Empowering women entrepreneurs through SMS

A design workshop was held in my hometown of Lahore called the International Development Design Summit (IDDS) which brought together participants from over 15 countries to devise ICT solutions for identified social problems in Pakistan.

My team of talented individuals (with skills ranging from coding, strategy, management, engineering and design) was tasked with designing a solution for a local organization called Karvaan. Karvaan trains women in low-income communities so that can have an independent livelihood for themselves as artisans and micro-entrepreneurs.

We were asked to study their existing system, identify problem areas, and develop a working solution prototype… all in the span of two weeks!

You can read Simon’s wonderful write-up about his experience in Pakistan here, and his summary of WeSMS here. Catherine also wrote a comprehensive report on the IDDS process and experience here. And you can read Hermes’ thoughts about using principles of human-centered design in a Pakistani and global context here.

So happy to have met these lovely people and work alongside them!

WeSMS team
Ali Hussain
Catherine Rakama
Hermes Huang
Simon Höher
Shehzil Malik

Design Facilitator
Deborah Tien

Project done under the International Development Innovation Network (IDIN).

Field Research

We began our design process by meeting the women entrepreneurs and artisans in the nearby city of Gujranwala to determine how they operated and what they identified as pain-points.

During the site visit, all women indicated their biggest challenge was to find more jobs to earn revenue from their sewing/embroidery skills.

We also visited the local market in Lahore to ask shopkeepers how they operated, the kinds of middlemen they used to get material and whether they would be open to buying from women entrepreneurs.

They expressed concerns about product quality, but were otherwise happy to have more vendors pitch them wares.

Problem Identification

We identified three major problem areas faced, and ultimately realized that women entrepreneurs find it hard to meet sufficient demand at profitable rates due to a saturated market that allowed small profit margins and social constraints.


Lots of ideas (some deliberately ridiculous!) were thought of as ways to increase demand for the goods the micro-entrepreneurs sold.

We divided our ideas into the following categories:
1. Product design and quality (out of scope)
2. Access to new markets via technology (difficult due to low tech penetration)
3. Marketing their products (the chosen direction)

User Persona
Rabia has been living in Gujranwala for most of her life. She is 45 years old, married, and has 3 sons and a daughter. Her oldest son is 21 years old and studies at a university in Lahore; her youngest son is 10 years old and goes to the neighborhood school.

Three years ago, her husband was injured on the job, and has required Rabia to enter the workforce. She attended a training by a local NGO and became an garment artisan to supplement household income.

One year ago, she took steps towards becoming an entrepreneur, and now manages five other garment artisans in Gujranwala. She struggles to consistently run a profit due to a variety of reasons including paying the costs of living, gaining regular orders, and family and social constraints.

Despite these factors, she has access to a cellphone and her son is studying computer science at university. With these resources she is able to simplify some processes in running her business and attending to household chores. She has a hard time finding continuing skill development opportunities, but is determined to made good for her family

Value Proposition

Looking at the user persona and the design constraints involved, we devised a solution called WeSMS: is an SMS-based service that provides access to relevant market information by sending shop owner’s contact details to female entrepreneurs in Punjab.

Proposed System

Women micro-entrepreneurs send an SMS request to a specific mobile number. The gateway is an Android Application Programming Interface (API) which temporarily stores the sender’s mobile number. The API uses the sender’s mobile number to send back an SMS consisting of a list of shop owners contact details.


A working prototype was devised, and we took to the field to test it. We visited micro-entrepreneurs in Lahore who were patient enough to let us test the SMS system, question them and observe how they interacted with the messages received.

We soon realized that the flow we had designed had too many steps, the language we had used for the text messages was too complicated, and that the system could in fact be radically simplified to increase impact.

Implementing the System

The implementation of the system requires Karvaan to conduct training workshops where the women entrepreneurs are told of the system and explained how it works. An infodiagram is designed to easily communicate the steps involved. Stickers with the number to be texted can also be given out at these trainings in order to aid recall.

Marketing Strategy: Onground

To encourage shopkeepers to sign up for the system and add their information to the database, a series of posters were designed for local markets. The link to the WeSMS Facebook page is given to register as a partner.

Marketing Strategy: Online

Facebook was chosen as the online platform to promote the system as it remains the most poular social network in Pakistan with both shopkeepers and potential buyers using it, and even the more tech-savvy microentrepreurs preferring it.

Our social media strategy involved identifying and leveraging the stakeholders involved through our content mix.

Next Steps

We hope to launch the first pilot of WeSMS this summer, targeting a focus group of 50 women micro-entrepreneurs and about 20-30 shops in Lahore. This would include all related efforts, such as sourcing relevant data, briefing shop owners on the concept of the system, identifying and training the women to take part in the program, and monitoring and documenting the acceptation rate.

We also want to keep the code developed for WeSMS opensource, as we see great potential for leveraging SMS technology to dissiminate information in countries like Pakistan which has low-income communities with high cellphone usage.

Taking part in this project was definately one of the most rewarding, intense and empathetic learning experiences I have experienced! There is so much that can be done using technology for social change and we hope to see all the remarkable projects at IDDS Lahore are realized to their amazing potential!

IDDS is an initiative of the International Development Innovation Network (IDIN), that came out of MIT’s D-Lab. For the summit they were hosted by Innovation for Poverty Alleviation Lab (IPAL) based at the Information Technology University (ITU) in Lahore.