Decentralized Digital Inclusion for Women’s Collectives

Members of Megha Farmers Cooperative using technology

Almost a fifth of the world’s 2 billion informal workers reside in India, where informal employment dominates both agriculture (99%) and non-agricultural sectors(81.6%). Within this context, 23% of India’s informal workers are self-employed women with little or no work and income security and limited access to social security, including healthcare, childcare, pension, insurance, food security or housing. 

In the informal sector, digital technologies, including the Internet, mobile phones, and electronic payments, can offer leapfrog opportunities, providing additional income, employment opportunities, and access to knowledge. At the same time, digital inequalities can reflect and even exacerbate existing socioeconomic inequalities. For example, ST communities have the lowest digital literacy (21%) and those in rural areas are often unable to afford smartphones or internet usage costs. The lack of last-mile connectivity can affect access to crucial healthcare, education and financial services linked to ICTs. 

Indian women face significant barriers to digital use, with only one-third using the internet, and 15% less likely to own a mobile phone compared to men. Women’s meaningful digital usage is hindered by smartphone and internet costs, limiting services to voice and SMS. Often male gatekeepers also influence household asset distribution, perpetuating the digital gender gap. 

The digital economy remains intrinsically biased against informal sector women because of the gender digital divide (OECD, 2018; UNCTAD, 2019). In 2022,  54% of active internet users and six in ten digital payment users were male in India. Barriers to entry into the digital economy include lower education levels, less exposure to digital devices or lack of ownership, limited connectivity and limited financial and general business knowledge, which often hampers grassroots businesses. 

This paper, documenting the experiences of the SEWA Cooperative Federation, finds that socioeconomic and technical barriers to digital inclusion, particularly for informal women workers’ collective enterprises (WCEs) echo existing data on the intersectional challenges contributing to India’s gender digital divide. This research then highlights the importance of a decentralised Women’s Enterprise Support System (WESS) in facilitating the integration of women’s cooperatives into the digital economy.

For the research, determinants of the digital divide have been categorised as encompassing more than just access to ICTs and digital platforms, covering digital literacy and meaningful, contextual digital use for socioeconomic development. 

Sociotechnical barriers to digital inclusion and participation in the digital economy for informal WCEs

  • Lack of physical access to digital assets: Meaningful digital use is hindered due to lack of access to digital assets. This occurs due to multiple factors including gendered social norms, affordability constraints and limited last-mile phone and internet connectivity. 
  • Lack of digital literacy or limited resources for digital training: Often informal women workers’ enterprises do not equate data or digital technologies and skills as assets and have limited access to resources for digital literacy training. 
  • Inability to leverage platforms and online marketing channels: Even if WCEs have access to ICTs they may be unable to leverage e-commerce platforms, social media marketing or streamlined digital MIS processes that would help analyse usable data about the collective enterprise and its finances. Informal women workers may lack the awareness or know-how of using digital technologies, skills or platforms for exclusively business purposes, outside of their everyday usage. 
  • Exclusionary design of digital platforms:  Both private and public e-commerce and procurement platforms have complex registration processes, complicated monitoring of sales and frequent technical errors, the need for a large amount of documentation, delays in grievance redressal, and a lack of dedicated teams for supporting grassroots enterprises. These serve as barriers to informal women workers from entering the digital economy. 
  • The nexus between informality and gender: Unpaid care work responsibilities, limited access to credit, assets, and social security and limited connectivity or usage of digital fintech pose additional obstacles for grassroots women’s enterprises to compete in the digital marketplace. Transitioning to online platforms is hindered by limited knowledge of digital tools, high data costs, and gendered social norms that influence household decisions on internet usage and device ownership, particularly in rural areas.

Role of the SEWA Cooperative Federation as a Women’s Enterprise Support System

Our research underscores the critical need for a Women’s Enterprise Support System like the SEWA Cooperative Federation to empower grassroots women’s collectives for meaningful digital inclusion and active participation in the digital economy. The Federation maintains a meticulous approach to digitalisation, through collaboration with a diverse array of partners and a commitment to being model-agnostic. This approach counters the tendency to prioritise rapid digital transformation and moves away from a deterministic view of digital inevitability. The Federation’s digital interventions are thus thoroughly deliberated on to ensure that they best serve the needs of grassroots WCEs, rather than advocating for digitalisation as a one-size-fits-all solution. 

Our Learnings 

  • Tailored Training is needed to address the Digital Skills Gap: Women in informal cooperatives often lack digital skills for business. Context-specific programs can help address time, mobility, and budget constraints, digital infrastructure, education, and language barriers. Strategies used by the Federation include phone-based training, simplified manuals, continuous follow-up, and government partnerships to help access digital assets. Covering platforms like Zoom, Gmail, WhatsApp, and digital payments has been shown to enhance collectives’ digital capacity for various business activities as well as financial inclusion, education and health.
  • Support in Digital Data Base Management and MIS: Community-centric organizations can support women’s cooperatives in digital database management. For example, the Federation collects key indicators for business development and creates user-friendly dashboards to facilitate data utilization and evidence-based decision-making. 
  • Collecting and Presenting Gender- disaggregated data for Advocacy efforts: Sharing experiences of enterprise support systems aids in replicating successful models with context-specific adjustments, ensuring women entrepreneurs’ voices are heard and needs addressed in the digital marketplace. The Federation has successfully advocated for enhancing the government’s public procurement platform- Government-e-Marketplace (GeM) to make it more inclusive towards small WCEs by waiving off caution fees, introducing the ‘womaniya MSE entrepreneur’ tag to enable easy identification for procurers, and ensuring content in regional languages.
  • Addressing Challenges in Online Marketing and Using Procurement Platforms: Women’s cooperatives face challenges in optimizing their online presence despite the potential benefits of social media marketing and e-commerce platforms. Continuous mentorship and management support from a WESS is crucial in addressing issues like content creation, engagement strategies, packaging and order fulfilment. Such support systems act as bridges between grassroots organizations and digital platforms, also safeguarding member cooperatives on e-commerce platforms through compliance monitoring, policy advocacy, expediting grievance resolution, and providing legal assistance. Through these comprehensive measures, the SEWA Cooperative Federation empowers its member cooperatives to navigate e-commerce effectively while mitigating risks and ensuring fair treatment. 
  • Innovating Context-Specific Digital Intervention Strategies: Initiatives of the SEWA Cooperative Federation like the “Farm2Table Initiative” for online aggregation of demand for groceries through WhatsApp during the pandemic, demonstrate innovative ways to connect women collectives with consumers through low-tech or hybrid models which do not require extensive training. Another intervention -phygital Farmer Facilitation Centres, combining physical and digital elements, also plays a crucial role in supporting rural women farmers through the physical element of Agewans (frontline women leaders from the same community), collecting data from farmers and facilitating information dissemination and democratic decision-making processes based on trust. 
  • Partnerships and collaborations: First, Women’s Enterprise Support Systems should serve as central intermediaries in collective bargaining with technology partners, providing necessary support and capacity building for cooperative members to engage with digital ecosystems effectively. They can proactively address how digitalization affects labour needs and workflows, instituting feedback mechanisms for necessary modifications. Second, The SEWA Cooperative Federation collaborates with government agencies, civil society organisations and other stakeholders to create synergies and maximise impact. By forging partnerships, a WESS can expand its reach, access additional resources, and leverage collective expertise to better serve its members. 

The SEWA Cooperative Federation plays a pivotal role in fostering meaningful digital inclusion for informal women’s enterprises. Beyond digital support, it provides parallel capacity building, business development, and continuous mentorship. The Federation provides in-depth training involving crucial skills such as financial management, marketing, and product development to enhance the overall business acumen of informal women workers’ cooperatives.  By integrating health and social security into the cooperative model, the Federation addresses informal women workers’ holistic needs, to meet the goals of full employment and self-reliance. 

This comprehensive approach not only improves the quality of life of informal women workers but also fosters long-term business sustainability and decent work by mitigating health and financial risks. The Federated structure gives individual WCEs an enabling environment to access knowledge, skills, capital and market linkages. Federated cooperatives are also interlinked and can facilitate business and peer learning among themselves. 

The Federation’s efforts as a Women’s Enterprise Support System thus empower women to leverage digital solutions effectively, while addressing systemic barriers and driving inclusive economic growth.

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The findings are from the paper “Fostering Digital Inclusion: The Role of Women’s Enterprise Support Systems for Women Workers Cooperatives in the Informal Sector. Semanti Chakladar presented this paper in the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) Flashpoint Symposium organised by IIIT Hyderabad and University of Hyderabad (UoH), India