Mobile Money Helps Farmers Grow Their Businesses in Bangladesh

This is the first of a three-week blog series on digital financial services for agriculture. This series showcases mSTAR and the Digital Development for Feed the Future team’s recently released interactive online resource and instructional videos, made to complement The Guide to the Use of Digital Financial Services in Agriculture. The online resource breaks down the steps of how to use digital financial services in agriculture.


Mobile money can transform the reach and success of a USAID project.

By offering a secure way to store money and access financial services, mobile money has the potential to increase the efficiency of programs and significantly improve the resilience of smallholder farmers.

Carrying cash in the field can be precarious for development workers and beneficiaries alike, as many USAID missions and partners know. In Bangladesh, “there is a security risk and safety risk,” says a representative from WorldFish, a non-profit that works with Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative. Cash can be lost, or worse, stolen. But until recently, cash was the only form of payment—it’s how farmers paid for agricultural inputs and how buyers paid for agricultural products. “There was no other channel,” explains Josh Woodard, Regional ICT & Digital Finance Advisor at FHI 360.

Mobile money has emerged as an obvious solution to the risk of carrying cash. While access to banks is limited for rural agricultural communities, access to mobile phones is not. In June 2016, for example, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission reported 131.4 million mobile phone subscriptions in Bangladesh. This makes up around 83% of Bangladesh’s population. With this, mobile money has seen massive growth in Bangladesh. It has “opened an opportunity to eliminate or vastly reduce the amount of cash transactions,” Josh says.

Josh leads the Bangladesh office for the FHI 360-led and USAID-funded Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research project (mSTAR).  In addition to reducing the risk of staff carrying cash, USAID and mSTAR saw the impact mobile money could have in achieving the goals of USAID agricultural programs in the country. To start, mSTAR assessed where and how mobile money could be applied in project value chains. They conducted value chain studies and provided technical assistance, training staff and building capacity.

“Since mSTAR started activities in Bangladesh in September 2013,” Josh says, “we have been able to work with USAID to digitize payments for 10 Feed the Future activities.” Farmers now have access to financial products, many for the first time. Without money stolen or lost, and with the ability to store and manage money, farmers can reinvest more in their farms, in turn increasing the amount of food they can produce, and their profits. All this leads to stronger, and safer, communities.

Watch the video below to see how USAID and mSTAR implemented mobile money in Bangladesh and worked with implementing partners to successfully impact beneficiary farmers.

As the Bangladesh example shows, digital financial services have the potential to strengthen Feed the Future projects around the globe. USAID is here to help missions and partners identify specific challenges in value chains and integrate digital financial services into those corresponding challenges.

To learn more about how to implement digital financial services in Feed the Future projects, walk through the steps of the online Guide to the Use of Digital Financial Services in Agriculture. If you have specific questions or feedback, contact digitaldevelopment@usaid.gov

Liberian Health Care Workers Transition to Mobile Money

By Erica Bustinza, mSTAR/Liberia Project Manager

Meet Kou, a health worker in rural Nimba County, Liberia. During the Ebola crisis, Kou took action to combat the disease, going door-to-door in her community to stop its spread. The relentless determination of Kou and her peers to rise each morning and fight back against the illness helped bring the epidemic to a halt.

Despite facing life-threatening risks performing her daily work duties, Kou wasn’t able to access her pay. To pick up her salary she had to travel a far distance from her rural community to the bank, but travel was restricted due to quarantines and was risky because of the prevalence of Ebola and difficult road conditions. While many of her peers protested the lack of pay through boycotts, Kou continued working towards saving her country.

To increase efficiency of payments, FHI 360’s Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research (mSTAR) Project, funded by USAID, is working with Liberia’s Ministry of Health (MOH) to offer mobile money salary payments. This gives health workers the option to receive their salaries from mobile money agents who are often closer and more convenient than banks.

Kou spends a shocking amount of her salary on collecting her salary. Her monthly net income is LD 14,300 (USD $146) of which she spends LD 800 on transportation to the bank to retrieve her salary. At the bank she is frequently told that the bank “system is down” and is forced to wait until the money is accessible, sometimes for several days. During this time not only is Kou missing work, but she’s also racking up costs. She spends LD 100 round trip to her relative’s house where she can sleep, LD 150 on food and LD 100 on a phone card to inform her family of the delay. At the bank, Kou waits in line for four hours and then pays LD 300 in bribes to finally pick up her salary. When she receives the cash it is LD 13,200 (USD $135) instead of the LD 14,300 that she expected. The bank can only offer the explanation that this is what was deposited and Kou has no access to a paystub explaining the additional deductions. After spending another LD 800 to return home, Kou is left with LD 10,950, only 77% of her salary.

mSTAR first worked with Liberia’s Ministry of Education to roll-out mobile money salary payments for teachers. The mSTAR team faced questions and challenges during the rollout, such as cash availability (liquidity) and participant targeting. When mSTAR began to plan for rolling out MOH salary payments the team did not assume that the challenges for health workers would mirror those in education. To gain a clear understanding of health payment systems, use of mobile technology, and health worker attitudes and trust in the government, mSTAR and the MOH completed two related analyses: Liberian Health Workers and Mobile Money: An Ethnography and A Contextual Analysis of Payment Disbursements for Liberian Health Workers. The ethnography describes the experiences and attitudes of health workers in Liberia with regards to mobile phone usage and salary disbursement, while the Contextual Analysis explores the cultural, social and environmental context of payment disbursements. The research was done by the mSTAR team and 10 researchers across five counties who conducted direct observation, focus group discussions and key informant interviews.

Some of the findings confirmed what was already known – that health workers spend a relatively large portion of their salaries and a significant amount of time away from their jobs and families to collect monthly pay. The reports confirmed widely held assumptions, like the lack of trust health workers felt towards their employer because of inconsistent deductions and unreliable frequency of payments.

The reports also unearthed new, surprising findings that will impact the project’s roll out. For example, a majority of health workers that participated in the study already use mobile money. They are sending remittances to family for child care, school fees and as unexpected expenses arise. In some cases, mobile money is even used to pay bills or pay the school for fees directly.

Kou doesn’t like the current system through which she receives her salary, but she is still skeptical of the new and unfamiliar mobile money system. mSTAR’s comprehensive look at Kou’s and her peers’ patterns allows mSTAR’s team to frame mobile money in a context Kou understands and build trust in the system by relating it to health workers’ current needs.

With this targeted method, Kou will better understand the system and will be more likely to enroll in mobile money payments, which will enable her to collect her salary while avoiding unnecessary travel away from home and expenses. Most importantly, the mobile money approach helps keep Kou safe, and in the rare occurrence where traveling becomes dangerous again in Liberia, Kou will be able to receive her salary and continue caring for her community.

Erica Bustinza is the Project Manager overseeing 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.

Photo credit: CDC Global

Financial Inclusion Forum Call for Proposals Now Open!

 

We are looking for session ideas, stories, case studies, reports, and key learnings from programming. Session ideas should distill insights, evidence, and emerging best practices into actionable recommendations/approaches for practitioners to carry forward into their programming. Click here to learn more.

December 1-2, 2016 the U.S. Department of the Treasury and USAID will host the 2016 Financial Inclusion Forum by convening a diverse group of leaders from the U.S. and foreign governments, financial institutions and other corporations, and nonprofits to chart a recommended approach to financial inclusion during the next administration. For the second  year in a row, mSTAR is thrilled to support the Treasury and USAID at the forum. Building on the successes of the 2015 Financial Inclusion Forum, the 2016 event will be a two-day convening focused on evidence, best practices, and emerging trends around four key themes: enabling environment, agriculture & power, education & health, and humanitarian assistance & resilience.

In a brief interview, Shailee Adinolfi, digital finance expert, technical advisor for mSTAR, and key coordinator for the Financial Inclusion Forum shares what she’s looking forward to at this year’s Financial Inclusion Forum and what makes for a winning session submission.

Q: Last year’s Financial Inclusion Forum featured private and public sector participants like United States Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew, JPMorgan Chase, PayPal, Intuit, Accion, Gates Foundation, and the Coca-Cola Foundation. What were the highlights?

Shailee Adinolfi (SA): Two high-level outcomes from last year’s forum were 1) a deeper-level dialogue between the public and private sector in ways to achieve financial inclusion through working together in specific areas, such as testing innovations, and 2) increased coordination within the U.S. Government on both domestic and international policy and programming.

Q: What are you most excited for this year?

SA: This year, I’m most excited to learn ways in which USAID implementing partners, like FHI 360, can support achievement of the sustainable development goals through our financial inclusion programs.

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Q: What are you looking for in a call for proposal submission?

SA: I’m looking for approaches that have demonstrated impact over time and can be scaled to achieve greater financial inclusion, as well as innovations that are showing early signs of success, but require more testing and research.

To learn more about the 2016 Financial Inclusion Forum and submit a proposal, click here. Follow the conversation on Twitter with @mSTAR_Project and #FIF2016. 

mSTAR’s First Podcast! Josh Woodard Talks What to Expect at Financial Inclusion Week 2016

More than two-thirds of Bangladeshis lack a formal financial account. This means that more often than not, they rely on cash, which can be both risky and costly. “You’re potentially just a natural disaster away from all of your cash savings in your house being wiped away,” Josh Woodard, technical advisor for mSTAR’s Bangladesh team, says.

[Please note that FHI refers to FHI 360 in this podcast.]

However, in Bangladesh, there’s a clear opportunity to address this. The country is pretty much entirely covered by mobile networks and more than half of the population owns a mobile phone. This combination makes digital financial services a perfect way to break down barriers to financial inclusion.

Over the past three years, the mSTAR/Bangladesh team has directly assisted eight USAID implementing partners in transitioning to digital payments, and they’ve seen tremendous success. As of June 2016, four of the implementing partners have made around US $1.51 million in digital transactions, all of which were previously done using cash. Most of those transactions were made to individuals who were previously unbanked or underbanked.

To continue this success and further the conversation on increasing financial inclusion, mSTAR’s Bangladesh team is joining BRAC, CARE International, Ecobank Foundation and other leading organizations as a partner in this year’s Financial Inclusion Week, hosted by the Center for Financial Inclusion. Financial Inclusion Week is a global conversation exploring the most important steps to full financial inclusion. This year’s theme is keeping clients first in a digital world.

mSTAR/Bangladesh’s conversation will focus on how different actors, from financial service providers to government programs, can support the development, promotion, and uptake of digital financial services that are aligned to the needs, capacities, and aspirations of the financially excluded in Bangladesh.

Josh Woodard, mSTAR’s Regional ICT and Digital Finance Advisor, describes the innovative ways mSTAR/Bangladesh is focusing on clients to advance financial inclusion in this first episode of Digital Development Leaders, a podcast by mSTAR and FHI 360’s TechLab.

Take a listen to Josh explain how mSTAR/Bangladesh is staying ahead of trends, focusing on clients, and innovating to increase financial inclusion. Please note that “FHI” is said in the podcast and is meant to refer to “FHI 360.” 

Josh was also interviewed recently by the Aid and International Development Forum (AIDF) about emerging trends in technology, check it out below.

To learn more about Financial Inclusion Week follow @mSTAR_Project and the hashtag #finclusionweek on Twitter.