We tested mobile money in three similar contexts in India and found surprising differences, but why?

By Carrie Nichols

With India’s recent goal to become a “less-cash” society, digital payment methods have become increasingly important. This is especially true for rural populations, which have less access to banks and have been slower to adopt mobile and digital tools. Internet penetration in urban India, for example, was 64.84 percent in December 2017. In comparison, rural internet penetration in December 2017 was only 20.26 percent. To combat this dire need for digital payment methods, yet a lack of access to digital tools, mSTAR partnered with Intellecap to create and test sustainable approaches to onboard rural populations onto digital payments.

With support from mSTAR, Intellecap conducted three pilots across Jharkhand, Odisha and Maharashtra to digitize payments in rural India in the dairy, poultry, and food and beverage value chains.

Over six months, mSTAR and Intellecap onboarded over 600 women onto digital payments, working with employees of Milk Mantra in the dairy value chain, cooperative members of the Jharkhand Women’s Self-supporting Poultry Cooperative Federation Ltd in the poultry value chain, and members of a Mann Deshi Foundation cooperative in the food and beverage value chain. Through the pilots, both organizations and individuals saw that digital payments made good sense. During the pilot, not only did the dairy aggregators milk supply increase, but also 80 percent of women dairy farmers reported higher incomes. Within the poultry value chain pilot, 60 percent of women experienced a reduction in delays associated with payments. There were also more intangible benefits for these women, such as time saved going to the bank and waiting in lines, being recognized by their peers for their growing businesses, and the chance to better provide for their families.

As mSTAR and Intellecap implemented the pilots, the critical importance of context became clear. Although the target populations across the pilots had similarities – rural, female, operating or starting small businesses – there were key differences in how these populations used DFS.

One difference between the target populations was the type of income they were receiving from their small businesses. Women in the poultry value chain pilot often didn’t have well-developed farms or agricultural income, meaning that the money they earned from raising chickens was their main source of income. Because of the way the poultry sector works, the income received is generally in a lump sum, delivered at longer intervals. Due to this and a worry about spending money if they had it in hand, women in this pilot were more likely to save money in their mobile accounts. While this wasn’t tested in the pilot, it’s possible that this type of behavior could lead to longer-term savings or larger investments in their business.

In the dairy and food and beverage value chains, women considered their income from dairy or food and beverage as a secondary or even tertiary income for the household. Therefore, these women had different behaviors and relationships to the money received in their mobile accounts. Women working in dairy used their small but regular incomes to pay for minor day-to-day expenses while women in food and beverage used their incomes to buy raw materials for their business. Because these weren’t main incomes sources, women were more nonchalant about the income and would generally withdraw the money from their mobile accounts the day it was credited.

These differences in income withdrawal may not seem huge. After all, the women in each value chain pilot signed up for and were regularly using their mobile money accounts. However, these findings suggest that if digital financial service providers and their partners know how customers will use the income put into their mobile money account, they can create more tailored products, target markets more accurately, and advertise more effectively to increase long-term adoption.

Learn more about the pilots here:

Carrie Nichols has eight years of experience managing programs in international development. At FHI 360 she managed activities in ICT4D and digital financial services across sectors. Prior to joining FHI 360 Carrie managed public health supply chain projects. She is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Mali and a Returned Peace Corps Response Volunteer from Zambia and has an MA from the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University.

DFS in Ag Can Help Raise Incomes, But Not in the Way You May Think

By Howard Miller

Howard Miller has just published the case study, What Works for Digital Financial Services in Agricultural Development? He writes on his findings here: 

When Tavneet Suri and William Jack published their landmark study on the impact of mobile money in Kenya in 2016, there was great enthusiasm amongst the financial inclusion community. Here was robust, empirical evidence suggesting that M-PESA had lifted 2 percent of Kenyan households out of poverty. This was a remarkable finding, and has laid the basis for significant investments in projects supporting digital financial services (DFS) for poverty reduction.

Just as interesting as the result itself was how the poverty reduction manifested. The majority of people moving out of poverty were women, for whom mobile money provided agency and increased occupational choice, allowing them to move out of subsistence agriculture into business. Digital financial services were helping rural people escape poverty, not by improving their current incomes (e.g. by increasing farm productivity) but by opening up new non-agricultural income streams. But this raises a question for those of us working in agricultural development – what is the role of digital financial services in producing improved agricultural outcomes, such as increased output and reduced hunger?

The evidence on this is much more limited. Theory tells us that technology can reduce transaction costs, help overcome information asymmetries and improve product targeting for financial service providers, but we don’t know much about how this leads to improvements in livelihoods for smallholder families. In 2018, the Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research Project (mSTAR), funded by USAID and led by FHI 360, looked at the evidence around what has worked, and what hasn’t, in DFS for agriculture.

One Acre Fund and MyAgro are two organizations that are commonly referenced as success stories in this space. One Acre Fund works in East Africa with a credit-based model and MyAgro works in West Africa and focuses on savings, and both have achieved scale and acclaim for their efforts. They have a few more things in common too, that are shared with a number of the models that have been shown to be most effective in achieving impact. Here are a few key learnings:

  1. Although both organizations’ primary focus is on DFS products for agriculture, finance is only a part of what they do. Both organizations have found that a financial product, like a loan or savings tool, is more effective when combined with extension services, access to inputs and solutions to some of the other challenges faced by farmers. Rural poverty is complex and financial services are only one part of any solution.
  2. They use technology as a tool, not as a driver. The critical touch point with the consumer is still a human one. Both organizations work through field staff who, rather than being replaced by digital tools, have been made more productive. In fact, much of the benefit of digitization comes in making back-end processes more efficient rather than enabling a digitally-connected customer.
  3. Their services are built up from the needs of the rural customer rather than trying to repurpose a successful urban tool with some tweaks. Product development processes are iterative and research-intensive. Other companies in this space are also forming needs-first business models. Musoni, a tech-enabled micro-finance institution in Kenya, developed its successful “Kilimo Booster” product with grace periods and repayment schedules tailored to the farmer’s unique income flows.
  4. They rely heavily on donor money many years into operations. The models are heavy-touch, capital-intensive and commercial viability remains a ways off. Six years into operations, MyAgro still receives 80 percent of its income from philanthropic institutions. Similarly, despite some exciting results from trials, digital index-based insurance for farmers has only achieved an impact with significant subsidies. When insurance is sold to farmers at market prices, uptake is extremely low.

All of this isn’t to say that a new innovation isn’t around the corner that can rapidly scale a commercially viable model and overcome some of the challenges which keep smallholder farmers poor. Maybe blockchain is the answer, or machine learning will render our current approaches obsolete. However our best bet for now is to be humble about what we know (very little), study the channels through which financial services can impact the livelihoods of the rural poor, and then understand the leverage points through which digital technology can improve the effectiveness and delivery of these services.

Howard is an India-based independent consultant specializing in financial inclusion, rural finance and financial market systems development. He has carried out program strategies, research reports, project designs and evaluations across 15 countries for clients including DFID and the FSD Network, CGAP, MasterCard Foundation, IFC, USAID, UNCDF and Gates Foundation.

Photo by USAID

Social Norms Are the Biggest Barrier to Equitable ICT Use, But What Does This Mean for Women?

This past September, Revi Sterling, Director of USAID’s WomenConnect Challenge, and Tom Koutsky, USAID Senior Connectivity Policy Advisor, presented their paper, “Understanding the Gender Digital Divide: Social Norms and the USAID WomenConnect Challenge,” at TPRC47: Research Conference on Communications, Information and Internet Policy. The paper has insights and lessons that every development professional will find useful, even if they don’t work specifically on tech or gender. The second round of the WomenConnect Challenge was recently announced at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2019 (check the website for more info!) and check out the paper to learn more.

By Carrie Nichols

I recently read a paper by Revi Sterling, Director of USAID’s WomenConnect Challenge, and Tom Koutsky, USAID Senior Connectivity Policy Advisor, “Understanding the Gender Digital Divide: Social Norms and the USAID WomenConnect Challenge.” I took away some key learnings from this document, and from former mSTAR Revi Sterling’s constant reminder to development practitioners seeking to incorporate digital tools: one of the universal truths of information and communications technologies is that they often fail to diffuse in an equitable way across society. In far too many societies around the world, women do not use or access mobile, digital, and internet technologies in the same numbers or ways that men do, which has led to the digital gender divide. Women in developing countries are 50 percent less likely to use the internet than men. Yet, while researchers, tech companies, non-profits, and international development agencies are working to bridge this gender digital divide, the interventions are often conducted without fully addressing the contextualized barriers to women’s use of ICTs.

It may seem easy to think that perhaps a lack of access to ICTs means women don’t want or need access to these digital resources. But research has shown that the diminished access to these resources further contributes to the marginalization of women and opportunities for development. This in turn leads to less resilience in the face of economic downturns or personal or family crises. All of this feeds a cycle of women’s under-development and systemic poverty. A recent report from GSMA quotes McKinsey and Company forecasting that “increased internet access could add 10 percent or $300 billion to Africa’s GDP by 2025.” Targeting women and working to remove barriers to ICT access and use would not only contribute economically but would empower women and address long-term resilience.

Through the Connected Women Initiative and the Women and the Web Alliance partnerships, USAID has been working to find solutions that can help close the digital gender divide. While these programs have supported millions of women, there is more to be done. Follow up interviews with Women and the Web Alliance participants found that those who successfully transitioned to using ICT to improve their lives and livelihoods were generally considered “outsiders.” This observation shows that pervasive social barriers still exist to women and girls accessing and using ICT even after program interventions, meaning that the vast majority of women are still excluded.

To address this, USAID developed the WomenConnect Challenge. This challenge works specifically at the level of social norms that prohibit women’s use of ICT, rather than only addressing the skills-training side of digital inclusion. On International Women’s Day in March 2018, USAID Administrator Mark Green and other high-ranking government officials launched an open call for WomenConnect Challenge proposals.

The challenge garnered robust interest from around the world. The RFP was downloaded over 5,000 times, 10,000 people joined the mailing list, and more than 500 proposals were received and evaluated. While the WomenConnect Challenge was open to addressing all barriers to ICT adoption, fewer than 50 of the proposals focused on social norms. Most proposals did not mention the gender digital divide, showing that social norms for women’s use of ICT remains a difficult barrier to address. Surprisingly, in a funding challenge named “WomenConnect” 80 percent of the proposals that proposed developing an app or information platform did not propose any value for women. More than 200 of the proposals suggested ICT skills training courses for women online and in person, yet it has been identified that social norms often prevent women from attending ICT courses in any format.

The mere fact that many of the proposals clearly didn’t address the barriers of women’s use of ICT shows how difficult it is to address the gender digital divide. Even many small, community-based organizations failed to mention the gender digital divide or social norms, meaning there is clearly still much work to be done.

Despite the fact that many proposals did not clearly address the digital gender divide, there were quite a few strong proposals. Nine were ultimately chosen as WomenConnect Challenge awardees, and demonstrated deep knowledge of the cultural conditions in which they wanted to work. The winners are a diverse group with solutions across Africa, South America, and South Asia. For example, Equal Access International won for its proposal for a 12-episode show for a Nigerian radio station to break down gender stereotypes, challenge cultural taboos, and promote skills and opportunities for women and girls to use digital technology. Innovations for Poverty Action is working in the Dominican Republic to test new credit scoring models using data from mobile phones to help women access credit. Mali Health is working with women in local savings and loan groups to share information on preventative health and ways to access and finance health services through a voice-based social network app using local languages. These are just a few of the amazing winners. You can learn more about all the winners and their programs here.

These projects are still underway, but many lessons can still be gleaned from the WomenConnect Challenge thus far; social norms need to be front and center when discussing women’s barriers to technology and making long-term changes. There are already tools and frameworks to help us emphasize social gender norms. Development practitioners should be using them to find ways to ensure women’s participation and, just as importantly, understand why women don’t participate. Though technology adoption may be the goal, the impact of that adoption should be bigger. 1.7 billion women don’t currently have access or use ICTs. These women need “on ramps” and to be treated like full humans, with complex needs in order to bring them into the fold and contribute to long-term adoption.

The WomenConnect Challenge has, for perhaps the first time, identified social norms as the largest barrier to women’s access and use of ICT in developing countries. By focusing on social norms the hope is that more women (and men!) will see the many benefits of women having equitable access to digital technologies and lead to a more equitable digital revolution.

Carrie Nichols has eight years of experience managing programs in international development. At FHI 360 she managed activities in ICT4D and digital financial services across sectors. Prior to joining FHI 360 Carrie managed public health supply chain projects. She is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Mali and a Returned Peace Corps Response Volunteer from Zambia and has an MA from the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University.

Photo by USAID Digital Development

Are women being left out of tech? The challenges and successes of including women in digital financial services in Myanmar

By Ellen Galdava

On average, women make up 43% of the agriculture labor in developing countries, ranging from 20% in Latin America to 50% in East and Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Similar to other markets, women and girls in agriculture encounter challenges related to managing income, land, productive resources and accessing education, financial, and information services. Information communication technology (ICT), including digital financial services (DFS), can contribute to reducing the gender gap in agriculture. They have the potential to empower women and girls to increase sustainable output, manage farm and agribusiness efficiently, and improve gender equality throughout the agriculture value chain. However, the digital, rural, and gender divide — also called the “triple divide”—  that women face in agriculture and in other markets, creates challenges in accessing and using ICT and DFS tools. We can see this in the latest data from GSMA that found that women are 10% less likely to own a mobile phone. Across low- and middle-income countries, 390 million women are completely unconnected.

Kelly

Photo by Kelly Ramundo, USAID

We can see how the “triple divide” affects women in Myanmar, where 46.56% of women are employed in agriculture but are 29% less likely than men to own a mobile phone. The gap in mobile ownership in Myanmar is a combination of low household income and societal norms. Despite traditional gender roles in Myanmar, women, especially smallholder farmers, often take the lead in managing household finances. UNCDF’s financial diaries research in Myanmar identified that transactions in households are cash-based and access to formal banking services are limited. With the increase of smartphone penetration and an evolving DFS regulatory environment, there is a huge potential to increase access to financial services for women in Myanmar. This, coupled with a compelling need for financial services, creates an opportunity for mobile network operators, startups and development practitioners to introduce DFS as an opportunity to make efficient transactions, savings and request loans in case of household emergencies.

Despite existing opportunities to include women in the country’s economic growth, the substantial digital gender divide leaves female smallholder farmers excluded. As agriculture is a main driver of Myanmar’s economy, the USAID-funded and FHI 360-led Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research (mSTAR) project launched pilot activities to integrate ICT and financial services into the rural, agricultural communities in Myanmar. mSTAR provided grants to three local digital agriculture companies, GreenovatorVillage Link, and Tun Yat, to integrate DFS into their existing digital agriculture platforms.

After the pilot implementation, mSTAR grantees reported on their experiences of working with female smallholder farmers and the challenges they encountered during the implementation. Greenovator, Village Link and Tun Yat had differing experiences around working with women farmers, from difficulties with societal norms around use of technology, to successes around better data and tracking on female user uptake. Below are some of the experiences they shared with us.

Greenovator is an agriculture technology social enterprise that operates the Green Way application to share a variety of agriculture information and services with rural farming communities. With the mSTAR grant, they were able to integrate mobile payments into their system to enable farmers to easily pay for membership fees for agriculture associations. During the pilot, Greenovator worked with women and men farmers equally. However, they faced numerous challenges related to social norms around use of technology. Primarily, women in Myanmar perceive technology as machines that are “man’s business.” Because of the social stigma and lack of smartphone ownership by women, many female farmers registered for the app using their husband’s accounts, which prevented Greenovator from being able to fully understand their user demographics and develop a realistic picture of smallholder women using DFS. This challenge also prevented Greenovator from being able to update their outreach strategy to reach more female users.

Brooke

Photo by Brooke Patterson, USAID

mSTAR grantee Village Link operates the Htwettoe application, which provides farmers with customized, up-to-date, data-driven advice. Through the grant, Village Link incorporated a feature into their app allowing farmers to make mobile loan payments to Maha Agriculture Public Co., a microfinance company. Partnering with Maha Agriculture Public Co. enabled Village Link to better track the female user uptake and identify that 21% of the users and 65% of borrowers from Maha Agriculture Public Co. were female farmers. This data was not a surprise as the UNCDF financial diaries revealed that household income in Myanmar is often managed by women. The available data on female users enabled Village Link to better target female smallholder farmers and increase DFS uptake among female users.

The third mSTAR grantee, Tun Yat, is an agri-tech company that rents affordable, high-quality farming machines using a booking app and as part of the grant, Tun Yat integrated mobile payments into their platform. Based on the experience of micro-finance institutions and Wave Money, Tun Yat learned that female users in Myanmar have a better repayment track record and are more reliable in managing household income and payments. Based on the insights, Tun Yat developed a home-visit strategy that included follow-up home visits, small group trainings and in-person coaching to target female users. By the end of the pilot, 25% out of 128 digital users were female. Tun Yat, similar to other mSTAR grantees, faced numerous challenges when targeting female users. For example, a majority of women in Myanmar do not have access to smartphones, have limited internet access and require more in-person trainings to increase their digital skills.

The pilot program and the challenges associated with reaching female smallholder farmers revealed how the development community and private companies are inadvertently excluding big segments of their potential customers. Female farmers represent half of the agriculture labor in Myanmar and manage household finances and payments, yet they are often excluded from access to financial services, effectively hindering productivity and efficiency of the agricultural value chain as well as the development and growth potential of female smallholder farmers. DFS provides an opportunity to address these challenges by enabling women to own, manage mobile wallets and make transactions without access to formal financial institutions.

Ellen Galdava is a Program Officer with FHI 360. She has been managing programs in international development and ICT4D for five years. At FHI 360, she manages an ICT for agriculture program and leads research related to digital financial services in education, health and agriculture. Prior to joining FHI 360, Ellen supported the development of an online class curriculum on Corporate Sustainability for undergraduate and graduate students from Eastern Europe. She holds a Master of Science degree in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University.

Feature photo courtesy of Kelly Ramundo, USAID.

Digitized Conditional Cash Transfers are Helping Cambodian Babies Grow Up Healthy

mSTAR comes to a close this June after 7 years of implementation. During the successful run of the project, mSTAR helped usher in the era of digital development, working closely with USAID’s Global Development Lab, USAID Missions, implementing partners, civil society, local governments and the private sector. mSTAR has produced over 650 learning documents, hosted over 280 events with more than 16,000 participants, and worked in 28 countries. In this closeout blog series, staff share their perspectives on the impressive accomplishments, activities, and lessons learned from 7 years of work in digital inclusion, digital financial services, development informatics and digital tools in agriculture.

How digitizing cash transfers is making Cambodia healthier, and how to digitize your own cash transfer program.

By Nina Getachew

Over 150 million children around the world under the age of five are affected by stunting, a result of poor nutrition within the first 1000 days, from conception to two years of age. Affected children suffer from physical and cognitive damage that is often irreversible and impacts their long-term health and economic productivity. In Cambodia, 32 percent of children under five are affected.

In 2014, USAID and Feed the Future awarded Save the Children a five-year project called NOURISH to alleviate malnutrition among women and children. In close collaboration with the Royal Government of Cambodia, NOURISH works in Battambang, Pursat and Siem Reap provinces in Cambodia through a conditional cash transfer (CCT). Eligible beneficiaries receive six payments of $65 over the first 1,000 days, transferred directly to their bank accounts upon completion of specific health and nutrition services.

From the start of the project through to March 2017, CCT enrollment grew rapidly. By March 2017, over 10,000 beneficiaries were enrolled. Impediments to implementing the project on a broader scale, however, began to pop up. Processes to sign up were paper-based and, in rural settings, administered by people with low levels of literacy and numeracy. As a result, documents were often incomplete or indecipherable. Documents also got lost or arrived in bulk to the processing center, creating process bottlenecks.

mSTAR and USAID’s Digital Development for Feed the Future (D2FTF) initiative set out to improve NOURISH’s system. The team assessed and developed a digital approach for an improved and cost-effective system. They identified the following three focus areas to start with:

  • Improving data collection and CCT beneficiary servicing.
  • Reducing time to enroll and streamline the KYC (know your customer) processes for the preselected payment agency, a local financial institution.
  • Managing risks by reducing the number of data errors and transposition of numbers.

mSTAR and D2FTF created and implemented an approach based on these focus areas, and saw success. Through the work of mSTAR and D2FTF, the NOURISH team achieved an end-to-end system that allows for image-based enrollment and data collection, automated condition calculation, and automated bank account openings and payments.

Process: How the system was automated.

The diagram and steps below show how the team automated the system.

Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 3.54.37 PM

Step 1: The team mapped the processes and figured out what users need. This required working closely with staff on the ground to understand user engagement/interaction with applications, connectivity and accessibility.

Step 2: They built the back-office web portal and mobile application. In this case, the team used Cash 4 Khmer, an application created specifically for NOURISH. The web portal and application enrolls beneficiaries and collects data necessary to conduct on-the-spot queries of beneficiaries and generate payments, which was not possible with the previous system.

Step 3: Iterate, iterate, iterate.

This system resulted in a host of successes. It reduced time for enrollments by two weeks.Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 3.56.08 PM Data entry per beneficiary was reduced from seven minutes per enrollment to approximately two minutes. Opening bank accounts was automated via an API, avoiding manual data entry. Due to a locally-synced database, the management team can now query directly from the field and calls to the back office are no longer needed.

Want to digitize your cash transfer system? Here are steps for successful digitization gleaned from our experience with NOURISH.

  • The technology requirements for this system are complex, so plan and budget the system from the start.
  • Involve users in the app creation. Their perspective, interest and ownership of the system will garner community support and build local expertise which will sustain the intervention in the long run.
  • Run as many field tests as possible to ensure usability and access, tweaking the produce along the way. Through field tests, we learned that high contrast text and larger buttons can help counteract the bright sunlight when operating the app outside. Thanks to our testing, we also enabled the ability to work offline in remote areas, improved graphics and symbols for users with lower literacy, and added prompts in dual language text to guide users through the process.
  • To integrate payments into a system, prepare the paperwork and required system specifications months before going live. The project lead will typically need to sign an NDA, review the API security and specifications, write code for the core banking system to interface with the API, and test via dummy accounts for the internal processes and documentation.
  • Finally, remember IT systems require regular maintenance and ongoing support. Make sure budget is set aside for a reliable vendor. Vendor selection needs to be vigorous and oversight needs to be consistent. If needed, bring in expertise from your IT department or hire someone who could guide the vendor on your behalf.

For the NOURISH project, digitizing the cash transfer payment system showed clear improvements. It reduced inefficiencies in delivering and processing transfers, and helped beneficiaries get their payments more quickly. Moreover, this process can be easily replicated in other cash transfer projects. The system, however, is expensive. Setup and maintenance must be done by those with expertise and the process of iterating the application and tweaking it along the way takes time. In the end, the investment will likely prove to be worth it. Mothers in Cambodia will now be able to enroll in the system more easily and receive their cash on a more efficient basis, helping their babies grow healthily with the nutrition they need.

Nina Getachew is a Program Officer for FHI 360’s Mobile Solutions, Technical Assistance and Research (mSTAR) project. Nina has worked with donors and private partners to implement activities in the areas of ICT4D, responsible use of data and data for decision making. She graduated with a BA in international development with a focus on Middle East and North Africa regional policies from the School of International Service at American University. Prior to FHI 360, Nina was an assistant data analyst at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) providing support to ensure the quality and functionality of the national standardized test software for AIR’s user base. She is an avid traveler and loves photography. 

Photo by Maggie Moore, USAID.

 

3 countries, 6 years, and 5 lessons on the DFS Space from Josh Woodard

mSTAR comes to a close this June after 7 years of implementation. During the successful run of the project, mSTAR helped usher in the era of digital development, working closely with USAID’s Global Development Lab, USAID Missions, implementing partners, civil society, local governments and the private sector. mSTAR has produced over 650 learning documents, hosted over 280 events with more than 16,000 participants, and worked in 28 countries. In this closeout blog series, staff share their perspectives on the impressive accomplishments, activities, and lessons learned from 7 years of work in digital inclusion, digital financial services, development informatics and digital tools in agriculture.

By Josh Woodard

When mSTAR first started working in the digital payments space back in 2013, the focus was relatively straightforward: help USAID’s implementing partners reduce their use of cash in the field by making payments for costs like allowances and reimbursements directly to beneficiaries and staff via mobile money.

In Bangladesh, where we began those efforts, we were able to see pretty solid results from those efforts. Organizations like Dnet and WorldFish recognized significant savings in terms of staff time and reduced costs. The potential of digital financial services (DFS), however, was always greater than just improved transparency and efficiency within development projects. As markets evolved and access to DFS increased, more opportunities arose to explore how digitization could be an enabler of financial inclusion and economic participation.

Over the past six years, I’ve had the opportunity to oversee the maturation of the use of DFS through our work in Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar. By the end of four years of activities in Bangladesh, our team helped to digitize more than $2.7 million in transactions made to 36,515 individuals, three-quarters of whom were women. Our work in the agriculture sector helped show how DFS could enhance development outcomes, and led to the launch of the country’s first-ever digitally-enabled agri-input loans, which have continued to expand to this day.

In India, our support for the Catalyst initiative used an ecosystem approach to drive learning and experimentation in digitizing merchant payments for the urban poor. Our pilots digitizing agricultural value chain payments in rural India resulted in proof of concepts for how financial service providers can appropriately, effectively and profitably serve this market segment, which were predominantly women. Watch our latest video on this work here. 

While in Myanmar, back in 2015, we conducted the first publicly accessible assessment on opportunities for using DFS in agricultural value chains at a time when DFS was only just being introduced into the country. Several years later, the market had matured enough that we were able to support the integration of DFS into three digital agriculture services in the country, thereby making it easier for farmers to pay for services, join associations and access credit.

Our experiences in each of these three countries were different and each faced their own unique—as well as some similar—challenges. While we have learned a lot about the use of digital financial inclusion for development, I want to share five thoughts that I think any development actor looking to provide value in the DFS space should keep in mind.

Context, context, context. This might seem intuitive, but sometimes even the best of us forget to really understand the context we are working in. For example, in Bangladesh and India, one of the challenges that women from conservative households faced was that their husband or father often would not allow them to go to the markets alone (where agent points often are). In one rural village where we worked in India, the separation of castes was still pretty strongly enforced. Failing to understand these contexts and the implications they have on people’s access to services is a sure path towards ineffectiveness. We developed resources, such as our Guide to Increasing Women’s Financial Inclusion in Bangladesh through Digital Financial Services, to help development practitioners and financial service providers think about these issues more thoughtfully.

There’s no single on-ramp to genuine financial inclusion. For years, I’ve heard people talk about how such-and-such is the on-ramp to real financial inclusion, whether that be wage payments, merchant payments, savings, credit, what have you. The reality, from my experience, is that there is no single on-ramp. People have different financial needs. We need to look at all of the potential drivers for uptake and usage in a highly contextual manner if we really want to understand what types of products and services are likely to be the best enablers for each sub-segment we are targeting.

An ecosystem approach can help set the foundation. Focusing on building and supporting ecosystems and the actors within can be vital in ensuring that policies, products and services are adequately designed and delivered in ways that benefit citizens and businesses. In Bangladesh, we created the Mobile Money Consultative Group to bring together development practitioners, financial service providers, and other relevant stakeholders to discuss and solve shared challenges. Whereas in India, Catalyst used an ecosystem approach to crowd-in stakeholders to test and scale initiatives, as well as to share insights with policymakers. There can be a lot of value to having neutral and unbiased actors present win-win opportunities and encourage actors to work together more collaboratively.

But don’t forget to follow the money. In the early days in Bangladesh, we focused on the point of transaction that most interested us: those that were to/from consumers. We soon realized that unless there was a compelling case for digitization all along the transaction chain, things would break down. If a merchant cannot seamlessly pay their distributors digitally, then even if there are products that would enable them to accept digital payments from customers, they are unlikely to do so. To address these, we started mapping opportunities and roadblocks to digitize entire transaction flows (such as here and here) and presenting these to financial service providers.

Serving the poor does not need to be about charity. Our approach towards enlisting the support and services of financial service providers was always to make the business case to them. We conducted market opportunity assessments (such as this one) to identify where opportunities existed for those providers to profitably serve lower-income segments with financial products that met their needs and budgetary requirements. Of course, they could have done those assessments themselves, but too often there was simply the assumption that these segments would not be profitable, so they didn’t bother investing the resources to look at the opportunity. We brought the opportunity—and often the partnerships—to them but it was their own investment to deploy their services, not grant funding.

While our journey on mSTAR is coming to a close, there is still significant opportunity for growth and learning around the use of DFS to advance financial inclusion and economic participation. Hopefully what we’ve learned over the past six years will be of value to others seeking to further digital financial inclusion around the world.

Josh Woodard is a Regional ICT & Digital Advisor for FHI 360. He led mSTAR’s work in Bangladesh and provided technical oversight for its work in Myanmar and India. In addition to the mSTAR blog, he occasionally shares his perspectives on digital technology and development on LinkedIn.

Engaging Youth In Agriculture Through Information and Communication Technology – New Case Study

By Nikki Brand

Around the world, youth in developing countries are leaving their family farms and seeking out other professional opportunities. Born in a remote village in Nepal, Sibjan Chaulagai knows this personally. Though most families in his village rely on agriculture for survival, Sibjan, like many of his peers, sought out a different career path.

The phenomenon of youth leaving farms spreads throughout the developing world. The average age of a farmer today is around 60 years old. In Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, Kenya, Mali, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Uganda, the economies that are the focus of the U.S. Government’s Global Food Security Strategy, youth are increasingly seeking out alternative career paths rather than following in their parents’ footsteps and pursuing agriculture. Many youth choose to migrate from rural to urban areas, pursuing work they see as more profitable and prestigious than the hard labor and unpredictability of farming.

Yet at the same time youth are leaving farms, the developing world is also getting younger. Ten of the youngest countries in the world are in Sub-Saharan Africa. The confluence of these trends brings up a pressing concern: who will feed the future?

While the ambition of these youths to leave their homes and make a life for themselves outside the unpredictability of farm is understandable, if these trends continue, a food crisis is imminent.

Digital tools may offer a solution to call youth back to the farm – or to farm-related professions – and give them the skills they need to pursue a fulfilling life and career in agriculture. Leveraging mobile phones, the internet, and other emerging technologies can be one approach for development actors when creating strategies to show young farmers, and young would-be farmers, that agriculture can be both profitable and prestigious.

Sibjan, from the rural village in Nepal, recognized the possibilities of technology. After leaving his village, Sibjan studied engineering. He realized that the technology he was learning about could benefit his community. He returned home, set up solar-powered computer labs, and eventually founded an ag-tech company called ICT for Agri and later an app called Krishi Guru. Both tools connect his community, and now thousands of other communities, to agriculture information. “I decided that if agriculture is the main focus of the people in the village, and what they need to survive, I should find a way to use my education to help them,” Sibjan says. Now, he says, the agricultural sector has become a hot topic of conversation, particularly among youth who are returning after of migrant work in Gulf countries.

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Sibjan and his company were recognized by USAID’s Data Driven Farming Prize, which brought together thirteen young ag-tech innovators, including six from Nepal, in a co-creation process to develop tools for smallholder farmers to improve value from agricultural productivity.

There are other examples of how the development sector, and young innovators themselves, are harnessing technology to improve agriculture’s appeal. In East Africa, the Mediae Company has produced a number of reality-style TV shows, including Shamba Shape-Up and Don’t Lose the Plot, which aim to engage young people in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania about farming as a business. In Guatemala, Mercy Corps’ Agrijoven project partnered with Rana Labs to train Guatemalan youths in video production using the smartphones that youth already had and a few low-cost accessories, resulting in a series of professional-quality videos on good agricultural practices.

A new case study from the U.S. Agency for International Development, through the U.S. Global Development Lab and the Bureau for Food Security, highlights innovative approaches being used around the world, and in particular, in Global Food Security Strategy countries, to engage youth in agriculture through digital and mobile technologies.

Digital tools have great potential to shift demographic trends and help youth see the profit potential in agriculture. As Sibjan can attest, they can transform the narrative around agriculture. Sibjan is ensuring that the success of his digital tools continues. ICT for Agri now hosts five agriculture students as interns who help respond to inquiries on the platform. These interns are able increase their knowledge about agriculture and technology while having a direct connection with farmers. If more youth like these engage in farming and digital tools, it might be youth themselves who will feed the future.

Read the new case study here and check out the other case studies in the series.

Nikki Brand is a consultant focusing on the applications of technology in international development and agriculture. She will graduate from Stanford University with a Master’s in International Policy in June 2019. Prior to Stanford, Brand served as a program analyst for Digital Development for Feed the Future, a collaboration between the U.S. Global Development Lab and the Bureau for Food Security at USAID, aimed at integrating digital technologies and innovative solutions into Feed the Future, the US government’s global hunger and food security initiative. She previously served as a program assistant for the digital financial services team at USAID, as a field consultant in Guatemala for Community Empowerment Solutions, an organization that empowers local micro-entrepreneurs to market and sell products with health and environmental benefits, and has worked with a range of public- and private-sector organizations including Atlas AI, the Digital Impact Alliance, IDEO.org, Proximity Designs, DFAT, FHI 360, DAI, and GRID Impact. Brand holds a Bachelor’s in Peace and Conflict studies, with Minors in Global Poverty & Practice and Spanish, from the University of California, Berkeley.

Transforming the digital landscape: mSTAR’s 7 years of success

mSTAR comes to a close this June after 7 years of implementation. During the successful run of the project, mSTAR helped usher in the era of digital development, working closely with USAID’s Global Development Lab, USAID Missions, implementing partners, civil society, local governments and the private sector. In this closeout blog series, staff share their perspectives on the impressive accomplishments, activities, and lessons learned from 7 years of work in digital inclusion, digital financial services, development informatics and digital tools in agriculture.

By Hannah Skelly

In the fall of 2012, it was clear that mobile solutions presented many opportunities to accelerate social and economic progress in low- and middle-income countries. Across the world, 3.8 billion people had gained access to mobile phones and 1.4 billion people had joined a social media network. International headlines entranced readers with the promise of the digital revolution underway.

However, despite the exponential growth of technological innovations around the globe, billions of people remained excluded. Innovations had failed to reach scale for adequate impact in many development programs. Recognizing these opportunities and challenges, USAID created the mSTAR project as a broad, flexible, and responsive technical assistance and action learning program to accelerate the adoption and scale-up of mobile solutions in developing countries.

A lot has happened in seven years in the wider sphere of digital development and tech since the mSTAR project launched. An additional 1.4 billion people gained access to mobile phones and the number of people accessing the internet increased by 61 percent, with a 281 percent increase in the least-developed countries. The number of social media users surged to 3.5 billion.

Amid this transforming digital landscape, mSTAR worked closely with USAID’s Global Development Lab and USAID Missions across 28 countries to promote the use of and integrate digital financial services, digital inclusion approaches and real-time data for decision-making in development projects. Over 50 partners and 60 specialists supported this massive effort over the last seven years. With the engagement of these specialists, private partners, countless government counterparts and champions, mSTAR has also supported over 280 convenings and 650 learning products. Each year of the project progressed with different themes and presented countless highlights and challenges. Below are some highlights taken from the first five years of the project, a small slice of the work mSTAR and partners have accomplished.

Over the course of the next two months my colleagues will share highlights from their own work in digital development and delve deeper into several of the project’s key learnings, achievements and challenges.

Year 1. Laying the foundations for the mSTAR partner network and flagship country projects

In mSTAR’s first year, one mSTAR staff in DC grew into four to continue building a partner network and set the course for project implementation and communications over the next several years. That same year, in our first of over 280 learning events, the Mobiles! Conference brought together over 300 people for a one-day conference to take stock of what had been done in the field thus far and to discuss the future. One has to wonder, what would the theme of this conference be in 2019? Algorithms!?

Also in 2013, we laid the foundations for our flagship work with the USAID Bangladesh Mission, supporting the acceleration and adoption of mobile money and e-payments within the Mission’s programs, with an emphasis on health and agriculture. The activity ultimately grew into a four-year activity that exceeded its targets in transitioning cash payments to digital by 176%, supporting USAID/Bangladesh programs to transact over US $2.5 million digitally, saving IPs time, reducing costs and lowering risks. One highlight of the Bangladesh activity was its focus on working with private fintech players to develop services that tap into business opportunties and help further development outcomes. A major success of this was the introduction of unique DFS products through the formal banking channel, such as development of the ‘A-Card’ with DAM and Bank Asia and the ‘Amar Account’ with IFIC Bank and IRRI for the farmers in remote locations.  Farmers in both cases received more flexible repayment terms and lower interest rates through these modified DFS offerings.

Year 2. Building external knowledge-sharing and tools for digital development

Beginning in year two, mSTAR staff worked alongside USAID to serve as mobilizers and conveners of the digital development community and facilitate the working group that would produce the Principles for Digital Development. We’ve been delighted to witness the Principles take off within the community, with more than 150 organizations endorsing them today.

Also in our second year we released the first wave of toolkits and guides for USAID staff and implementing partners (IPs), including Digital Finance for Development: A Handbook for USAID, Integrating Mobiles into Development Projects, and the Mobile Data Solutions eCourse.  We’ve found that five years later, and even with the rapid change we’ve seen, these first tools still provide welcome guidance for USAID and many of our peers. Today, we’ve produced approximately a dozen guides and toolkits for digital financial services (DFS), digital inclusion and real-time data. In May 2019, we’ll release our final two guides: the Digital Feedback Loops Guide and Considerations for Using Data Responsibly at USAID.

Years 3 & 4: Integrating digital tools into development programs and testing solutions

In its third and fourth years, mSTAR ramped up its activities, running 25 activities across our areas of work. We began to develop Digital Development trainings and forums for USAID staff in DC and Missions. This training model has subsequently grown as USAID and mSTAR build new components into the ever-evolving curriculum.

In Liberia, mSTAR built on positive results from an initial e-payments assessment to scale-up the use of government-to-person (G2P) digital payments for Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education personnel. The project eventually enrolled 5,000 staff to receive salary payments digitally.

In Mozambique, the large-scale MAUS Study provided information about the availability and accessibility of mobile technology and how people use it in their daily lives.

In India, mSTAR began an engagement that would later evolve into CATALYST – Inclusive Cashless Payment Partnership. We witnessed the initial idea of CATALYST transform into an incubation platform to demonstrate innovative and viable business models in digital payments. CATALYST was later complemented by our second activity in the country to identify business models with the potential to expand digital payments between merchants and consumers in a rural setting, with pilot activities in three value chains.

Year 5. Convening stakeholders and rounding up thought leadership

In year 5, two major convenings proved to be major highlights of progress in digital development and the promise of what’s to come. mSTAR organized the annual Financial Inclusion Forum and the first Financial Inclusion Practitioners Day. This two-day event brought together over 200 government, nonprofit and private sector leaders to discuss financial inclusion and promote the theme of evidence to action.

2017 saw the first-ever Digital Development Awards (Digis) for outstanding USAID programs that demonstrated best practices in line with the Principles for Digital Development. The Digi’s culminated in the Digital Development Forum in DC, designed to showcase best practices and idea-exchange.

Continuing our role as mobilizers, in Year 5 alone we released 208 learning documents across our diverse workstreams and held 77 events with over 6,000 attendees. These reports include Business Models for the Last Billion: Market Approaches to Increasing Internet Connectivity; Open Data in Developing Economies: Toward Building an Evidence Base on What Works and How; and a series of reports stemming from our partnership on Real Time Data for Adaptive Programming work.

mSTAR continued work in the ag sector, started first through our work in Bangladesh, now spread to global activities. Through case studies, mSTAR demonstrated how results and cost effectiveness can increase when ag projects use digital approaches. mSTAR helped USAID projects use those digital approaches in agriculture projects in Cambodia and Nepal.

Throughout the project lifespan, mSTAR has worked across sectors and around the world to assess and integrate the use of digital technologies in development programs. Over the last seven years we have seen digital tools become increasingly leveraged in every sector of development, from health, to agriculture, to humanitarian assistance. Development is now looking beyond the use of ‘mobiles(!)’ alone towards introducing meaningful digital inclusion and engagement into programs and emerging technologies. What happened in years 6 and 7? And, critically, what have we learned and what impact has been achieved? Stay tuned as mSTAR staff and partners delve deeper into our wide portfolio of activities in the next months.

For the past twelve years, Hannah Skelly has worked with donors, private partners and governments to provide technical and operational support, lead project design and implement programs in ICT4D, education and health. She has led workstreams and global activities for mSTAR for four years, ranging from a large-scale study on mobile access and use in Mozambique to a macro-level assessment of innovative business models to bridge the digital divide. Hannah currently serves as a Technical Advisor at FHI 360, working with mSTAR and other development programs to integrate inclusive digital solutions in program design. She has an MA in Development Economics from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a BA from Emory University.

Photo credit: KC Nwakalor, Digital Development Communications

Tapping into Myanmar’s ICT Growth to Increase Access to Finance

Check out the just-released infographic on our work in Burma here!

By Conor Farrell

All around Yangon, Myanmar, signs for mobile money top-offs hang from stores lining the road. Kids and adults alike are buried in their phones, watching videos, browsing Facebook or communicating with friends on Viber. At restaurants, signs for Wifi are posted on doors and when diners are done with their meals, they can call a quick cab to a local attraction using the Grab or Oway app.

Since its transition towards democracy in 2015, Myanmar has seen explosive growth in mobile phone access and use. From about a half-million users in 2009 to a current subscriber base of over 27.5 million and a nearly 75 percent smartphone market penetration, there are few other countries that have seen such rapid adoption of mobile phones.

Mobile phones have also helped the population gain access to formal financial services. Myanmar has one of the lowest bank branch penetrations in the world. There are about 3.3 bank branches per 100,000 people and just over a quarter of Myanmar’s population has a financial account. But mobile money is helping people gain access to finance. In 2016, Wave Money, one of the first mobile money providers in Myanmar, opened. Three years after opening, they now boast four million customers. The market has expanded to include other mobile money providers, like ONGO, OK Dollar and M-Pitesan.

While mobile phones and financial inclusion are making inroads in the urban areas of Myanmar, the country continues to be among the least advanced countries in terms of their access to and usage of ICT. This is especially true in rural areas, where 70 percent of the population lives. Development and government partners have begun to explore how to ensure the benefits of mobile phones, internet and connectivity are reflected across the country and support Myanmar’s journey to self-reliance.

One of the solutions to expanding ICT and financial services into the rural, agricultural communities may lie in integrating digital financial services into existing agriculture service platforms. The USAID-funded Mobile Solutions Technical Solutions and Research (mSTAR) project, led by FHI 360, tested this idea. mSTAR provided grants to three local agriculture companies, Greenovator, Village Link and Tun Yat, to integrate digital financial services into their already existing digital agriculture platforms.

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mSTAR’s Josh Woodard presenting at the Modernizing Myanmar’s Agriculture Sector through Innovation event.

Challenges Addressed

During the Modernizing Myanmar’s Agriculture Sector through Innovation event, hosted by mSTAR on March 18th in Yangon, the three mSTAR grantees joined members of the development sector, USAID and private sector partners to discuss the challenges rural communities face, their approach to address these challenges and aspirations to continue to increase their service options to rural communities. They provided insights to ways digital financial services can help reach excluded populations, increase access to much needed finance and equipment and continue to build a well-informed population.

Access to Equipment

Tun Yat, a platform that helps farmers rent machinery, worked with the mSTAR team to integrate a mobile money payment feature into their app, enabling farmers to pay for their rental services in the app. Partnering with Wave Money, Tun Yat provides training sessions on how to use the app, connects farmers to equipment and informs farmers of the benefits of mobile money.

Facilitating Organization

Through a collaboration with the Myanmar Tea Association (MTA), Greenovator developed the Green Way app to facilitate membership applications and application payments for individuals interested in joining the MTA. As an organization that represents of 30,000 farmers, MTA seeks to connect local farmers and organizations to domestic and international markets. Greenovator integrated financial literacy training courses that focus on saving techniques into the app and promotes continued learning through push notifications and reminders.

Access to Finance

Village Link partnered with Maha Agriculture Public Co. Ltd. and ONGO mobile wallet to integrate a mobile loan repayment feature into their existing digital ag platform, Htwet Toe. To ensure their users are knowledgeable about different products, Village Link also included a financial literacy component where users can learn through various resources and share their results on social media.

Lessons Learned

While the adoption of mobile technology in Myanmar has been tremendous, the nascent technology environment still requires further development and assistance to provide inclusive opportunities to both rural and urban populations, close a persistent digital gender divide and expand connectivity to the most vulnerable populations.

Constant Support

In many rural areas, the grantees noted the need for continuous, personal engagement with their users where they could provide guided training on a variety of topics. While awareness of mobile money was high in many communities, the benefits of its use was often misunderstood or unclear. Each grantee had to conduct training sessions on their app, show how to use mobile money and clearly describe the benefits of digital financial services. However, behavior change is difficult, and the draw of physical cash is hard to overcome – benefits, whether through a new technology or technique, should be easily demonstrated and understood by the users.

Infrastructure

With new technologies, simple problems may lead to disuse or slow rates of adoption. In some cases, when a digital platform crashed and was unable to complete a transaction, users were quick to deem the entire platform impracticable and resort back to cash. Additionally, in some cases, the payment function of these technologies depends on a reliable internet connection which presents a challenge in rural communities. Using platforms like GSMA’s Mobile Coverage Maps, development organizations can identify opportunities to work with MNOs to extend internet coverage to the last mile.

While barriers to entry persist and integration of digital wallets continue to face difficult hurdles, as mobile phone use continues to expand and low data costs provide financially viable means of connecting large populations, digital financial services hold great promise in extending financial inclusion to rural areas. These mSTAR grants to Village Link, Greenovator and Tun Yat provide insight into some practical methods of supporting DFS integration into ag platforms. FHI 360 seeks to continue to identify new opportunities to use technology to increase financial inclusion and inclusive economic growth. For more insights about using DFS in development, USAID’s upcoming Digital Financial Inclusion for Development Forum (DFI4D) forum, taking place at FHI 360 in Washington DC on April 19th, will showcase the latest evidence in inclusive digital services on development outcomes, emerging models and best practices.

Conor Farrell has been working in international development for four years, bringing a passion for finding and supporting innovative solutions to address global issues. At FHI 360, he works as Program Officer on the Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research project that seeks to increase access to and use of mobile and digital technologies around the world. Prior to joining FHI 360, Conor worked as a Community Economic Development volunteer with the Peace Corps in Costa Rica, supporting grassroots efforts to increase economic participation and opportunity in the Caribbean town of Linea Vieja.

Photo by Kelly Ramundo, USAID

African Economies are Rapidly Growing- How Can the Development Sector Support their Continued Growth?

By Nina Getachew and Conor Farrell

Development practitioners often focus on the world’s most dire situations: the extreme poor, marginalized communities, and curbing health crises, to name a few. But as development practitioners are laser-focused on the world’s many complicated issues, it’s easy to overlook the immense progress the world has made in many areas.

For example, Africa is now home to six of the top ten fastest growing economies, five of the top ten reformers on the 2018 ease of doing business indicators, and over 400 companies with an annual revenue of one billion US dollars. While these are promising trends and the opportunity for sustained growth in Africa is abundantly clear, how can the development sector identify and support these booming economies and the burgeoning private sector? How can the private sector coordinate their growth strategies with the goals of development partners?

As development practitioners, many of these questions came to the fore for us at the fourth-annual Georgetown Africa Business Conference, which featured the opportunities and challenges of doing business on the continent and best practices and new ways of thinking about Africa’s long-standing issues. The conference brought to light the too often overlooked but real change happening across economies in Africa.

Think Africa

The many challenges Africa faces across food security, health and infrastructure may persist, but positive changes are abundant. Africa is at the forefront of a technological revolution, celebrating the use of digital technology to foster homegrown innovation. With booming tech hubs from Cape Town to Kenya (aka Silicon Savannah), platforms like EZ-Farming, which connects youth farmers to investors with the goal of reducing unemployment and increasing agricultural investment, are emerging. Some of these new startups were highlighted at a pitch competition the conference held, which EZ-Farming won. Their solution was welcomed by a cheerful crowd, encapsulating the optimism that these positive changes are inevitable.

Furthermore, regional, policy-level efforts across Africa are expanding the potential for cross-border collaboration and trade. Some of these policies include the African Continental Free Trade Area to increase intra-African trade, diversify economies and counter the previous reliance on foreign assistance. Non-African governments and investors are also taking note of Africa’s growth. The U.S. Congress also recently signed the BUILD Act, which, through the newly formed International Development Finance Corporation, provides equity investments, technical assistance and the opportunity to drive private capital to developing countries.

Improve infrastructure for cross-border trade

In 2018, intra-African trade accounted for only 15 percent of overall trade across the continent, meaning many countries continue to be heavily reliant on foreign imports for food, goods, and the development of public services. Due to the frequently high tariffs between African countries, it is usually cheaper to import from countries outside of Africa than rely on goods from neighboring countries. Compounding these trade barriers is the often-underdeveloped infrastructure and the lack of reliable transportation options.

“How can it cost $1,000 to ship a car from Japan to the Ivory Coast but $5,000 to ship the same car from the Ivory Coast to Ethiopia?”

While long identified as a barrier to growth, traditional foreign aid actors rarely focus on the large infrastructure projects required to address these issues, but new players are finding new ways to meet these needs. For example, investors like China use government-to-government financing mechanisms and loans to provide direct support to build out infrastructure. The key challenge, it seems, is understanding how these new players are utilizing the local workforce and contributing to the economy without exploiting the resources or using the continent as a stepping stone for regional hegemony.

Leverage Technology

Africa is the only region in the world where the youth population is increasing. Estimates show that by 2050, the number of those aged 0-24 will double, comprising nearly twice the youth population of South Asia and Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Oceania. Panelists at the Georgetown Conference pointed out that, while agriculture can provide one of the greatest employment opportunities for this growing population, youth often perceive agriculture as backwards and underdeveloped. However, with promising examples from around the globe, technology holds potential in attracting this rapidly urbanizing youth population to the agriculture sector.

The upcoming ‘Youth in Agriculture Case Study’ will explore and describe some of these real-life examples in detail–don’t miss it, sign up here.

Whether using a feature phone or smartphone to connect directly with sellers and input suppliers or facilitating enterprise certification and transparent land ownership, technology has the potential to make farming more financially rewarding, support continued investment along the agriculture value chain and promote an image of agriculture as an innovative business opportunity. The ability for farmers to access market conditions is the greatest impact technology can have for agriculture, some conference panelists noted. mSTAR has been working on this issue through our Digital Farmer Profiles: Reimagining Smallholder Agriculture report, which dives into detail on the use of farmer profile data to improve product and service offerings, using data to cater to the nuanced needs of farmers, ensuring market transparency and providing improved inputs. mSTAR’s other guides like Guide to the Use of Digital Financial Services in Agriculture and Using Digital Tools to Expand Access to Agricultural Insurance show readers how technology can enhance the ag sector.

The Georgetown Conference is further evidence that Africa’s future is firmly in the hands of Africans. While challenges persist, innovative thinkers are working to create viable solutions to age-old problems and allow their communities to grow into the modern, global economy. While the image presented at the conference was a hopeful one, according to many speakers, the key to continued growth includes the acceptance of the CFTA to expand intra-African trade, the reduction of harmful trade policies and harnessing the full potential of digital technology.

Nina Getachew is a Program Officer for FHI 360’s Mobile Solutions, Technical Assistance and Research (mSTAR) project. Nina has worked with donors and private partners to implement activities in the areas of ICT4D, responsible use of data and data for decision making. She graduated with a BA in international development with a focus on Middle East and North Africa regional policies from the School of International Service at American University. Prior to FHI 360, Nina was an assistant data analyst at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) providing support to ensure the quality and functionality of the national standardized test software for AIR’s user base. She is an avid traveler and loves photography.  

Conor Farrell has been working in international development for four years, bringing a passion for finding and supporting innovative solutions to address global issues. At FHI 360, he works as Program Officer on the Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research project that seeks to increase access to and use of mobile and digital technologies around the world. Prior to joining FHI 360, Conor worked as a Community Economic Development volunteer with the Peace Corps in Costa Rica, supporting grassroots efforts to increase economic participation and opportunity in the Caribbean town of Linea Vieja.