Here’s how getting a message across in the right way strengthens projects

By Clarissa Perkins, Communications Specialist, mSTAR

Funded by USAID and led by FHI 360, mSTAR/Liberia ended activities in May 2018 after enrolling 4,904 civil servants across Liberia into mobile salary payments and successfully handing the mobile salary payment program over to the government. This post is part of a blog series on mSTAR/Liberia: what went well and why, how we overcame challenges, and lessons for the future.  

“What! Three months now and I can’t get my salary? This thing is getting really serious ooo.”

On a dimly lit stage at the closeout event for mSTAR’s Liberia project, staff member, Florence Gbondo, plays the part of “Teacher Peppeh,” a teacher who struggles to get her salary. On stage, Florence walks back and forth shaking her head. The audience, leans in, rapt.

Florence acts out Teacher Peppeh’s bumpy motorbike ride from her small village in River Gee to the capital city of Monrovia. Through the five-minute “drama,” as they’re called in Liberia, the audience, encompassing high-level leaders across the Government of Liberia and USAID, at times laughs, at other times shakes their heads in commiseration, their eyes constantly trained on the actors.

Context and culture are paramount when sharing information. In office settings in the United States, people might share information at a closeout event through pie charts in PowerPoint presentations. In Liberia, it turns out, dramas are a major key.

The skit wove the benefits of the mSTAR activity into a witty, relatable story acted with gusto, large gestures and enthusiastic expressions. It ended with the value of mobile money salary payments and the systems mSTAR set up in Liberia evident as Teacher Peppeh resolves her salary issues. “Thank you, yaaaa!” she and the other actors exclaimed on stage as they throw their arms in the air.

In Liberia, a country rebuilding from two civil wars and the Ebola epidemic, the Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research (mSTAR) project, funded by USAID and led by FHI 360, worked with the Government of Liberia to enroll civil servants into mobile money salary payments. For years, it has been typical for civil servants to spend a significant amount of time and money to pick up their salaries. Mobile money salary payments, however, have proven to reduce the time and money civil servants spend receiving their salaries.

At the beginning of the activity, it was clear that mSTAR’s mission would not be easy. Roads are few in Liberia and often untraversable during the rainy season. Cell coverage is spotty. Mobile money, while common in the capital city, is just taking off in rural areas, and trust in mobile money service providers is low.

With the obstacles apparent, mSTAR had to cleverly demonstrate the value of mobile salary payments to civil servants. To do this, mSTAR got to the heart of how information is relayed in Liberia. Senegalese President Leopold Sedar Senghor’s classic reframed version of “I think therefore I am,” to “I dance therefore I am,” only begins to shine a light on how European and North American cultures receive and express information differently than other cultures such as those in West Africa.

mSTAR worked with the Government of Liberia to build a communications plan with dramas at the core. From radio ads and cartoon posters to a training video and a map showing where civil servants enrolled, mSTAR worked the story of  two rural teachers, Nyemah and Kebbeh, who struggle to get their salaries and then sign up for mobile salary payments, into a host of materials targeted to the Liberian audience. Each piece mSTAR created aimed to tell a story.

And it seemed to work. Whether projected on a sheet at a training in a rural community center or on a TV in a government hall, each time the training video is shown, the audience leans in, laughing and relating to the struggles of Kebbeh and Nyemah. When surveyed by mSTAR, attendees overwhelmingly testified that they understood the program.

When communicating to donors and American audiences, mSTAR pivoted its communications, creating infographics and blogs which Americans gravitate towards: explanations of processes, pie charts and bar graphs.

In the end, mSTAR enrolled nearly 5,000 education and health workers in the mobile money salary program, reaching every county in Liberia. Through mobile salary payments, workers were able to spend 12 more hours per month at their job and save 60% in costs when retrieving their salaries. Mobile money salary payments are beginning to normalize mobile money in rural Liberia and build the mobile money ecosystem, setting the ground work for greater financial inclusion and economic development.

The development community knows that understanding local contexts and cultures is key for a successful project. mSTAR took that to heart, bringing all stakeholders into the creation of products to see it through authentically. When the activity ended, because mSTAR had worked with the government on each material, the government partners had the tools to continue to promote the program, using the story of Kebbeh and Nyemah. Paying attention to and incorporating local customs helped mSTAR succeed in Liberia, laying a foundation for buy-in by the government and trust with beneficiaries.

Clarissa Perkins is the Communications Specialist for the mSTAR project at FHI 360. She has experience conducting communications for a host of causes including economic empowerment and innovation, the protection of migrants and refugees, and uses of technology to increase food security, gender equality and economic growth. Clarissa has developed relationships and worked with foreign and local governments. She has experience communicating to audiences of various backgrounds using blogs, events, social media, digital, radio and print ads, infographics, videos, podcasts, op-eds and traditional press.

The Calculations Are In: Digitizing Salaries Can Save Governments Millions

By Zach Andersson, Acting Project Director, LIFT 2

Funded by USAID and led by FHI 360, mSTAR/Liberia ended activities in May 2018 after enrolling 4,870 civil servants across Liberia into mobile salary payments and successfully handing the mobile salary payment program over to the government. This post is part of a summer blog series on mSTAR/Liberia: what went well and why, how we overcame challenges, and lessons for the future.  

Exactly how much could government ministries save by digitizing salary payments? In Liberia, we do the math to find out.

The Government of Liberia, like many governments in developing economies, faces resource constraints which affect public service delivery. With an annual budget of $526 million, the lack of capital is evident across the country, from poor road quality to broken down ambulances.

Difficulties like bad roads, a lack of banks and low liquidity lead health and education workers to leave their shifts for hours and even days to pick up their salaries. From 2016 – 2018, mSTAR worked with Ministry of Health (MOH) and Ministry of Education (MOE) to digitize their workers’ salaries. We believed digital payments could not only save staff time and money spent when traveling to a brick-and-mortar bank each month, but could also keep workers from leaving work to do so. We collected data over the course of the two-year project to assess our progress and pivot, as required, to achieve high satisfaction of salary recipients and create a successful, sustainable system.

Standard survey tools developed and implemented by the mSTAR team demonstrated that when picking up salaries from mobile money agents instead of banks, health and education workers reduced the amount of money they spent by 58 percent and decreased the amount of time missed from their jobs by an average of 12 hours per month.

Going beyond the benefit of mobile money salaries for individuals, mSTAR sought to estimate the monetary value of the productivity lost when staff left work to collect their salaries each month.

How did we do this?

1. The first step was calculating the total self-reported hours missed away from work when collecting salaries via mobile money and direct deposit at the bank by the 194 MOE and 222 MOH staff surveyed. Using assumptions for both ministries of an eight-hour workday, five-day work week and four-week work month, the total number of possible hours per month MOE and MOH could spend on the job was also calculated (160). Keep in mind that banks have restrictive hours (normally 9am-2pm), whereas with mobile money there is more flexibility. Mobile money agents set their own schedules and usually are available after work, which allows health and education staff to remain on the job longer rather than leave their work to collect their pay.

2. With ministry survey samples for both the total hours missed collecting salaries via mobile money and direct deposit, a proportion of all possible work time missed was calculated. To do this, mSTAR aggregated the reported time missed away from work by staff surveyed and converted to hours, then divided by the total number of hours all those staff together could have worked. For the education sample, this came to 0.6 percent through mobile money and 10.9 percent through direct deposit, whereas for health, these were 0.7 percent and 5.9 percent respectively.

3. Referencing a UNCDF High Volume Payments Mapping presentation given June 28, 2017, we calculated the net salary paid for all staff each day.

ZachTable14. We then estimated the “cost” to both Ministries in terms of lost productivity resulting from staff absence from work to collect their salaries. We multiplied the net salary totals for the entire population by the proportions of all possible work time missed by staff surveyed (step #2 above).

ZachTable2.jpg5. Subtracting the mobile money estimated costs of work time missed from the direct deposit estimated costs, the total estimated savings for both Ministries are presented below by workday, work month and work year.


So, what does this mean?

If all MOH and MOE staff transitioned to mobile salary payments, the government could potentially save around $4 million – the estimated value of the productive work time lost due to staff leaving their jobs to collect their pay.

While the findings provide food for thought for Government, there are a few critical limitations to keep in mind. The proportion of all staff surveyed by mSTAR from both ministries is small – only 3.1 percent of the MOH and 1.1 percent of the MOE. mSTAR cannot say with certainty that the staff surveyed are representative of the wider MOE and MOH populations. Staff surveyed by mSTAR opted into the mobile money salary payment – many other staff chose not to join. Therefore, surveyed staff may be predisposed to missing less time from work than others who have not yet joined (i.e. the rest of the ministry populations), which may reduce the utility of the multipliers.

The Government of Liberia seemed to take these results seriously. At the project closeout event in front of a large audience and media, the Director of Pay, Benefits and Pension at the Civil Service Agency, Roland Kallon, spoke of mobile money as the way of the future. Referencing the savings, he said, “mobile money process is what everyone should be gearing toward because it makes a lot sense…if you compare mobile money with any other mode of payment, anyone will choose mobile money.”

Zach Andersson is a Monitoring and Evaluation Advisor at FHI 360 and an Acting Project Director for FHI 360’s Livelihood and Food Security Technical Assistance (LIFT II) project. Zach has over 10 years of experience in disaster relief and global development program design, operational oversight, research, M&E and information management, proposal development, and technical assistance with successful, extended field deployments to Uganda, Ghana, Haiti, India, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi and Tanzania. He has produced and administered surveys, facilitated training and workshops, created assessment tools, edited and published guidance documents, built and maintained relationships with government and bilateral stakeholders, led research activities, and collaborated in the development of M&E indicators for disaster relief, economic strengthening and HIV work in several separate roles. 

100s of Youths are Using Tech to Connect Farmers to Resources – This 2017 Digi Winner is Building Opportunities in Uganda

We’re taking a behind-the-scenes look at the 2017 Digi winners. 2017 winner Feed the Future’s Uganda Commodity Production and Marketing Activity created EzyAgric, a massively successful digital platform which opened doors for both unemployed youth and smallholder farmers. Formerly unemployed youth are trained and serve as agents on the platform, helping farmers gain access to information and finances, increasing their production and resilience. EzyAgric’s results have been transformative, from empowering youth with tech skills to connecting farmers with deeply-needed resources. This interview was conducted with Robert Anyang, Chief of Party of the Commodity Production and Marketing Activity. Apply for the 2018 Digi Awards here by July 13th!

Q: What’s the project?

Robert Anyang (RA): Without access to formal financial services or transparent market information, smallholder farmers in Uganda struggle to obtain high quality inputs and agricultural financing. With support from the ag-tech start up Akorion, Feed the Future Uganda’s Commodity Production and Marketing Activity (CPM) developed a platform called EzyAgric for village agents to collect information on a farm’s location, soil properties and production activities, creating a digital profile to help farmers gain access to financial products and services. Since the pilot in 2014, CPM has exceeded most of its targets. The activity has profiled 130,253 farmers, allowing them to access more than $59 million in loans for crop production, creating employment opportunities for over 700 youth as village agents, enrolling thousands of farmers in crop insurance and providing more than 400,000 farmers with access to market information.


Q: What’s the local impact?

RA: 28-year-old Shallot Asimire was just an ordinary jobless young woman out of school doing regular home chores. Shallot was introduced to us through a colleague. We trained her in using various ICT applications and equipped her with a smartphone, which she used to start providing agricultural services to coffee farmers through EzyAgric. Shallot now earns over $4,000 per year and assists her husband.

Q: What surprised you most throughout the process of creating and implementing the tool?

RA: I was surprised by the quick uptake by some farmers and the government’s interest to build a similar project in the same line cutting across the whole country.

Q: What would you say to other projects to encourage them to use digital tools?

RA: I would encourage other projects to build sustainable innovations. Work with agile and self-driven youth to create an enabling environment to build innovations that are easily adaptable by the private sector.

Q: What does being a Digi winner mean to you?EzyAgric2

RA: The most important meaning of this to me is the deep knowing that I made a difference for others: seeing a group of youth grow a multi-billion company reaching out to more youth and farmers.

mSTAR and USAID developed videos of each winner, viewable here. All USAID projects and activities are invited apply to the 2018 Digi Awards.  

Learning from Ebola: How Mobile Money Can Prevent Health Crises

By Jonathan Kourgialis, Program Officer

mSTAR/Liberia ended activities in May 2018 after enrolling 4,870 civil servants across Liberia into mobile salary payments and successfully handing the mobile salary payment program over to the government. This post is part of a summer blog series on mSTAR/Liberia: what went well and why, how we overcame challenges, and lessons for the future. We’re writing from a management angle, monitoring and evaluation angle, a communications angle and a digital financial services angle. 

The Ebola outbreak hit Liberia hard. From 2014 to 2016, there were 10,678 cases and 4,810 lives claimed. Weakened from a protracted civil war, Liberia’s healthcare system struggled to keep up with the epidemic. Failures in the health system created severe consequences on the ground. One of those failures, with dire ramifications, revolved around payments.

As the Ebola outbreak raged, the Government of Liberia and partners introduced new financial incentives to compensate frontline health workers for the severe risks encountered when combatting the disease. However, the government and its partners were not able to transfer these new payments reliably to frontline staff, who were often placed in remote areas with limited access to banks. The government and its partners relied on cash, which was disbursed throughout Liberia by “pay teams,” who drove cash to rural towns. A pile of factors including quarantines, poor road and banking infrastructure amidst the ongoing crisis, low liquidity, and fear of the disease made pay teams inefficient and slow. Delays in the disbursement of payments contributed to health worker strikes, further crippling response efforts. The difficulties in making payments and the ensuing health workers’ discontent highlighted the critical role that efficient payment processes play in mobilizing health workers during a health emergency.


A clinic in Lofa County, Liberia, one of the first counties in Liberia hit with Ebola.

To avoid the recurrence of a payment breakdown like this, mSTAR worked with the Government of Liberia’s Ministry of Health (MOH) to build a set of standard operating procedures (SOPs) for payments to health workers through mobile money. When working efficiently and smoothly, mobile money has proven to make a significant impact on health crisis outcomes. At the height of the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, for example, the digitization of salary payments is estimated to have saved 2,000 lives in Sierra Leone by eliminating strikes by unpaid response workers. This is estimated to have saved almost $11 million in security and other costs related to moving cash. The SOPs mSTAR created for the MOH ensure the MOH’s payment functions will be strong enough that if a future emergency occurred, whether it was Ebola or another epidemic, health workers at the frontline would be compensated for their contributions and willing to stay on the job.


Navigating rural Liberia’s roads.

To create the SOPs, mSTAR first mapped MOH’s complicated payment types, systems, and streams. This included salaries paid to MOH employees through traditional government payment systems, incentive payments to contract workers paid directly by the MOH, and allowances to health workers paid directly by the MOH, each differentiated by funding stream. MOH staff are paid through funds from the GOL and funds from donors, so systems and streams are unconnected and not interoperable. Taking this into account, and utilizing mSTAR’s data systems, interoperability and mobile money expertise, mSTAR and the MOH came up with the three key tasks for the MOH to complete in the case of a health emergency:

  1. Coordinate data exchanges of staff and payment information between the MOH’s unconnected databases;
  2. Register health workers for mobile money payments within GOL systems and with the mobile money service providers (if necessary); and
  3. Disburse mobile money payments across the various payment streams.

The SOPs outline how to accomplish these tasks and graphical flows and steps breaking down each. This included recommendations on how mHero, a two-way mobile phone-based communication system, can efficiently register staff for mobile money payments and alert the MOH to mobile payment issues.

mSTAR built in recommended safeguards for the success of the SOPs such as the creation of a mobile money payments emergency committee to oversee the implementation of the SOPs during an emergency and the establishment of mobile money payment accounts specifically for MOH payment streams prior to an emergency.

While theses SOPs are tailored to the Liberian MOH’s systems, the collaborative effort to develop SOPs for the scaling of mobile money payments for health workers, or any type of emergency responder, is replicable in other contexts. It is a necessary endeavor for governments of any country vulnerable to health or natural disaster emergencies. As was seen in Liberia during Ebola, making sure that those risking their lives to save others are compensated in a timely and efficient manner is vitally important to overall emergency response efforts and is worth investing in prior to an emergency. While we hope that the Liberian MOH does not have to use these SOPs in the future, they are now prepared to pay frontline staff if the need arises again. We recommend that other governments prepare themselves in a similar manner where possible.

Jonathan Kourgialis is a Program Officer at FHI 360. He has focused on mSTAR’s work in Liberia, building and strengthening the Government of Liberia’s mobile money salary payment systems. Jonathan currently works on civil society and peace building projects.

‘I feel so proud when I wear it’ – How This 2017 Digi Winner’s SmartCard Won Over Hearts & Brought Results

We’re taking a behind-the-scenes look at the 2017 Digi winners. Hear from ADVANCE II on what it means to be a Digi winner and the hugely beneficial, but completely unexpected outcomes, of their digital solution. This interview was conducted with Emmanuel Dormon, Chief of Party of ADVANCE II. All USAID projects and activities are invited to apply for the 2018 Digi Awards here.

Q: What’s the project?

Emmanuel Dormon (ED): ADVANCE II works to improve the competitiveness of the maize, rice, and soybean value chains in Ghana. As part of this, the project provides training to farmers. But ADVANCE II struggled to get accurate registrations and data from the trainings, so we implemented a smartcard ID technology that stores and tracks data. The ID cards allowed USAID and project officers to see real-time results and build more effective programming. ADVANCE II has successfully tracked over 120,000 people who participated in 5,111 training sessions and increased the number of trainings tailored to female farmers, a previously underrepresented population in trainings.

Q: What’s the local impact?

ED: The tool is efficient and saves farmers’ time.

“The computer brings up my name. After training is over, I don’t have to sit down for long before they record my attendance. The card encourages us to attend the meetings and it saves our time,” says Meli Alhassan from Tamalgu Community in the Karaga District in the Northern Region.

“The card encourages us to attend the meetings and it saves our time.”

Beneficiaries receive more targeted trainings. With the smartcard, the project is able to target training topics to specific communities and smallholder farmers. The project has been able to accurately link the number and specific types of trainings to behavior change, and tailor specific topics to female farmers based on analysis of the data captured using the smartcards system. This means that female farmers who generally have less access to land and less time to manage their farms because of other household chores get the opportunity to improve their farming activities with targeted interventions as well as strategies to empower them to take more control over their lives and resources.

The tool has enhanced the confidence and reputation of women. The use of the smartcard has increased the confidence of women beneficiaries. It gives the women a sense of pride when others get to know their association with the project. “Formerly, as a woman you could have money but you could not get a tractor to plough for you until all the men’s fields had been plowed. But now, because of the USAID ADVANCE card, when you have it, they can easily plough for you,” Amama Sulemana from Tamalgu Community in the Karaga District in the Northern Region says. Memuna Adoku of the same community added, “whoever sees you with the card will know you are in USAID ADVANCE. That alone gives you some respect.”

“Formerly, as a woman you could have money but you could not get a tractor to plough for you until all the men’s fields had been plowed. But now, because of the USAID ADVANCE card, when you have it, they can easily plough for you.”

Increased sense of belonging and communal engagement. Socially, the smartcard improves engagement among farmers. It provides a form of identification to those without any formal ID, as is often the case in rural Ghana. The cards also provide a sense of belonging for the project beneficiaries especially at the community level. “The smartcard is very good. Anytime I attend a training, I put it on and it makes it easier to identify me. I don’t have to mention my name; the card gives my personal details, farm size, yield and other information. I feel so proud when I wear it. In fact, I even put it on when I am attending programs like outdooring, marriage ceremonies. We are able to flow well with each other,” says Fati Sulemana, a smallholder farmer in Nansoni community in the Northern Region.

This sense of identity that the card provides to the smallholder farmers was not anticipated but it has become a very important factor that enables them to access services more easily.

Q: What surprised you most throughout the process of creating and implementing the tool?

ED: The high level of appreciation of the tool by the farmers. Given the low level ADVANCEBabyof literacy and technology adoption in the rural areas, we were not certain as to how readily the farmers would accept the use of the smartcards. It was surprising to see how quickly they welcomed it.

We were also surprised by the pace of learning by project officers. Most (about 80 percent) of project staff accepted and learned to use the tool within the first month of its introduction. About 10 percent of staff, mostly the older ones, took a longer period to fully embrace the tool and use it fully.

Q: What would you say to other projects to encourage them to use digital tools?

ED: The smartcard improves data capturing and monitoring, thereby eliminating the risk of double counting. The use of the smartcard is good. It enables the project to determine the training attendance rate of farmers and follow up on beneficiaries with poor attendance. As of March 2018, the project had effectively tracked 129,900 beneficiaries who have attended trainings within the four years of use, and provides almost real-time data for analysis and effective management decision making.

Data analysis is faster and easier with the smartcard. 


The tool helps to accurately update information on the farmers with respect to their crop yield, household, and other participants in the household. On a weekly basis, we can know how many farmers have been trained and in what topics. We are able to track which particular training a farmer has received, the percentage change in the yield and then, a percentage change in the income of the farmer. We are able to cross tabulate various elements to determine which assumptions about training (and specific topics) are correct and which ones are not, thereby enabling project managers to decide on necessary changes and adaptations.

The smart card system guides some operational decisions. The smartcard makes community engagement more efficient. Before we engage community members, we know how many resources we need because we know the total number of farmers that are in the community. High data quality is assured with less effort and time in addition to easy identification of beneficiaries because they are assigned unique ID numbers.

Q: What does being a Digi winner mean to you?

ED: All of us working for the project feel very proud being a Digi winner. It shows that being proactive, innovative and technology-driven is recognized and it is the way to go as a project. When we used paper rosters, we were not able to correlate the training activity with the farmers and harvesting data because we couldn’t uniquely identify farmers. We also recognize that having been winners, a lot is expected from us and we are redoubling our efforts to remain leaders in the field of adopting digital tools to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our interventions to attain the desired project results and goals. Winning the Digi award also increases our credibility as a project.

mSTAR and USAID developed videos of each winner, viewable here. All USAID projects and activities are invited apply to the 2018 Digi Awards.  

4 Keys to Make Your Project Handover Successful, No Matter the Circumstance

By Erica Bustinza, mSTAR Project Director

mSTAR/Liberia ended activities in May 2018 after enrolling 4,870 civil servants across Liberia into mobile salary payments and successfully handing the mobile salary payment program over to the government. Over the summer we will be posting a blog series on what went well and why, how we overcame challenges, and lessons for the future. We’ll be writing from a management angle, monitoring and evaluation angle, a communications angle and a digital financial services angle. 

Project closeout is a hectic time. There’s a list of detailed tasks to accomplish, from finalizing results and lessons learned to equipment disposition. But what if closeout plans are rocked by a natural disaster? Or a financial shock? Or a government transition?

For the first time in 12 years in Liberia, a new president was elected to power. It was a peaceful transition of power that the country celebrated, but it also coincided perfectly with mSTAR/Liberia’s scheduled closeout. Charged with supporting the government to offer mobile money salary payments to civil servants, mSTAR/Liberia’s planned closeout included a comprehensive handover of intricate tasks to government leaders. However, a new administration meant that many government colleagues who supported the project were being replaced. The mSTAR team couldn’t ask the government to reschedule the transition and it was unclear if there would be enough time to ensure the new administration would fully be able to take ownership. In the last few months of the project, navigating the transition appeared daunting.

From 2016 to 2018, mSTAR/Liberia supported the government in offering mobile money as a new payment option for civil servants. Before this payment option, the only way for civil servants to receive their salary was to travel down dangerous roads to banks in distant cities where low liquidity forced them to wait, often for days. Throughout this journey, civil servants spend huge sums of money on lodging and food, in addition to missing work. With the mobile money salary payment option, however, civil servants can receive their salary on their phones. This option has saved civil servants 12 hours at work and 979 LD on average, which is roughly 7 percent of the average salary.

For two years, mSTAR worked to make this payment option a success. mSTAR built consensus with government and private sector stakeholders to enroll civil servants in the program through over 60 local events across all 15 Liberian counties. Through this work, over 4,500 civil servants enrolled in the payment program and the country’s two mobile money providers signed on to offer their services.

Yet from June 2017 all the way to March 2018, elections and the change of administration caused an all-around distraction for both mSTAR and government staff, impeding progress during key months for implementation. Fortunately, several government counterparts felt the gains that had been made and were motivated to push for activities to continue, even if at a reduced pace.

In the last six months of mSTAR/Liberia’s activities, it became clear that mSTAR’s only option for a smooth handover was to begin project transition early and involve as many relevant stakeholders as possible. As election campaigns heated up, it took several months to hold initial transition meetings, but mSTAR remained persistent. Following the inauguration in January 2018, the new administration greenlighted select mSTAR activities and the mSTAR and GOL teams sprang into action. During the final months of the project, major sustainability activities were achieved including three large-scale regional trainings for district and county staff, a high-level stakeholder sustainability meeting and a final closeout event featuring public statements of support from each key stakeholder, many of whom were from the new administration. The project not only met, but surpassed expectations.

mSTAR’s Keys to Closeout Success:

  1. Build sustainability into project design. The project built government ownership into the design. Stakeholders knew from the onset that the government would own the initiative. From the start, the mSTAR team worked towards that goal. This understanding made the eventual government transition smooth.
  2. Involve local and technical staff in key parts of implementation. mSTAR worked with the GOL technical teams rather than focusing on politically-appointed decision makers. While senior staff were replaced in the new administration, the technical teams remained. The technical teams were proud advocates of the program and obtained critical buy-in from the new administration.
  3. Create collaborative and cost-effective mechanisms. At the project onset, mSTAR and the GOL knew the GOL would not be able to sustain the large-scale enrollment events that mSTAR was supporting, so they created a separate enrollment method called “individual enrollments.” This system utilizes processes that are already in place, eliminating the need for additional funding or time-consuming new functions for overstretched rural staff.
  4. Keep energy and momentum high. The government was energized to continue scaling up the project because they saw positive results. Benefits the government saw include:
  • Staff spend less time collecting salary
  • Staff have more time on duty at health facilities and schools
  • Staff reported fewer complaints pertaining to salary issues
  • Staff experienced financial savings due to reduced transportation and other related costs when collecting salary at the bank

In light of these four keys, the importance of building ownership into the project design remains paramount. It not only prepared the project and the GOL for the transition, but also helped mSTAR reach and exceed project goals and build civil servant trust in the system. County and district staff reported that they understand the importance of their duty and that they would continue to encourage civil servants to transition to mobile money salary payments. Leadership in Monrovia said the same. “We will run with this program,” said James M. Beyan, the Director of Human Resources at the Ministry of Health, at the closeout event. James Armah Massaquoi of the Ministry of Education echoed, “We will continue the effort of mobile money. We will not allow the dream to die though the challenges seem big.”

Erica Bustinza has worked in development for over 10 years in various geographic regions and sectors, primarily focused on access to finance, economic development and technology integration. She holds a MSc in International Development from Tulane University and a BSc from Bradley University.

‘She doubled her production that year-‘ 2017 Digi Winner Impacts the Lives of Ethiopia’s Farmers

We’re taking a behind-the-scenes look at the 2017 Digi winners. Hear their take on what it means to be a Digi winner and the power of digital tools. This interview was conducted with Mekdes Girmaw, Project Director for the Digital Integration to Amplify Agricultural Extension Project. All USAID projects and activities are invited to apply for the 2018 Digi Awards here. 

Q: What’s the project?

Mekdes Girmaw (MG): Digital Integration to Amplify Agricultural Extension harnesses locally-produced video, radio, interactive voice response and mobile data collection combined with traditional extension workers to spread information about best practices to smallholder farmers. One third of the farmers reached, 40 percent of whom are female farmers, have adopted at least one new practice.

Q: What’s the local impact?

MG: Take Ms. Jorge, a farmer in Becho district of Oromia region, Ethiopia. She participates regularly in her village farmer development group meetings. She watches localized videos featuring local farmers talking about best agricultural practices and discusses the practices with group members and the extension agent. She also is engaged with her local community listener group that comes together to regularly listen to participatory radio campaigns. The Aybar Broad Bed Maker (BBM) tool was introduced in a video as well as during radio segments.

Ms. Jorge listened to the radio program and watched videos that discussed the benefit of the tool – to create furrows and drain excess water from water-logged soils. Although extension agents had introduced the tool at a local demonstration plot during years past, many farmers including Ms. Jorge did not have the confidence to assemble and use it. After watching the videos and listening to the radio broadcasts, Ms. Jorge worked with extension agents and tested the Aybar BBM during her planting of one hectare of an improved variety of teff. By using the tool, and by changing her management practices of teff, she doubled her production that year.

Q: What surprised you when implementing this project?

MG: We work in very close collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture in Ethiopia. Digital Green, a project implementing partner, aims to leverage pre-existing structures such as the farmer development groups and the country’s agricultural extension structure, and layer digital technology onto those structures to increase smallholder farmer incomes. The Ministry of Agriculture in Ethiopia is eager to maintain the momentum that the Digital Integration project has spurred; they have begun institutionalizing the end-to-end video-enabled extension approach and are eager to leverage IVR and radio to support smallholder farmers as well.

We also learned that adding more ICT channels do not always generate deeper impact. Mobiles are often useful for exchanging data or smaller information that fluctuates (such as market prices or weather); whereas video provides rich information and has the ability to motivate viewers. We know that ICT is not a substitute for face-to-face human interactions; the two need to be paired and work in complementary ways.

Q: What would you say to other projects to encourage them to use digital tools?

MG: The content of digitally-delivered messages within the agricultural space really needs to be tailored and contextualized for greater farmer uptake. If practices are broken down by tangible adoption points and modified for each target group, messages could be powerful for the farmers watching, and for those with whom they share information.

It would be great if projects that are using ICT mapped out their country’s ICT ecosystem to sustainably scale and drive impact from scale.

Q: What does it mean to be a Digi Award winner?

MG: We are excited that the consortium partners,, Dimagi, Farm Radio EthiopiaFarmerInternational, and Digital Green, as well as all of the key partners of this project, the Ministry of Agriculture in Ethiopia, the Agricultural Transformation Agency, AGRA & their grantees, were recognized for the integrated work that took place to support smallholder farmers in Ethiopia. The project was an enriching, encouraging experience and we’ve learned from it. We look forward to continuing to bridge gaps and find solutions to continue supporting smallholder farmers to increase their incomes and leveraging the lessons learned from this project to do so efficiently and effectively.

mSTAR and USAID developed videos of each winner, viewable here. All USAID projects and activities are invited apply to the 2018 Digi Awards.  

The 2018 Digi Award Application is Now Live!

The second annual Digital Development Awards are now live! 

While the applications are open, we’d like to look back at the 2017 Digi winners. The 2017 winners represent exemplary uses of digital technology across sectors, regions and contexts. We’re excited to share some behind-the-scenes interviews with the Digi winners featuring what the Digi means to them and what it takes to implement digital technology successfully. In this interview, the B+WISER project gives us their inside take on being a Digi winner.

Q: What’s the project?

A: B+WISER from the Philippines. B+WISER teamed up with Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to develop the Lawin Forest and Biodiversity Protection System, which revolutionizes how the Philippines prevents forest destruction. Through Lawin, forest rangers digitally record observations about forest conditions, species and threats to provide geo-referenced, up-to-date information that informs DENR’s forest protection actions at all levels.

See B+WISER in action in the Filipino rainforest here.


Rex Telon uses Lawin.

Q: What’s Lawin’s impact on local communities?

A: Before the innovation, the DENR had only little information about the efforts of the forest rangers in the field. With Lawin, rangers like Rexmel Telon, who has always believed protecting the forest is a priority to safeguard the livelihood of future generations, are now being appreciated for their forest protection efforts. The digital innovation changed the way Rex and 3,000 other rangers approach forest protection. Their observations on the status of the forest and threats to the natural forest can now be easily shared to the local, regional and national level through the SMART Connect web platform, allowing DENR to do data-driven and transparent decision making for forest and biodiversity conservation. A comprehensive approach to forest protection is imperative in addressing the threats to forest and its biodiversity. The innovation provides the data needed for improving the design and implementation of the DENR community-based livelihood programs. Activities such as establishing agroforestry farms, energy crop plantations and the hiring of community members as forest guards, are being implemented in areas where data shows increased level of forest threats to engage the communities as part of the forest protection efforts, minimizing destructive anthropogenic threats. In addition, the innovation empowers local communities to take an active role in protecting their forest resources such as the case of Mount Kitanglad, an ASEAN Heritage natural park in Mindanao, where 320 indigenous people volunteer guards use the innovation to protect the park.

Q: What was most surprising throughout the process of creating and implementing the tool?

A: The Lawin digital innovation was designed to scale at the onset. It was surprising to see the overwhelming buy-in from DENR at all levels and the swift manner in which the DENR decision makers demonstrated commitment to scale-up the system. In less than two years, Lawin was transformed from a small-scale forest protection system in seven sites comprising a total 240,000 hectares of natural forest to a national system that will protect more than 7 million hectares of natural forest. The strong local ownership of the innovation is demonstrated by DENR’s significant investment of more than $20 million annually and the daily use of the innovation by more than 3,000 staff.

Lawin has been so successful that the DENR wants to expand it to cover all the environmental mandates of the Department including the monitoring and assessment of its flagship reforestation program, as well as the compliance of mining operations and the tourism and coastal management efforts, among others.

Q: What are the keys to successfully implementing digital technology?

A: Local ownership is paramount both to successful implementation and sustainability. Inclusive participation of partners and relevant stakeholders is bwiser5important in understanding the development challenge, defining workable solutions and agreeing on stakeholder roles to address the situation. In particular, you need to determine the data and information gaps that stakeholders and decision makers need to overcome. At this point, you can think of the value that digital innovations can bring to address these gaps. It is critical to work together with the counterpart in the development of the innovation, thinking of the users, the potential to scale, and the possibility for its sustained implementation even beyond the project. To the extent possible, work on a cost-sharing scheme for carrying out capacity-building activities and ensure a critical mass of users can be trained. Cost-sharing (having skin in the game) for capacity-building events will help increase local ownership of innovation. Finally, one cannot underestimate the contribution that simplicity and user friendliness can have at the moment of scaling up a digital development innovation – keep it simple!

Q: What does being a Digi winner mean to B+WISER?

A: The Digi Award brought a sense of accomplishment and recognition not only on bwiser4the part of the USAID project, but more importantly, on the part of the DENR. The award showed the government that their efforts in the development and implementation of the system in partnership with USAID represents best international practice. Their participation in the Digital Development Forum where the Digi winners were recognized, and the award itself, resulted in renewed commitment on the part of the authorities for the sustained implementation of the Lawin system in the Philippines.

mSTAR and USAID developed videos of each winner, viewable here. All USAID projects and activities are invited apply to the 2018 Digi Awards.  

Serving Smallholder Farmers in the Digital Age: Why it Requires Treating Data Like an Asset

The blog was originally posted on Next Billion. To read original, click here

By: Bobbi Gray, Research Director, Grameen Foundation and Ellen Galdava, Program Officer, mSTAR Project, FHI 360

Satellites. The Internet of Things. Big Data. Blockchain. These concepts, among others, can elicit images of a futuristic world for the agricultural sector—and one that is still years away. Then again, maybe not. GSMA estimates that by 2020 almost three-quarters of the world’s population will subscribe to mobile services and that the next wave of mobile connections will mostly come from rural areas, where smallholder farmers produce the majority of food, yet often live in poverty. The rise of mobile phones in rural regions has the potential to change the face of smallholder farming and help lift remote communities out of poverty.

The spread of mobile technology combined with remote-sensing data, distributed computing and storage capabilities are opening up new opportunities to integrate smallholder farm households into the broader agri-food system. This change begins with one basic activity: compiling farmer profiles. How farmer profiles are compiled, stored, analyzed and utilized using advanced digital technologies can drive whether, and how quickly, agricultural development is able to end poverty and hunger among rural populations.

So what are farmer profiles? Governments and their partners have collected data on and about farmers for decades. More recently, agribusinesses, mobile network operators, financial service providers and other companies have done the same. Typically, their data collection activities share a common goal: to understand farmer needs for products, information services, market linkages and finance. As a result, farmers often spend hours repeatedly answering analogous questions from service providers seeking to understand their customers. Yet the information gathered is often insufficient to fully inform the comprehensive solutions and partnerships needed to transform smallholder farming into viable, sustainable businesses.

As technology use increases and improves in rural areas, the paradigm for how smallholder farmers are profiled and defined is shifting. To help describe this shift, Grameen Foundation, supported by USAID’s Digital Development for Feed the Future (D2FTF) and FHI 360, conducted a landscape assessment that:

  • Documents the types of service providers that collect farmer profile data, how           data is collected, analyzed and used to support smallholders with products and services, and how this data is shared and managed.
  • Highlights innovative models of smallholder farmer data management and                 sharing in order to inspire new thinking among actors in this space, and
  • Outlines key considerations when assessing existing efforts, or investing in new        efforts, to develop and leverage farmer profile data.

The assessment reveals innovations in the use of digital technologies all along the smallholder farmer data value chain–from how farmers are identified to how data is shared and managed. For example, satellites, remote sensors and drones can be used to capture data on the farm—and on the plants and soil conditions, without the need for intensive field agent data collection processes. Social media data, like Facebook data, can be mined to develop chatbots that draw on cognitive analytics to immediately respond to farmer questions about livestock disease outbreaks, providing timely support to farmers at low cost. Open data sharing platforms, which draw on thousands of studies and research databases, can facilitate the creation of new data, allowing typically siloed data to be combined for new insights. Mobile phone usage data can be analyzed to predict a user’s occupation, and therefore what type of farming information might be most useful to him or her.

When smallholder farmer data is digital—and is combined with farm data (such as data on the plants grown or soil conditions) and other big data sources or complementary data sources, such as national identity registries—we can minimize the amount of time requested of farmers for their data. We can also build farmer profiles that are dynamic; that integrate comprehensive data on the farm and farmer; that can be leveraged for timely support to the farmer; and that the farmer her/himself could own and control.

Data-driven agriculture is already creating a new economy, one where data itself is currency. Data is being monetized and sold—whether to provide crucial information to financial services providers to develop appropriate agricultural finance products, or to support input suppliers trying to serve their target markets. Who controls that data, and how it is used, will determine the success of service providers and farmers alike. Data is no longer just a resource, but an asset.

In summary, the data and the technology (hardware and software) exist to solve many constraints that farmers face. But these resources are still fragmented, and not all service providers—let alone farmers—have equal opportunities to access them. Data science—some might say “Big Data analytics”—promises to bring fragmented data, resources and service providers together to support the farmer ecosystem.

The farmer profile landscape assessment itself will be published later this year. It represents a starting point for further discussion on how we can develop and leverage smallholder farmer profile data.

Photo Credit: LWR / Jake Lyell

An Interview with Jim Forster of INI Holdings: Increasing Access to Affordable Communications

This blog is the first in a series of interviews focusing on last-mile innovation.

Mobile internet access is available to over two-thirds of the world via 3G coverage, yet significant populations within low- and middle-income countries still cannot connect to the internet because of availability and affordability issues. Ensuring equitable access in these frontier markets poses complex challenges but also a dynamic set of opportunities. A growing number of innovative enterprises and community networks are seizing these opportunities to meet the demand for access among rural and low-income urban consumers. They are employing novel business models and technologies to profitably and sustainably serve markets where mobile network operators and fixed-line internet service providers cannot make their traditional operating models work. The diversified models and ingenuity of these connectivity enterprises are causing investors to pay attention. With funding from USAID under the Last-Mile Connectivity Initiative, mSTAR recently completed a landscaping of over 50 last-mile connectivity enterprises offering services and 50 investors channeling capital into these solutions. jim5.png

Jim Forster is one investor who has taken notice. Jim is a connectivity veteran who spent 20 years at Cisco, founded, and currently serves as Chairman of Mawingu and AirJaldi Networks. In response to the growing opportunity for investment, Jim recently launched INI Holdings with partner Ben Matranga to manage a portfolio of investments in affordable, reliable, and high-speed connectivity.

Hannah Skelly, mSTAR Technical Advisor, interviewed Jim in March 2018 to learn more about INI Holdings.

What new trends get you excited about the last-mile connectivity space?

JF: In 2018, much of the world is connected, but many people still don’t have connectivity. The first wave of extending communications technologies prioritized access, with the benchmark being number of total users. It is a binary measurement that rightfully prioritized expanding coverage to more people. We believe the next wave is beginning to prioritize consumption and providing communications at a price and quality that nearly all can afford.  Our ultimate goal is not just for people to have communications tools in their hands, but be able to use them because the cost and quality is no longer a barrier.

What motivated you to start INI Holdings?

JF: I spent 20 years at Cisco Systems. It was fascinating to build products that are key parts of the internet as it grew so rapidly. The last several years at Cisco I spent time looking at how to spread the internet into more places, especially rural areas of Africa and Asia. I saw there was a need for financing of early stage companies. At Cisco I was a Senior Engineer but when I left in 2008 I became an angel investor, learning by doing. Recently I wanted to accelerate and do more, so I asked Ben to get involved. He’s got lots of great experience that complements mine, including working with entrepreneurs to rebuild infrastructure in Africa and Latin America. I knew his passion for restoring communities and supporting new ideas and experience in finance and infrastructure in remote areas would help push our investments forward.

The INI investment portfolio includes internet service providers (ISPs) that have developed operating models that can profitably provide service where none currently exists as well as offer service affordably to low-income consumers. What are the main characteristics of these companies’ approaches that enable them to operate profitably in areas that the traditional mobile network operators have passed over?

JF: Traditional mobile operators have a cost structure that requires certain corresponding revenue. While mobile networks are great, they are not the only structure that can deliver internet content and services. In particular, in the US, Europe and Eastern Asia there are very large and successful networks, such as the cable company networks, or the various DSL/FTTx/Fixed Wireless networks that everyone uses at home and in the office. Besides connecting desktop, laptops and over-the-top (OTT) video and music systems, these networks carry more data to mobile phones than the mobile operators carry. But in Africa and South and Central Asia, these networks almost don’t exist. By dropping the requirement that connectivity should work even while moving and have a phone number, it’s possible to use other technology that is faster and cheaper than the mobile infrastructure.

INI describes itself as a double-bottom line investor, both venture capitalists focused on financial returns and impact investors focused on socio-economic outcomes. What are the most important social returns you anticipate from your investments?

JF: We expect our portfolio of ISPs to focus on access at an affordable price. We know that communications is one of the primary discretionary expenses for our customers – if our companies can provide better quality at a lower price – that puts more money in our customers pockets.  In South Africa for example, our customers currently spend up to 20 percent of their income on data from mobile telecommunication operators: we offer 20 times more bandwidth value. That’s more bandwidth at a lower cost.

In terms of geography, your investments span many interesting frontier markets —Mawingu in Kenya, Habari in Tanzania, AirJaldi in India and TooMuchWiFi in South Africa. What has your experience been in these markets – have you noticed any major similarities or differences?

JF: Each market has its own particular set of challenges. There are some clear similarities in hardware technology, building out revenue models, or sales strategy. We are hands-on investors that provide financial capital alongside technical and strategic expertise. But ultimately, it’s about finding great local entrepreneurs and building exceptional teams that know their communities far better than we do.

What do you anticipate your portfolio will look like in 3-5 years?

JF: INI is focused on building a portfolio of ISPs that serve millions of clients. That takes time, but we know great companies are built one happy customer at a time.

What advice would you give to other investors looking to enter this space?

JF: Find other investors who shares your values and complements your knowledge base. There are many investors who are happy to have new investors participate in deals. Always focus on the people – the customers, the entrepreneurs, the line managers – they are ultimately what you are investing in.

mSTAR is supporting the USAID Digital Inclusion team’s Last-Mile Connectivity Initiative to connect investors, such as Jim and Ben, with the growing number of connectivity enterprises. Stay tuned via the mSTAR blog and the Digital Inclusion website to hear more from investors who see huge commercial and social potential in the connectivity space and the enterprises developing and deploying solutions.