women entrepreneurs’ digital growth

A forthcoming study by LEAD at Krea University highlights the digital divide in rural India and what prevents women in India’s hinterlands from catching the e-commerce wave.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has supercharged India’s digital economy, however, women entrepreneurs from rural regions are yet to reap the benefits of this boom.

Case in point is India’s e-commerce sector, which has seen a 36 percent rise in order volume in the last quarter of 2020. The segment is at an all-time high, thanks to the country’s 784.59 million internet users as of July 2021, according to the India Brand Equity Foundation.

Internet and smartphones have penetrated the rural parts of the country. Women entrepreneurs from the hinterlands, however, face a gaping digital divide while accessing e-commerce due to poor literacy and socio-economic hurdles.

With the Indian e-commerce market expected to grow to $111.40 billion by 2025 from $46.2 billion as of 2020, the diversity and inclusion of rural women entrepreneurs are more important than ever before. 

An upcoming study by LEAD, an action-oriented research centre of the IFMR Society, highlights the digital readiness of women entrepreneurs in rural India, particularly on e-commerce and social commerce platforms.

The study was conducted primarily in Rajasthan (Udaipur, Kota and Jaipur) and Kerala (Kottayam, Kannur and Ernakulum) with 167 women entrepreneurs running unregistered/informal home-based businesses and microenterprises in the manufacturing, clothing, and food sector.

Emerging findings from the study show that the gender divide can be bridged through digital innovations. The digitalisation of entrepreneurship will support rural women to take up independent work opportunities and overcome gender-based barriers related to mobility, access to financial services, opportunities for sales and managing financial payment services.

However, rural women face several hurdles while adopting digitalisation and e-commerce. In an interview with HerStory, Sharon Buteau, Executive Director, LEAD at Krea University (a State Private University sponsored by IFMR Society) unpacks these challenges. 

Financial and digital literacy 

Due to their restricted mobility and low literacy rates, rural women are often left in dark about the importance of digital tools in their social upliftment. Rural India has 293.09 million people, with 33 internet subscribers per 100 population, as per Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, 2020. 

According to the National Family Health Survey 2019-2020 (NFHS-5), only 27.9 percent of rural women have ever used the internet while 41.4 percent of rural men report having used the internet at least once. 

Even when women know how to operate a digital device, they often depend on children for complex operations. Sometimes bank accounts and access to payment systems may be in the name of other family members, mostly male members. All these factors inhibit their growth.

Marketing and outreach support

Design is a key component of making Kota Doria (famous in Kota district, Rajasthan) sarees memorable. Women in the region express their desire to learn new design techniques as well as market trends to increase sales. 

The study found that although some women entrepreneurs are aware of Youtube, they haven't explored the platform for design learning. Market research is another concern. Conducting such research in melas and exhibitions is easy for these entrepreneurs, but they find that online research requires high levels of digital skills. 

Trust barrier 

Through their engagement in state-initiated melas, inter-state melas, exhibitions and via their employers from other jobs, women entrepreneurs have managed to make a customer base which is usually an extension of the first customer they receive. It is through “word of mouth” that most of their business runs and hence, they maintain the product quality at par with the previous orders. Trust is key here. 

E-commerce is an unprecedented, unexplored territory with the least guarantee of returning customers for women entrepreneurs in rural areas. Since most processes are taken care by a third party, entrepreneurs aren’t able to engage with customers, which further restricts sales. 

Reliance on product reviews by e-commerce customers is an unexplored area due to limited business activity.

Taking the lead in e-commerce

Women entrepreneurs in tier two and tier three cities are slowly getting on to the e-commerce movement, and WhatsApp has turned out to be the first step in getting orders online. 

“Owning a smartphone is not the same as deriving its full potential. Women entrepreneurs find it difficult to navigate any platform due to a wide use of the English language. WhatsApp has been a useful platform for them, albeit minimum sales through that as well,” Sharon says.

“Mostly their children have taught them how to send photos and reply to messages of their customers. The interviewed women entrepreneurs know how to operate only WhatsApp and can connect with clients as per their requirement,” Sharon adds.

However, instead of adopting digital tools, women still depend on their male family members for online orders and transactions. 

“While they own and operate in full capacity, any online or digital engagement is managed by their spouses. This is the same for financial operations. Spouses are responsible for handling financial transactions, cash or online. This impedes their customer interaction considerably, transferring the onus of developing business strategies for higher engagement onto the spouse resulting in less autonomy for themselves,” she adds.

Sharon also shares that the most common necessities voiced by rural women entrepreneurs are marketing and outreach support in the form of photography, profile management, social media promotion. 

“Additionally, women want digital literacy and end-to-end government support for e-commerce activities such as GST compliance relaxation, third-party integration for increased visibility, designated rural women enterprise platforms like Amazon Saheli and Flipkart Samarth to map it to individuals directly,” Sharon says.

Edited by Affirunisa Kankudti

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