Up against some tough circumstances, Tawakkal, a young entrepreneur in Islamabad, Pakistan, runs a thriving carpentry business. He employs three full-time people, he says, and makes between $200 and $1,000 a month. In a country where the annual income per capita is $1,500, that’s great.
His accomplishment is even more remarkable because he can’t read and write.
He is one of the estimated 781 million people in the world who are illiterate (30 million of them are in the United States). Imagine not having access to books, to Google or to written communication like email.
Tawakkal has been able to overcome those hurdles with a surprising tool: Social media. He went first onto Facebook, after he noticed other skilled carpenters posted their pictures there.
Now, he uses WhatsApp, which enables him to find new clients by having his current clients forward photos. And, he communicates with clients using pictures – which offer the reassurance that might otherwise come from formal marketing or written communication.
“I don’t know how I would have done my work (without them),” he told me via an interpreter, who typed his answers into email. “I would certainly not have so many clients, but I would also have struggled with finishing my existing jobs.”
Some people have looked at the effect of technology, especially social media, on literacy — remember The Gutenberg Elegy, which worried about the end of reading? But if you look at the worry from the other side, technology is an opportunity for people with low literacy. By making its user interface easy for everyone, Facebook made it accessible for people who couldn’t read and write. The keys: icons and phone numbers.
Now, to an extent not widely recognized, social media is empowering illiterate people economically. Consider Muhammad Mustafa, a social entrepreneur who aims to make a market out of those 780 million, starting in Pakistan.
I found Tawakkal through Mustafa, who won a $110,000 grant as a Stanford Social Innovation Fellow. (Disclosure: I write as a freelancer for Stanford Graduate School of Business). After a career as head of brands for China Mobile in Pakistan, Mustafa decided he wanted to do more good in the world. He is launching a jobs startup for illiterate people, EasyJob, in Karachi, and hopes to make a business model by selling advertising on the platform.
In his research for his startup, looking for a way to build an Internet platform for people with low literacy, he discovered what was apparently an unintended consequence of Facebook.
“I believe Facebook is a leader in developing an icon-based interface that let illiterate users get familiar with the Internet. Facebook’s mass-market appeal coupled with this easy-to-understand interface was a winning combo,” Mustafa said by email. “And I believe their use of the phone number as an alternative to email as user ID was what opened the platform up to a very large audience.”
People who can’t read and write are a natural part of what’s known as conversational commerce.
Facebook was facing stiff competition in that market from WhatsApp, as Tawakkal’s experience shows. It bought the Mountain View-based company in 2014. Tawakkal sends his existing clients photos so they can see the progress on the work on WhatsApp.
“We have regular power outages, and some clients think we use it as an excuse not to finish their work on time,” he said. “But when I show them a photo of their incomplete work, they realize that I have been working on it for some time.”
Facebook is now developing Messenger with an eye to getting even deeper into the conversational commerce market.
“WhatsApps voice notes feature has made it very easy for low-literacy people to communicate,” Mustafa said. “I know of employers sending their illiterate domestic help voice notes that contain an entire grocery list!”
Who knows which part of the Facebook conglomerate will win, but people who can’t read and write certainly have. Mustafa, who is also researching his market in Lagos, Nigeria, told me the story of a washerwoman he interviewed who was trying to get ahead despite the obstacles.
She knew she needed to earn more money, and that she could do so if she learned to make beads for jewelry. “But how to do so, if she couldn’t read?” Mustafa said.
She found a workshop where women made the beads, and then, walking down the street, discovered a laundry service that overlooked the workshop. In the laundry, she could position herself by a window that overlooked the bead-makers, so she could learn their trade.
Social media has opened the door for people like Tawakkal. Now, the question is how to open it even wider, for people like her.