Richard Wright, Unilever: Bridging the Digital Divide in Low Income Commuities

“There are 3.7 billion people without internet access globally. In the least developed countries, fewer than one in five people use the internet. In low-and middle-income countries, women are disproportionately impacted, where they are 15% less likely to use mobile internet than men and are 7% less likely than men to own a mobile phone. While this mobile gender gap continues to narrow in areas like South Asia, there are still 234 million fewer women than men accessing mobile internet.

It’s important to highlight digital inequality because, in an increasingly connected world, lack of internet access can exacerbate already difficult development challenges – from poverty and healthcare through to education and environmental sustainability. For many challenges, social enterprises are aiming to provide social impact through innovative digital services that are both accessible and relevant to low-income consumers. But how does one grow a successful tech-led business in these communities?

Some of the usual Silicon Valley thinking is simply not applicable. In low-income communities, a human touch is needed, otherwise businesses will amplify existing offline inequalities into inaccessible digital products and services.

No one understands this more than start-ups that emerge from those exact same communities. That’s why the TRANSFORM partners, Unilever, FCDO and EY, are supporting local social entrepreneurs to create market-based solutions to the world’s biggest development challenges

For the past 6 years, TRANSFORM has funded 61 enterprises and research projects in 13 counties and has impacted more than 6 million people. Over this period, we have gathered a great many insights that can inform entrepreneurs wishing to confront these digital challenges.



How Kasha increased human touchpoints to grow its customer base and delivered behavioural change

Kasha is a digital retail and femtech platform designed by women, for women, in Rwanda and Kenya. Kasha sells contraceptives, menstrual hygiene, Pharmaceuticals, maternal health products and personal care products, delivered to the customer’s doorstep. Many of Kasha’s customers value the confidential access to health products, services and information.

Kasha’s challenge was reaching more customers, maintaining communications, and then keeping them engaged – despite many of those customers only having access to a basic mobile phone, without internet access and being located at the ‘last mile’. Kasha recognised that trying to digitise and automate sales and customer service to increase efficiencies was not necessarily going to be the most efficient way to reach the market. To reach consumers at all locations, Kasha invested in an agent network and call centre. Kasha now has over 400 agents that support product ordering and enable reach and distribution to 39/47 counties in Kenya. Kasha has a fully functional call centre which handles over 600 queries per day, as well as free nurse live chat to support health queries.

This focus on investing in human touchpoints is part of understanding who your customer is and how to reach them. It’s important to digitise the offering and move forward as access to the internet increases, however if you are to reach all consumers you need to be able to provide for everyone: and so human touch points remain extremely important, especially within health and self-care.

Maintaining a customer-centric mindset is central to Kasha’s approach, which is why Kasha’s CEO, Joanna Bichsel, has continued to increase the product range at Kasha rather than streamline to one or two items. A woman is the most important decision maker in the household: she deserves access to all the health and self-care products she needs to live her best life.

How MumsVillage reacted to demands for a physical store

In May 2015, MumsVillage launched a website to offer women with information, advice and a place to meet and share virtually. Today it has expanded to provide Kenyan mothers with access to localised healthcare content and products.

The business initially found success through providing content and an e-commerce store, selling thousands of products and attracting over 300,000 mothers to read their articles. However, it soon received customer feedback that buying online didn’t meet all their needs. People wanted to have an idea of the look and feel of big-ticket items like pushchairs or car seats before buying.

In that respect, digital can only get you so far in low-income communities. It’s not as easy as it is for many consumers in developed countries, who simply send an item back if it doesn’t suit their needs. At some point it’s likely you’re going to need the power of people and in-person interactions to deliver your service. Just as Mumsvillage is now fundraising to open a retail store, startups looking to crack similar communities with an e-commerce offering should consider adding brick and mortar stores into their considerations.

Frontier Markets’ ‘Phygital’ (Physical-Digital) approach

Frontier Markets is an Indian social commerce platform that provides local access to high quality products and services. This helps brands to build loyalty in rural, hard to reach, areas. It combines a mobile e-commerce app with a ground-force of women-led sales and marketing teams, known as Sahelis. These teams offer face-to-face customer support by showcasing products and assisting with e-commerce purchases.

This hybrid ‘phygital’ approach benefits both the consumer and the women who can increase their income working as Sahelis. It’s certainly had a major impact, successfully influencing the adoption of high-value goods, such as clean energy solutions, high energy efficient kitchen and home appliances, agricultural inputs, and digital financial services. With over one million customers, they have sold over 10 million products across 2700 villages and their rural women salesforce currently numbers 12,500.

If startups want to reach last-mile customers in rural, developing areas, there’s no one better placed to influence consumer behaviour that other trusted human beings from within those communities.

The power of human interaction

As access to the internet grows, ‘online’ provides opportunities to meet the needs of low-income households. However, where it occurs, the digital divide is both a symptom and a cause of inequality. Start-ups operating in these areas of the world should know the potential pitfalls of putting their faith in digital alone.

Whether it’s due to lack of digital infrastructure, or because low-income consumers have not yet fully embraced the digital economy, humans want to interact with humans. No one understands this more than the local startups. Both entrepreneurs and large corporates would do well to learn from their experience.”