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 pose 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 offer 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 NetworktheWorld.org, 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.

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AMA Innovation Lab and D2FTF Use Digital Tools to Break Down Barriers to Agricultural Insurance

This blog was originally posted on Agrilinks. To read the original, click here

By: Tara Chui, Assistant Director, AMA Innovation Lab, UC Davis

In the developing world, there is little agriculturalists can do to protect themselves and their families from weather volatility. When shocks occur, many families have to resort to defaulting on loans, selling assets, reducing their meals or pulling children out of school. Because of this, even before disaster strikes, many farmers pass on high reward, but potentially risky, opportunities. Even though additional investments in farm productivity could help the household get out of poverty, these investments could also increase the household exposure to risk. This means many families don’t take the growth opportunities available to them. In this way, risk exposure both makes families poor and keeps families poor.

At the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Assets and Market Access (AMA Innovation Lab), we’ve found that agricultural index insurance, by transferring these risks away from farmers, can increase household resilience and enable smallholder farmers to take advantage of productive opportunities that are available to them. By avoiding costly coping mechanisms and taking advantage of growth opportunities, households and communities can make productive investments and can set themselves on a growth trajectory.

Many agricultural insurance pilots, despite indications of positive welfare impacts, have not been taken to scale. Many of the challenges they face are things like consumer education, sales and distribution in remote locations and small sales at a time.

One of the most successful index insurance projects – Index-Based Livestock Insurance (IBLI) in East Africa – was met with a series of barriers in making the product accessible to those who stood the most to benefit from the product. For example, pastoralists, by definition, are often not in their homes. This makes it exceedingly difficult to get the payouts to the insured pastoralists when payouts are triggered. If it takes too long for insured agriculturalists to receive their payouts, then they are forced to resort to the same costly coping strategies that they bought the insurance to avoid. This can also severely inhibit, or entirely demolish, an intervention. In the case of IBLI, the payout problems meant that the costs of distributing payouts were actually higher than the value of the payouts themselves.

Now, as part of the Kenya Livestock Insurance Program, the next stage of the ILBI intervention, insurers are moving to mobile phones to make sure payments get to the insured quickly. Because of the huge advances made in digital innovations, interventions can be made more feasible, and more of the value can be passed on to the pastoralists themselves.

At the AMA Innovation Lab, we see on the horizon many more opportunities for digital innovations to increase access to insurance through improved consumer education, sales platforms, insurance purchase aggregation and payout distribution platforms mechanisms. Moreover, digital innovations such as remote sensing and drones have high potential to make the indices used to trigger payouts better at seeing the reality of situations on the ground and making the contract much more valuable to farmers than was possible in the past.

As the AMA Innovation Lab continues to work with pilot studies and implementation partners – in both public and private sectors – digital innovations can make what once was infeasible now feasible. And Feed the Future’s new guide, Using Digital Tools to Expand Access To Agricultural Insurance, will provide implementation partners with an important resource to address these barriers that stand behind this important innovation and rural communities.

When used in concert with some of the tools being developed by the AMA Innovation Lab to promote the responsible and effective development of agricultural insurance, this guide can help to get high-quality, well-designed agricultural insurance products to those who stand to benefit the most, increasing the resilience of vulnerable populations. The framework it provides can help to identify both challenges and opportunities before beginning an intervention and to take advantage of the rapidly increasing number of technological advances that can make agricultural insurance work.

To learn more about agricultural insurance, the Digital Development for Feed the Future created Using Digital Tools to Expand Access to Agricultural Insurance. This resource shows USAID missions and implementing partners how to leverage the use of digital tools to expand the use agricultural insurance. 

Photo Credit: International Livestock Research Institute 

Playing The Right Role In Haiti’s Growing Mobile Sector: 4 Key Principles

Digital financial services have been a robust part of the development sector for over a decade and their impact continues to grow. This blog is part of a series that focuses on successful DFS projects that achieve results-driven impact in people’s lives.

By: John Jepsen, Project Director and Senior Advisor, Haiti Finance Inclusive, DAI

It’s an exciting time for mobile money expansion in Haiti. Digicel’s MonCash – Haiti’s largest mobile money deployment – has reached nearly 1 million customers and $400 million in yearly transacted value in 2017. This customer base represents a +1500 percent increase from 2015, the same year Digicel rebooted its strategy, marketing approach, product offering, and sales and training force.

Digicel has achieved these impressive results despite a generally unfavorable enabling environment for mobile money. The digital financial service sector, including mobile money, still operates under the original e-money policy that was drafted in 2010 in response to interest and significant donor investment, particularly by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded Haiti Mobile Money Initiative and the USAID/Haiti HIFIVE project. There also have not been partnerships or active dialogue to further develop interoperable systems, shared or common agent networks, or opening of APIs to encourage fintech innovation. These results also came at a time where there was no broad digital financial services donor support or programming in Haiti. Thus, Digicel’s recent results are largely attributable to its own internal, sustained effort.

Yet despite the 1500 percent increase in MonCash clients, Haiti still has the highest un-banked population in the Latin America and Caribbean region. Even if doubling the findings from the 2014 Global Findex, Haiti would still exhibit some of the lowest financial inclusion not just in the Latin American and Caribbean region, but globally. There’s no doubt that there is still a lot of work to do in Haiti. Issues such as diversity of products that focus on including the poor, women, and marginalized populations, financial education, consumer protection and product cost and quality are not well understood. Efforts to promote DFS in Haiti and broader financial inclusion must lead to the safe delivery of a variety of financial services at affordable costs to sections of disadvantaged and low-income segments of society.

The USAID/Haiti Finance Inclusive project, which started in April 2017, is designed to promote broad-based financial inclusion, including the expansion of digital financial services in Haiti. Finance Inclusive’s activities began amidst MonCash’s rapid growth. Thus, the key question for a project like Finance Inclusive is what is the right role for it to play that does not get in the way of natural market growth. Below, I explore four key principles that drive Finance Inclusive’s strategy and specific portfolio of activities to ensure that DFS market growth actually contributes to pro-poor, inclusive economic growth objectives. Taken together, our approach mixed data-driven, evidence-based methodologies with people-based co-creation and behavior change tactics.

  1. Start with an arms-length, neutral mapping and gap analysis of the market

At the heart of Finance Inclusive’s project design is the market systems approach, which relies on contributions from the totality of the digital financial service sector’s players. A tenet of the market systems approach is to develop a deep and nuanced understanding of the macro-, meso-, and micro-levels within the DFS market. The myriad markets that affect digital financial services— commercial banking, microfinance, insurance, and mobile money all have supervisory structures, financial infrastructure, and demand and supply dynamics. As a first project activity, Finance Inclusive undertook a market system mapping to gain insights into how various market players provide, interact or view DFS offerings to gauge current trends and potential developments in the sector. This activity looked at how market players contribute to an understanding of the current DFS sector and relevant perspectives, constraints and incentives associated with sector expansion and the extent to which growth in this sector might strengthen or compliment financial inclusion efforts. From this effort, market players, functions, and regulations were clearly articulated and recommendations were defined to ensure DFS market development considers pro-poor growth dynamics. A sustained understanding of these dynamics throughout project lifetime remains critical.

  1. Develop data in partnership with market players to ensure utilization and uptake

The Finance Inclusive program seeks to develop, share, and encourage utilization of new data and insights, particularly for the demand for DFS. Demand-side interrogation is critical to developing new products and marketing, and it also supports advocacy, behavior-change communications, and financial literacy campaigns and facilitates partnering. The process to develop the data products as well as to encourage utilization of the data is equally critical. Finance Inclusive’s data development approach ensures that local stakeholders are part and parcel of the data collection efforts. Our approach also mixes a variety of data products to contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the financial sector including through nationally-representative demand-side research such as FinScope Consumer,  consumer-centric data such as from DAI’s Frontier Insights product, gathering ethnographic insights about technology usage among target client groups; and data mapping and analytics in partnership with MixMarket through the production of a finclusion map data analytics platform designed to help users make sense of financial inclusion data.

  1. Ensure policy and regulation support takes an ‘all of government’ approach

Financial inclusion is not the purview of a single government unit. While Haiti’s Central Bank (the BRH) is responsible for the country’s National Financial Inclusion Strategy (NFIS), and it has a distinct financial inclusion unit, its mandate is cross-cutting. It works closely with several other key ministries on issues of education, identification, and sector specific investment strategies. Keeping abreast of policy and political economy issues requires engaging key government champions, maintaining positive momentum, and leveraging local, regional, and international networks and forums such as the Alliance for Financial Inclusion, of which Haiti is a member. Finance Inclusive built its project support strategy directly with the BRH NFIS team; signing a letter of cooperation within the first month of project operations. This not only allowed us to clarify our implementation plan, but it built huge credibility with the BRH NFIS team and avoids duplication of existing efforts and other donor initiatives. Finance Inclusive’s work with the BRH focuses on donor coordination, data and information, and consumer protection, all key issues to support the further development and expansion of DFS and which link to other government objectives such as shared data and education.

  1. Use co-creation with local stakeholders to achieve buy-in for change

Sustainable changes requires building the capacity of and linkages between local market actors and encouraging local ownership of interventions. Market systems approaches stimulate the conditions in which local market actors can collaborate, innovate, and adapt. Finance Inclusive uses co-creation models, creative problem solving techniques, and cross-sector collaboration activities to ensure local knowledge and capacity is not only leveraged but merging toward common vision and purpose. One of the project’s strategic initiatives was a cross-cutting co-creation event with representatives of the financial sector (banks, MFIs, credit unions, insurance companies, and mobile money providers), non-governmental organizations, and community-based organizations. The group worked together to define synthesized market constraints and targeted strategies to tackle them, which included specific recommendations and next steps for work around interoperability and shared DFS infrastructure. Together, the participants also developed a common vision and joint purpose statement to “work together to improve people’s lives and stimulate wealth creation for all through access and use of financial services by all, especially based on technology.”

Photo credit: David Rochkind, USAID

How Bundled Services Are Impacting Over A Million Smallholder Farmers

Digital financial services have been a robust part of the development sector for over a decade and their impact continues to grow. This blog is part of a series that focuses on successful DFS projects that achieve results-driven impact in people’s lives.

By: Trey Waters, Agri-Fin Mobile Director, Mercy Corps

Globally, there are an estimated 500 million farmers who earn their primary living from farming less than five acres of land. Even when these smallholder farmers grow cash crops, they often rely on subsistence production for their families, and many underproduce due to lack of access to markets, technology and financial products.

Mercy Corps’ Agri-Fin Mobile program, supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), partners with influential private sector actors to develop business models in Zimbabwe, Uganda and Indonesia. These business models provide farmers with financial and rural advisory services to help them increase their production and income. Agri-Fin Mobile worked with partners such as Econet, the largest mobile network operator in Zimbabwe, and TruTrade, a small startup in Uganda, to develop bundled, products that are distributed through digital platforms and at scale. Agri-Fin Mobile’s bundled approach means that all solutions include both rural advisory and financial services. Building off Mercy Corps’ deep understanding of the local agriculture sector, we facilitated partnerships between traditional agriculture stakeholders, such as farmers unions and cooperatives, and non-traditional actors such as banks and mobile network operators. To date, Agri-Fin Mobile worked with its partners to reach over 1.2 million smallholder farmers. Currently, over 225,000 farmers are actively using products and services developed by Agri-Fin partners.Mercy Corps

When testing business models, Agri-Fin Mobile was responsive to the local environment, such as the regulatory landscape and current market conditions, resulting in a variety of partnerships reflecting the appropriate local context. In Zimbabwe, the program partnered with Econet to test a mobile network operator approach, developing a platform, EcoFarmer, to reach farmers with agricultural tips, weather index insurance, and a digital savings product. This model proved to be a huge success reaching over 300,000 farmers. In Uganda, Agri-Fin Mobile worked with smaller startups, such as TruTrade and Ensibuuko, to grow and scale their businesses and is currently running an extended hackathon to develop agriculture technology solutions for refugees in northern Uganda. Finally, in Indonesia we tested a bank-led model working with Bank Mandiri, the largest commercial bank in Indonesia, to expand its agent banking network to farmers and a consortium of partners to develop an agricultural financing scheme that provides access to credit for inputs. Combined, the two models in Indonesia have reached over 160,000 farmers.

While the context for all three countries varied, the program has learned there are key factors that lend to successfully developing, piloting and then finally rolling out these models. First, when finding and establishing partnerships, they should have similar values and goals. By working through existing farmer group unions in Indonesia, we were able to introduce agent banking to group members and build off existing relationships. Second, when working with partners to create a product, you need to put the farmer first. In Zimbabwe, we worked with CGAP and IDEO.org to develop a school savings product using human-centered design, complimenting the existing EcoFarmer offerings. Finally, when introducing a digital solution, the model should include a human interface. Whether they are leaders of a local farmer cooperative, loan officers, or extension agents, these points of contact can act as your on the ground support, and help to increase uptake.

Agri-Fin Mobile began piloting the concept of bringing together different actors to develop solutions and go to scale, and many of the learnings have been adopted by our sister program AgriFin Accelerate. As Agri-Fin Mobile comes to an end in August; Mercy Corps plans to continue exploring how we can develop new business models that engage private sector to reach more smallholder farmers in new regions, countries and contexts.

To learn more about Mercy Corp’s work, visit their YouTube channel here. 

Photo Credits: Mercy Corps

Is Digitizing the Answer to Scaling Youth Financial Services?

Digital financial services have been a robust part of the development sector for over a decade and their impact continues to grow. This blog is part of a series that focuses on successful DFS projects that achieve results-driven impact in people’s lives.

By Sonali Rohatgi, Technical Advisor, Digital Solutions

Youth are often not seen as viable customers by financial institutions given the high dormancy rates and low balances that plague youth savings accounts. Can banks rely on digital channels to attract and retain youth savers more cost-effectively? FHI 360 is partnering with Ecobank to test a digital outreach strategy for youth in Ghana.

Advertised as “a truly mobile account for the mobile generation,” Ecobank recently launched “Ecobank Xpress Account” in Ghana. An entirely digital interest-bearing savings account, the Xpress Account can be opened and operated without a visit to a bank branch. This digital account is driven by the Ecobank mobile banking application, and can be accessed via smart phone or a feature phone. Deposits and withdrawals from the account can be made at any Ecobank Xpress Agent point, bank branch or at the ATM. Alternatively, one can transact through the mobile money agent network, as the account allows customers to push money from their mobile money account to their Xpress Account, and vice versa. With the introduction of this product, Ecobank can extend savings opportunities to unbanked populations such as youth who need to make small and frequent deposits but cannot readily take on the time and cost to visit a bank branch. If successful, Ecobank can scale a youth product offering across Ghana, and eventually across the 30+ countries in Africa where it operates.

How could Ecobank use its new Xpress Account product to reach youth and convert them into active savers? Building upon learnings from other initiatives indicating that SMS reminders can boost savings, FHI 360 and Ecobank set out to determine if pairing the Xpress Account with digitally-delivered financial education could encourage youth to improve their savings and financial management skills. Digital channels used could include SMS, mobile applications, or social media.

To develop an approach, FHI 360 commissioned a phone-based survey with over 800 predominantly urban youth aged 18-24 to understand their access to financial services, goals and priorities, and use of mobile applications. Evenly split between men and women, 25 percent of respondents had a primary education or less, and 23 percent had completed junior high school. The remaining had senior high school or tertiary-level education. The goal of the survey was not to conduct a statistically rigorous study, but to inform a digital engagement strategy for a pilot in Accra.

The survey results surprised us in many ways:

Mobile application use is more limited than expected for urban youth with relatively high educational levels. 45 percent reported that they do not use a computer, and almost 40 percent reported that they do not use any apps on their phone. Almost one-third used their phone to access only Facebook daily, 18 percent accessed only WhatsApp daily, and 16 percent accessed Instagram or multiple apps.

Almost half of all respondents said they do not earn enough to save. 22 percent save in a mobile money account — indicating that many youth are already using digital accounts. 16 percent save in a bank or microfinance institution, signaling engagement with the formal financial system. Less than 15 percent used informal savings groups known as “susus,” and other unregulated methods. Those with higher levels of education were more likely to use bank, microfinance institution and mobile money accounts.

Education, business startup and supporting dependents are priorities. When asked about savings goals, education came out on top, driven mainly by those who had completed at least senior high school and were perhaps looking to save for tertiary education. Business startup was a high priority that cut across all levels of education, followed by supporting dependents. The least popular response was saving to get a loan, followed by saving for consumer purchases such as a phone or motorbike.

Youth don’t use formal credit. While 38 percent of youth reported saving in a financial institution or via mobile money, 60 percent do not borrow at all and 30 percent borrow informally from family and friends. A savings-led value proposition seems to be a more promising way to engage this youth segment in financial services.

When asked about financial education needs, 42 percent prioritized learning how to manage spending, and 26 percent wanted to learn how to build their savings. Accessing and evaluating loans (7 percent) and deciding where to save (8 percent) were less popular. These results suggest that digital tools that allow youth to track and manage their spending and savings can potentially be extended as value-added services to attract and engage them.

FHI 360 and Ecobank used these results to form the approach. We developed a multi-channel outreach strategy, relying on SMS, IVR, in-person financial literacy training and peer education rather than social media channels that had more limited reach. Because youth feel they do not earn enough to save, we focused on demystifying savings. Our financial education emphasized that even small bits of savings can add up quickly, and provided rules of thumb on managing spending. We also encouraged youth to set savings goals, followed up by weekly reminders on progress against those goals to keep them motivated over an extended period of six months.

As our pilot unfolds, we plan to monitor and iterate our approach with constant feedback from youth clients from formal and informal sectors, so we can use the results of our prototype to build a truly customer-centered and scalable youth financial services product.

Photo Credit: Neil Brandvold

How Interoperability Can Strengthen Agriculture and Nutrition

This blog was originally posted on Development Gateway’s blog.  To read the original, click here. 

By Paige Kirby

Food security, or people’s access to “sufficient, safe, and nutritious food,” remains a global challenge.

Lack of access to nutritious food is not only more likely to affect those already facing difficulties such as poverty, economic shock and public health crises; when communities do not have adequate access to nutrition, they have a harder time fighting back against these challenges. As a result, ensuring adequate food security ultimately helps build resilient communities, breaking the cycle of poverty and creating economic growth, greater equality and better development outcomes.

We are proud to announce that Development Gateway (DG) has been working to support FHI 360’s Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research (mSTAR) project to increase food security. Funded by USAID, mSTAR seeks to increase access to, and use of, digital technologies in development.

In our goal of increasing food security, DG and our partner Athena Infonomics (AI) are supporting researchers, program implementers and development partners engaged in Feed the Future programming across Cambodia and Nepal. We aim to identify opportunities for strengthening data and digital interoperability across Feed the Future agriculture and nutrition portfolios to support better-informed decision making.

To strengthen interoperability, DG, AI, and mSTAR have been tackling the challenge of data sharing, accessibility, and use: seeking to understand what data producers and users need and how to support sustainable data usage. Over the past month, DG and AI have conducted a series of key informant interviews with partners and research hubs. While both Nepal and Cambodia offer unique challenges and opportunities, the researchers found commonalities across contexts.

Data Collection: The majority of interviewees (60%) reported using only paper-based data collection tools. Reasons for this preference varied from limited internet connection, to limited program budgets – and most acknowledged that the use of pen and paper makes transforming data into electronic formats time and labor intensive. Interviewees’ preference for either electronic or paper-based data collection – and the various reasons behind this preference – will inform how DG, AI, and mSTAR develop tools and processes to support greater data interoperability and knowledge sharing.

Data Sharing: As in other contexts, most data sharing amongst USAID-supported research labs and implementing partners occurs on an ad hoc or as needed basis. Professional networks – and in some cases thematic convenings – help facilitate this information sharing. Interviewees did express interest in having an ability to access data in a more centralized and standardized way. Particular use cases for this type of open data repository include the ability to reduce duplication of primary data collection and to facilitate resource pooling amongst organizations working in the same catchment area.

Data Use: All interviewees reported using a combination of internal and external datasets to satisfy analytical and reporting requirements. Generally, interviewees also expressed a high level of comfort using data analysis tools. Some expressed interest in learning more about how to incorporate geospatial data into analyses, while others expressed interest in learning new data science software packages. As a key takeaway, in order to facilitate data sharing across partners, we will need to facilitate the sharing of standardized data with detailed methodology notes, in order to ensure partners have confidence in the data quality. We look forward to developing and rolling out tools and processes to help address the challenges and opportunities above. By facilitating greater data and digital interoperability, DG, AI, and mSTAR aim to strengthen knowledge sharing and – ultimately – support better food security outcomes. Stay tuned for updates as our work progresses.

To read the original blog, click here. Photo credit: USAID/Cambodia and Fintract, Inc.

2017 | A Results-Driven Year

mSTAR Highlights of 2017

In Liberia, thousands of health and education workers enrolled in mobile money. In Bangladesh, loan payments were revolutionized for farmers. Globally, a new toolkit was launched to help close the digital gender divide. As we begin gearing up for the new year, it’s incredible to think of everything we achieved in 2017.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the highlights this year brought the mSTAR team:

Mobile Money in Liberia

In Liberia, mobile money is changing the way civil servants in rural areas receive their salary. Since 2016 when mSTAR/Liberia activities began, 803 health workers and 2,299 education workers spanning 11 counties have enrolled in mobile salary payments. In addition, mSTAR helped facilitate a second digital service provider, Orange, to implement mobile money payments with the Government of Liberia. An increase in healthy competition for Liberia’s DFS market will prove beneficial for civil servants by driving down prices, increasing service points and more. mSTAR also produced many materials to educate civil servants on the mobile money process such as a training video, cartoon, poster, brochure and much more. Mobile salary payments have saved health and education workers surveyed a day and a half of time. Now, they can spend more time with their patients and students.

Accomplishments in Bangladesh

In addition to Liberia, mSTAR had many accomplishments in Bangladesh. Starting in September 2013, the primary goal of the project was to help USAID implementing partners digitize their payments. From 2013 to the successful closeout of mSTAR/Bangladesh in fall 2017, mSTAR’s efforts helped over 25,000 individuals enrolled in DFS accounts and mSTAR helped USAID IPs and beneficiaries transact more than $2.2 million through DFS. mSTAR also helped pilot test two new DFS innovations to promote financial inclusion to smallholder farmers, resulting in over 3,100 farmers registering in these initiatives. These new financial products will allow farmers access to agricultural loans, savings, transfers and merchant payments. mSTAR showcased its Bangladesh work in a video watched more than 1,000 times.

Closing the Digital Gender Divide

In November, the Gender and ICT Survey Toolkit was launched! The toolkit was designed to help close the digital gender divide by not only addressing how to close the gender gap, but understanding why there is one to begin with. With 1.7 billion women not owning mobile phones, this resource can assist development practitioners in understanding the specific barriers for digital gender inclusion and work to effectively drive change.


In 2017, mSTAR used its skills and knowledge to implement positive changes in the development sector as a whole and in people’s everyday lives. It is exciting to watch the impact of our digital development activities grow over time as they take hold across the development sector and beneficiary populations. mSTAR looks forward to continue its efforts into 2018!

 

Will Market Competition Translate to Improved Mobile Money Service & Outcomes in Liberia?

By Erica Bustinza, Chief of Party, mSTAR/Liberia

Market competition can offer benefits such as improved pricing, options, service points and coverage. This is no less true among mobile financial service providers. For example, since mobile financial services launched six years ago in Bangladesh, the dominant provider, bKash, has lead the pack with over 24 million subscribers but over 10 banks and additional third party providers also contribute to the market. In Tanzania, M-Pesa entered the market in 2009 and still holds the highest market share at 42 percent, but there are now five competitors driving development of the digital financial services ecosystem.

Compared to counterparts in East Africa, Liberia is relatively new to mobile money. Lonestar MTN, one of the largest mobile network operators (MNO) in Liberia, debuted their mobile money product in 2011. Orange Money, the only other mobile money provider (formerly Cellcom’s Smile Mobile Money), launched in February 2016 and has since expanded from Monrovia to 13 of 15 counties. Combined, the two providers have over 1.6 million subscribers. For a nation of 4.6 million, mobile money has shown significant growth. IMG_1772

While Liberians use mobile money primarily for person to person transfers (P2P), the Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research (mSTAR) project supports the Government of Liberia in offering government to person (G2P) payments. mSTAR assists the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health in rolling out mobile money payments to civil servants on a county-by-county basis. To date, 2,544 Education staff and 803 Health staff enrolled in this option in 12 counties.

In Liberia, financial inclusion is challenged by factors such as banks that are often difficult to access. Wire transfer fees to send money to family across the country that are prohibitively high. Mobile money attracts customers by avoiding these challenges. Customers can send and receive money on their phone and cash it out at a nearby agent for a small fee while avoiding poor roads to the bank, system outages and long lines.

Despite mobile money’s many benefits, the system is not without its flaws. While Liberia’s capital city, Monrovia, experiences fewer issues, other cities and especially rural areas find challenges that include a lack of cellular connectivity (a mobile transfer is of little use if the phone cannot connect to send/receive) and liquidity shortages (mobile money requires that the agent has enough cash on hand to pay the customer.) These issues are exacerbated by power shortages and underdeveloped infrastructure such as bad roads, some of which are unnavigable during the April-November rainy season, which constrains liquidity. Liberia is a nascent mobile money market with a very recent second entrant. The market is becoming competitive but competition has not yet taken off and incentives to drive product, service and price improvements are still limited.

While cellular coverage is similar between Lonestar and Orange throughout the country there are also areas only covered by one provider where users often have one SIM rather than one for each, as is common in well-covered areas. This has been difficult for G2P payments rollout because the GOL has only offered civil servant salary payments with Lonestar since Orange did not have the national presence required to participate. Civil servants who want to switch to mobile money payments but live in areas without Lonestar coverage frequently complained about the lack of options. To address this problem, in November 2017 the GOL officially brought Orange in as a second provider authorized to transmit government salary payments. This is celebratory news for civil servants and the development of Liberia’s digital financial services ecosystem.

…in November 2017 the GOL officially brought Orange in as a second provider authorized to transmit government salary payments.

At the start of the salary payment program, mSTAR supported the GOL in facilitation of negotiations and development of two Memoranda of Understanding with Lonestar which allowed the GOL to offer Lonestar mobile money as a payment option. In the same vein, mSTAR has worked with the GOL to come to a similar agreement with Orange. mSTAR has provided data used in decision making and technical support to conceptualize rollout of mobile money salary payments. The new Orange MOU will allow market competition for G2P salary payments for civil servants.

An increase in service providers and market competition will benefit civil servants who will be enabled to select their provider of choice. The competition should drive down prices and increase service points. It can be expected that as service improves, mobile money will be an option for more Liberians and mobile money agents will have a larger customer base. Competition can move to different aspects of service delivery beyond network coverage and pricing, such as payment product integration and user friendliness, innovation around new financial products and services to promote financial inclusion and value-added services such as market and weather information and health messaging.

Competition, as seen in other digital financial service markets like Bangladesh and Tanzania, is integral to growth and the launch of additional financial opportunities. Will competition in Liberia result in new and diverse products? Additional market entrants? Effective interoperability? Broader financial inclusion for the 72 percent still unbanked adult population? There is optimism that this is what the future could bring. In the short-term it is apparent that Liberia is headed in the right direction.

Erica Bustinza is the Chief of Party of mSTAR activities in Liberia. She 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.

Why Are Women Less Likely to Own a Phone?

This blog was originally posted on NetHope’s blog.  To read the original, click here. 

By Katie Highet, Technical Advisor, mSTAR, FHI 360 and Jonathan Dolan, Digital Inclusion Team Lead, U.S. Global Development Lab, USAID

Much has been written about the gender gap in mobile phone usage, specifically on why women are less likely to have access to this technology than men; why women are less likely to be technically literate than men; and why women are less likely to be aware of the many potential benefits of a mobile phone. We recognize that there is a gender gap, as high as 38 percent in South Asia. Within the development community, there is no disagreement that this digital gender divide needs to be addressed in order to drive women’s economic empowerment and ensure a more equitable future. However, there are varying points of view on how to close this gap.

While there is no magic formula that can close this gap, it is clear that before we look to balance digital access and adoption for women, we need to understand the underlying reasons for the divide. For instance, Sub-Saharan Africa might have a 13percent gender gap, but that statistic is not indicative of every community across the continent. Continent-wide averages actually mask significant variance between different countries, ranging from 8 percent in Kenya to 45 percent in Niger.

In order to understand the digital gender divide, we cannot depend on regional, country or even state averages. Instead, we must know how people interact with technology at a community level. Recognizing this, USAID commissioned the Gender and ICT Survey Toolkit to address the lack of gender disaggregated data at the sub-national level. The Toolkit facilitates the collection of gender disaggregated information with a series of resources, including survey questions, focus group discussion guides and technical competence tests, as well as instruction on research design and data sorting. Breaking the findings down into key themes such as control, social norms and digital literacy allows the user to understand the specific barriers at play at a sub-national level, and how to address them.

If development practitioners don’t understand the shape and size of the digital gender gap, how can we expect to effectively drive change? Over the next few months, we will be rolling out the Gender and ICT Survey Toolkit to our USAID colleagues, and training partners and peers across development organizations in-person and with online webinars and workshops, to improve data collection on the digital gender divide.

With the Gender and ICT Survey Toolkit, we recognize that every community is unique and when we better understand gender dynamics, we can address the gaps effectively and respectfully. Through this resource, we hope to enable a more data-driven approach to ICT4D implementation, and in doing so, helping to close the digital gender divide.

A Rapidly Growing DFS Market: What mSTAR Accomplished in Bangladesh

As mSTAR’s project in Bangladesh comes to a close this fall, mSTAR/Bangladesh staff write on their perspectives from four years of a successful project, where mSTAR/Bangladesh helped enroll over 25,000 individuals—most of whom are women—into digital financial service accounts and helped USAID IPs and beneficiaries transact around $2.2 million digitally. The activity brought two new financial products to market with Bank Asia and IFIC Bank, including micro-credit to farmers with lower interest rates and more favorable repayment terms than any other alternative on the market today. Through this effort, mSTAR/Bangladesh facilitated loan disbursements to more than 1,500 farmers to date, with more on the way.  Check out our four-year retrospective infographic here!

By Josh Woodard, Regional ICT & Digital Advisor

When mSTAR first started activities in Bangladesh in September 2013, the mobile financial services (MFS) market was still in its relative infancy, having only launched less than two years prior. At that time, it was very much a domestic remittance service with people using MFS to send money to friends and family elsewhere in the country, much of which was done through unofficial over-the-counter services rather than individual mobile wallets.

Between September 2013 and June 2017:

  • The number of registered mobile wallets grew more than five-fold
  • Active wallets increased more than seven times
  • Average daily MFS transactions grew by almost six-fold.

Source: Bangladesh Bank

Our initial mandate in Bangladesh was to help USAID’s implementing partners digitize their payments, so that implementing partners no longer needed to send people with backpacks full of cash from Dhaka to pay field expenses, such as training allowances. Bangladesh was in some ways an initial testing ground for USAID’s move away from cash in its programming, codified in its Procurement Executive’s Bulletin from August 2014, making electronic payments the new default for USAID awards.

We demonstrated success early on helping two USAID projects transition to mobile payments through a small grants program. The Aquaculture for Income and Nutrition project ended up saving the equivalent of around 600 person days per year in efficiency gains by eliminating cash for training allowances. Digitizing payments for Dnet’s Aponjon initiative reduced processing times to pay their health workers from 30 to 8 days, greatly increasing employee satisfaction.

These benefits inspired other USAID implementing partners to explore transitioning away from cash without grant support from mSTAR. Through a mix of technical assistance and trainings, mSTAR supported 40 USAID programs to better understand digital financial services (DFS), including MFS and agent banking. Through our awareness raising activities over the past four years, we developed more than 70 learning documents and trained close to 600 people on DFS. In total, USAID programs receiving mSTAR support transacted more than $2.2 million, including transactions made to and by their beneficiaries, which numbered more than 25,000 individuals, two-thirds of whom were female.

BangladeshGIF

In 2014, to encourage greater focus on the needs of the financially excluded and underserved, we launched the Mobile Money Consultative Group (MMCG), which promotes dialogue and partnerships and was modeled on previous work done by FHI 360 in Malawi. Over the past three years, the MMCG grew to include dozens of members from the development, telecommunications and financial services sectors, eventually adopting the name Digital Finance Consultative Group to better capture its broader membership base. It was so valued that in anticipation of mSTAR’s closing, members transitioned the group to a new coordinator, UNCDF, which recently hosted the first meeting independently of mSTAR.

As the market grew, mSTAR played a crucial role in ensuring that DFS providers were considering the financial needs of Bangladesh’s millions of financially excluded individuals, many of whom are supported by USAID’s programming in country. We began conducting assessments looking at opportunities for digitizing transactions and expanding DFS offerings, including examinations of saving groups, agricultural value chains, and agricultural mechanization. These have already contributed to the deployment of two digitally-enabled micro-credit products for smallholder farmers, the first-of-their-kind in Bangladesh, as well as modifications to the pricing structure and product offerings of several other providers.

It is refreshing to see that the DFS sector in Bangladesh is finally moving past the pure domestic remittances model to a increasingly holistic one that more broadly meets the financial needs of Bangladeshis—although it still has a distance to travel. In some ways, it is bittersweet to have to end our work in Bangladesh right when the DFS market seems to be picking up momentum. However, I am proud of the contributions we have made to promote inclusive DFS growth in Bangladesh. I am hopeful that our objectives over the past four years will continue to be realized by other actors in the DFS ecosystem we played a small role in shaping.

Josh Woodard is a Regional ICT & Digital Advisor for FHI 360, based out of its regional office in Bangkok, Thailand. He has provided technical oversight to the mSTAR team in Bangladesh since the beginning of implementation in 2013. In addition to the mSTAR blog, he occasionally shares his perspectives on digital technology and development on LinkedIn.