Can dialogue lead to DFS uptake? – PERSPECTIVES FROM MSTAR/BANGLADESH

As mSTAR’s project in Bangladesh comes to a close this fall, mSTAR/Bangladesh staff write on their perspectives from three years of a successful project, where mSTAR/Bangladesh helped enroll over 24,000 individuals—most of whom are women—into digital financial service accounts and helped USAID IPs and beneficiaries transact around $1.83 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 disbursement to 795 farmers. Both banks are interested in scaling up these efforts.  

By Tasnuba Sinha, mSTAR/Bangladesh Digital Financial Services Associate

In a world where we want to make an impact across borders, cultures, viewpoints and motivations, dialogues such as stakeholders’ meetings, conferences, formal network gatherings and seminars play an integral role. Dialogues like these allow for networking and relationship building, for role models to inspire next generation change makers, and for the exchange of experiences.

mSTAR/Bangladesh recognizes the potential and the importance of dialogue facilitation and has organized 11 dialogue facilitation programs in Bangladesh over the past four years. I have been fortunate enough to be a part of mSTAR/Bangladesh and have organized numerous events over the past 11 months including Mobile Money Consultative Group meetings, a Financial Inclusion Week Event and an Agricultural Value Chain Insights: Opportunities in Bangladesh report launching event.

In the last few years, our team at mSTAR/Bangladesh has built a strong local and international network of representatives from development organizations, donor agencies, digital financial services (DFS) providers, mobile network operators, technology solution providers, insurance companies and regulatory bodies – people who are doers and makers, who believe what we believe: that Bangladesh has all the potential in the world. Without this community, our work in supporting acceleration and adoption of digital payments would not be possible.

The first Mobile Money Consultative Group (MMCG) meeting was first held in August 2014 and ever since then, it has successfully created a community of passionate individuals who believe in the benefits of using digital financial services and ultimately building an inclusive digital ecosystem where all segments of society have access to formal financial services, particularly those at the bottom of the pyramid. MMCG provided a platform for change makers to come together and discuss challenges and innovative solutions. Held quarterly, the MMCG has been covering various issues from the importance of financial literacy to the need for innovation in mobile financial services products. Furthermore, several digital financial service providers have expressed many times during the meetings that they see all the challenges as an opportunity for them to develop their products in such a way that the challenges can be eliminated. Most importantly, our team believes in promoting collaboration, trust and community – the tenets of a strong digital financial ecosystem and after successfully conducting nine MMCG meetings, we can say that is what we have attained.

Another major event that mSTAR/Bangladesh (mSTAR/B) has hosted that I am particularly proud of is the Financial Inclusion Week event in October 2016. Aligning with the global theme ‘Keeping Clients First in a Digital World,’ mSTAR/B hosed an event entitled ‘Increasing the Uptake of Formal Financial Services through a Client-Centric Approach.’ The event successfully explored how different actors, from development organizations, to financial service providers, to government programs, have supported the development, promotion and uptake of digital financial services in Bangladesh. mSTAR/B was one of the very few organizations who took part in this global conversation. The modality of the workshop was designed in such a way that it provided the participants to perform a lively, interactive discussion where they explored scenarios reflecting existing needs, barriers to accessing formal financial services in Bangladesh and the actions and steps required to further accelerate financial inclusion.

The core purpose behind hosting any dialogue facilitation is to help people connect. Dialogues give organizations opportunities to see what other people are working on and understand challenges, and the need to develop new innovative products that would benefit all segments of the population. For us, that was the main objective. We aimed to provide such platforms that would help a development organization connect with a DFS provider or other development organization and inspire individuals to think of building the ecosystem through collaboration.

Tasnuba Sinha has been with mSTAR/Bangladesh since August 2016. During that time, she organized five events promoting dialogue facilitation. She has always been passionate about working in the development sector and graduated with a degree in Economics. Prior to mSTAR/Bangladesh, Tasnuba worked at a tech startup in Bangladesh.

Digital Development for Feed the Future: Will Digital Technology Work For or Against Small Farmers?

This post is excerpted from the second blog post in a two-part Agrilinks series focusing on data-driven agricultural development. It was authored by Brian King, Digital Development Advisor for Digital Development for Feed the Future, USAID and Peter Richards, Economic Advisor, Bureau for Food Security, USAID.

Global agricultural development is in a period of digital transition. Advancements in earth science, computational power, geospatial analysis and data communications systems have made it possible to assess yields from space, predict and manage economic or climatic shocks, and improve the precision and profitability of agricultural production. The models for realizing the full benefits of this transformation are still emerging. This has wide-reaching implications for agriculture development. Will digital technologies follow well-worn paths of agriculture innovation? Will they prove disruptive or beneficial for small farmers in developing economies?

The Technology Treadmill

Over fifty years ago, the economist Willard Cochrane described adoption of agricultural innovations as a “treadmill,” wherein technologies such as mechanization, hybrid seeds and chemical inputs helped increase productivity. However, when the resulting increases in food supply drove down market prices, farmers were forced to keep adopting new technologies to increase efficiency, only to maintain about the same farm income. Most farmers — particularly small farmers — weren’t getting ahead. When Cochrane wrote of the treadmill decades later in the 1990s, he found that his treadmill had been a force for farm consolidation. Many of the smaller, less productive or less efficient farmers ended up falling off the treadmill.

Small Farmers, Digital Tools

As use of digital tools expands in farming systems in developing economies, it is worth reflecting on what these new technologies will mean for small farmers. If the spread of these innovations follows similar patterns as those of previous waves, it could mean yet another challenge to small farmers’ livelihoods. Yet there are a few signals that digital solutions might also help small farmers even the score.

Here are some key indicators:

Increasing Access to Inputs

Access to the right inputs at the right places and times has long been a challenge for small farmers in developing regions who may find themselves isolated due to poor quality infrastructure or weak linkages with input supply chains. Even where inputs are accessible, distributing them in small packages implies additional costs. Digital tools, however, can help aggregate smallholder demand and enable innovative approaches to financing to get around these constraints. Similarly, some models from the sharing economy are showing promise for improving access to on-demand transport and mechanization.

Precision in Production

New digital tools can have a big impact on small farmer efficiency. For example, access to cell phones enables even poor, rural farmers to access good guidance over interactive voice response or low-cost video, with demonstrated improvements in production. There are early successes in improving the timeliness and site-specificity of farm guidance over digital channels, such as linking SMS text messages with crop models. The near ubiquity of mobile phone services in developing economies makes it possible to deploy sensor technologies for more precise, data-driven production. These new digital channels are building true interactivity with small farmers in ways that were not possible just a few years ago, enabling farmers and farm advisors to track crop progress, plan activities and identify new solutions or opportunities.

Read the full blog here and learn about finding a vent for surplus for smallholders, and hacking the technology treadmill.


Digital Development for Feed the Future is a collaboration between USAID’s Global Development Lab and the Bureau for Food Security and is focused on integrating a suite of coordinated digital tools and technologies into Feed the Future activities to accelerate agriculture-led economic growth and improved nutrition.  

For more information on Digital Development for Feed the Future’s work on data-driven agricultural development, please read the Key Findings Report from the Innovation for Data-Driven Agriculture convening in April 2017. 

Photo credit: Bobby Neptune for USAID

Why We Need to Advance Digital Financial Services for Factory Workers

By Majidul Haque

‘We want to be paid in cash! We are very much happy with the way we are receiving our salaries. We don’t need any banking system or MFS account!’

I heard this from most of the attendees in a town hall meeting I was holding with ready-made garment (RMG) workers in Bangladesh. As a Technical Lead for digital financial services at FHI 360, at the time I was writing a guide for BSR’s HERfinance project on how garment workers could use mobile financial services (MFS). Through the town hall meetings I could better understand workers’ opinions on using MFS instead of cash to receive wages.

Their plea for cash was natural. Cash has a real-life feel that comes from seeing, touching and counting notes, as Mr. Chhavi Ghuliani, Associate Director at BSR, notes in his article ‘Why is cash a problem?’. Digital channels, on the other hand, are intangible.

It might be appropriate to say that these unbanked workers’ preference is to always have something physical, as it ensures direct access to their money. Building trust in MFS might grow slowly unless they can practically feel or see its actual benefits. Therefore, raising awareness of the benefits of MFS among workers can play a vital role in digitizing salary payments.

After I explicitly explained the benefits of using MFS to the group of workers, they replied positively about accepting their wages digitally.

It might be appropriate to say that these unbanked workers’ preference is to always have something physical, as it ensures direct access to their money.

The RMG sector in Bangladesh has significant influence on the Bangladeshi economy in terms of employment, production and foreign exchange earnings. The industry employs over four million people, most of whom are unbanked. In Bangladesh, 90 percent of wages are paid through cash and RMG factories are no different in that regard.

In Bangladesh, 90 percent of wages are paid through cash and RMG factories are no different in that regard.

However, paying salaries in cash brings several concerns to both RMG factories and their workers. Factories face the risk of theft or fraud in the shipment and distribution of cash and the amount of time and resources required to process disbursements is significant. Workers, as well, face the risk of losing their cash through theft while traveling home from factories. Cash can also discourage maintaining savings, which are essential to enabling individuals to adapt to future demand and shocks. Women workers, who represent more than 80% of the total RMG workers in Bangladesh, face even greater risks as they often have little or no control over their money if it is in cash. In many parts of Bangladesh, women are likely to be more economically dependent on men or other family members for their survival due to their limited earnings, the male dominated culture and lower education. In addition, according to research done by the Financial Inclusion Insights (FII) program, less than half of women in Bangladesh have access to formal financial services and even fewer women have a registered account. As a result, they usually handover their cash to a male relative to store.

Given the limitations with cash, the high mobile penetration rate, and the rapid growth of MFS in Bangladesh, MFS has the potential to be one of the best solutions to digitize salary payments—not to mention that it can also serve as a powerful catalyst to bridge the financial inclusion gap of RMG workers. Digitizing salary payments can bring more efficiency and transparency to payroll systems by ensuring access to formal financial services for both men and women. In addition, women can also have more control over their salaries and influence over household financial decision making.

To help the RMG sector capitalize on this opportunity, FHI 360 and BSR recently published a manual titled ‘Digitizing Worker Salary Payments: A Manual for Ready-made Garment Factories.’ This manual provides a blueprint for ready-made garment factories in Bangladesh, and the organizations supporting them, who are interested in using mobile financial services to make salary payments to their workers. It includes background information on MFS, the possible benefits and challenges, and useful tips and checklists for implementing MFS salary payments.

 

Md. Majidul Haque is the technical lead – digital financial services (DFS) for the USAID Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research (mSTAR) activity implemented by FHI 360 in Bangladesh. He has just under a decade of experience in telecom, banking and international development organizations, with a focus on new business, product development, project management and action research related to DFS, financial inclusion, e-commerce, payment gateways and value-added services (VAS). He has also been a key technical advisor on DFS to BSR’s HERfinance program, supporting the digitization of payments to female garment workers in Bangladesh. Throughout his career, Majidul has successfully introduced DFS to a wide range of segments, including smallholder farmers, local government officers, community health workers, ultra-poor women, slum dwellers, and ready-made garment workers. He worked with eight different RMG factories to roll-out MFS to more than 6,000 workers for salary disbursement.

Digital Development for Feed the Future: Building an Innovative Community of Practice to Respond to Smallholder Farmers’ Needs

This post is excerpted from the first blog post in a two-part Agrilinks series focusing on data-driven agricultural development. It was authored by Karina Lundahl, Facilitator for USAID’s Innovation for Data-Driven Agriculture Convening on April 27–28, 2017.

With the continued global proliferation of smartphones, sensors and advanced analytics, opportunities and challenges relevant to smallholder agriculture in emerging economies are increasing. In the focus countries of the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative, smartphone adoption increased an incredible 800 percent between 2010–2015 according to data from GSMA Intelligence. And in 2017, the combined processing power of global smartphones will surpass the processing capacity of all servers worldwide. To create an agile and informed response to technological opportunities addressing the context-specific problems faced in developing regions, a diverse group of thinkers and innovators is required.

Addressing this, USAID, in collaboration with the Sustainability Innovation Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder (SILC), hosted its second convening focused on building a cross-industry community of practice in data-driven agricultural development. Representatives from the U.S. Global Development Lab and Bureau for Food Security at USAID joined a group of researchers, tech innovators, funders and development practitioners to discuss the state of the industry as well as paths forward for data-driven approaches to agricultural development. Through a series of presentations, panels and workshop activities, three major themes emerged:

1. Opportunities and challenges in the data landscape: collection, analysis, open sharing and distribution

2. How to better incorporate smallholder farmer concerns during design and implementation

3. Engaging a diverse community of practice

Convening facilitator Karina Lundahl unpacks these themes with proven examples in the full Agrilinks blog. Read the post to see case examples of how these themes respond to smallholder farmers’ needs.

Digital Development for Feed the Future is a collaboration between USAID’s Global Development Lab and the Bureau for Food Security and is focused on integrating a suite of coordinated digital tools and technologies into Feed the Future activities to accelerate agriculture-led economic growth and improved nutrition.  

For more information on Digital Development for Feed the Future’s work on data-driven agricultural development, please read the Key Findings Report from the Innovation for Data-Driven Agriculture convening in April 2017. 

Photo credit: Tanya Martineau, Prospect Arts, Food for the Hungry

How Start-ups, Microsoft, Facebook, and Wikipedia are connecting Kenyans to the Internet: New Podcast

“The poorest people don’t have access to media. So to speak, they are in the dark. The only way to enable them to move out of poverty is if we enable them with information and show them the potential of what they can do.”

Evah Kimani on connectivity in Kenya.


A country of 40 million, 15 million Kenyans regularly access the Internet.

Evah Kimani, a Kenyan ICT4D expert, has spent her career making this possible. Trained in computer science, Evah advised mSTAR and SSG Advisors on the popular report, Business Models for the Last Billion. She has 13 years of experience developing Internet products in Kenya, and she has seen how the Internet transforms lives.

Evah spoke to mSTAR on our podcast, mSTAR Presents: Digital Development Leaders, last year. She discussed how the growing digital divide further handicaps an already disadvantaged population and how private sector, non-profits, and the government are innovating to connect rural Kenyans to the Internet.

Take a listen.

Submit Session Ideas for ICTforAg 2017

This blog is modified from the originally published blog on ICTworks.

ICTforAg is a one-day conference which builds on ICTforAg 2015 and 2016, bringing together 300 thought leaders and decision-makers in agriculture and technology from the international development community and the private sector. Community-driven sessions examine how new innovations can empower smallholder farmers, and the communities that support them, through information and communication technologies (ICT).

We are looking for the ICT4D community to sign up to present or register to attend ICTforAg 2017 and examine these trends with an exciting mix of educational keynotes, lightning talks, and group breakouts. An evening reception will be held to foster networking across sectors. Session submission ideas are due April 14!

While this year’s conference takes a particular interest in new ICT solutions that can boost the productivity of both smallholder farmers and agricultural value chains, all possible ICTs, including traditional media platforms, agribusiness IT systems, and existing government support systems, will be discussed.

To answer the real challenges smallholder farmers and agriculture value chain stakeholders face, the conference will have four focus areas:

  1. Where are Digital Financial Services improving farmer finances?
  2. How can Digital Extension Services succeed where analog versions have failed?
  3. What does Private Sector Partnerships – Version 2.0 look like?
  4. Where is Climate Smart Agriculture having impact in mitigating increased variability?

Like previous conferences, ICTforAg 2017 will be a community-driven event. Please submit your ideas for presentations and session topics in one of the four areas listed above. Our aim is to create a day of intense exploration of the already possible and soon-to-be potential of tools like blockchain, drones, sensors, augmented reality, predictive analytics, big data, gamification, and automation, that will move us from talk to ICTforAg action.

Presenters and session leads will play a central role in developing the event and have their ticket costs refunded. Session ideas that also include voices from the field and these cross-cutting themes will be at an advantage:

  • Gender equity
  • Youth engagement
  • Private sector engagement
  • Climate change resilience
  • Fragile and conflict environments
  • Monitoring, evaluation, research and learning

Submit session ideas, register, and read more about the event here.

Empowering Technologies for the Field: Josh Woodard Presents mSTAR’s Fintech Innovations in Bangkok

By Paul Gostomski

The “Financial Technology for Development Workshop” recently took place in Bangkok, Thailand. The workshop is part of RDMA’s Frontier Learning Series, a set of events focused on exploring emerging opportunities at the intersection of science, technology, innovation, partnerships, and international development. The goal of the workshop was to help sort out fiction from reality and offer practical advice to the development community interested in leveraging digital development.

Among other top fintech experts presenting at the workshop, mSTAR’s Josh Woodard, Regional ICT & Digital Finance Advisor, presented on “Tools of the Trade: Empowering Technologies and Methodologies for the Field.” Josh’s presentation focused on digitally-enabled alternatives to informal credit options for farmers in Bangladesh, where 47 percent of the labor force is employed in agriculture. Access to formal credit options in Bangladesh is highly limited, forcing many farmers to choose informal credit options with interest rates as high as 25-31 percent. Moreover, repayment of these informal credit options is due weekly, which is challenging for farmers with limited income generating activities outside of farming, which doesn’t tend to generate income on a weekly basis. The challenging repayment terms and high interest rates lead farmers to rush to sell their harvests. In a rush to sell their goods, farmers do not get their harvests’ full market value.

Josh’s presentation demonstrated the alternative mSTAR has created with two different banks in Bangladesh, Bank Asia and IFIC Bank Limited. mSTAR partnered with both banks to launch two new digitally-enabled micro-credit products for farmers. One uses NFC-enabled debit cards, and the other uses mobile wallets. At 10 percent APR, both of these products have much lower interest rates than alternative options offered by microfinance institutions, as well as much more attractive repayment terms—a single repayment after six months, instead of weekly installments. With these products, farmers can pay after harvest. No longer in a rush to see their produce, they are more likely to receive a better price. In a country where most people work in agriculture, these new products could be critical to stemming poverty and breaking a cycle of debt.

To date, around 700 farmers have already received loans through the two products, with plans to reach at least 10,000 farmers by next year.

To learn more about additional opportunities for digitizing financial services in the agriculture sector in Bangladesh, take a look at the infographic, Digital Financial Services for Agriculture: Opportunities in Bangladesh, and for additional resources on this topic check out our other publications on the mSTAR Bangladesh Microlinks page.

Paul Gostomski is a Program Assistant for FHI 360’s Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research (mSTAR) project. Paul is a recent graduate from the College of William and Mary, where he studied economics. His work at FHI 360 supports mSTAR’s initiative to foster the rapid adoption and scale-up of digital finance, digital inclusion and mobile data in developing countries. 

5 Ways to Improve Your Data Security (Today!) for Digital Data Collection

Guest post by Alexis Ditkowsky 

Close your eyes and imagine you’re being interviewed about your sexual behaviors, your finances, and your health conditions – and then asked the same questions about each member of your family. The person speaking with you has taken photos of you, your children, and your home, and they captured your GPS coordinates within one meter of accuracy.

You’ve trusted a stranger with incredibly personal and easily identifiable information.

But what steps are they taking to keep your data secure and your family safe?

On Thursday, March 9, mSTAR’s Abdul Bari Farahi and SurveyCTO’s Faizan Diwan led a presentation on data security for electronic field-based data collection with an emphasis on what you can do today to improve security practices during each step of the process. data-flowsHere are five takeaways:

1.) Improve your security on tablets and smartphones

  • Encrypt your tablets
    • Most Android devices come with 1-2-click settings to encrypt tablets as a whole
  • Install an Android app that allows you to lock, track, and wipe remotely (e.g. Avira)
  • Use a data collection app that allows for encrypting collected data “at-rest”
    • This way, even those who collect the data can no longer see it after the form has been finalized

2.) Improve security on your server

  • Use a platform that allows you to use your own encryption keys, so even your software vendor cannot view the data if they try
    • Encryption in transit and encryption at rest are not enough
  • Use a good password!

3.) Improve security on your computer

  • Keep exported data in an encrypted folder on your computer when not in use
    • BoxCryptor offers a desktop encryption option that lets you share data via Box while keeping it encrypted
  • Use a good password!
  • For an additional layer of security, you could also use a cold room computer, which is never connected to the internet
  • Avoid connecting to unknown and insecure and or unencrypted networks

4.) Improve security for your organization

  • Develop standards of practice, check lists, and other shared resources
  • Mitigate cybersecurity risk
  • Use technology that is secure but convenient
  • Use two-factor authentication where possible
  • Raise security awareness within organizations
  • Avoid single point of failure on all critical elements of business including employees, servers, technologies, and strategies
  • Backup data continuously
  • Create an environment for continuous monitoring of “everything all the time”

5.) Improve security in your sector

  • Encourage donors to increase pressure on grantees to deliver on data security commitments
  • Work with IRBs to create electronic data security policies in their requirements and guidelines
  • Develop sector-wide standards for reporting and investigating data security lapses

Too often the perceived costs of strong data security get in the way of taking low-burden but high-impact action to improve practices. And while the costs of poor practices can be hard to quantify, the risk to your reputation and to the safety of respondents, particularly in humanitarian situations, is all too real.

Alexis Ditkowsky works on community-based initiatives at Dobility, the social enterprise behind SurveyCTO

Photo courtesy of John Snow, Inc.

Mobile Money Solves Risky Cash and Lack of Loans for Farmers in Ghana: New Video

This is the last 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. To view the other blogs, visit the home page of our blog.


Like in many developing countries, agriculture is the mainstay of the Ghanaian economy. 62 percent of Ghanaians are employed in the sector, says Doris Amponsaa Owusu, Business Services Specialist for USAID’s ADVANCE II Project (Agricultural Development and Value Chain Enhancement). ADVANCE II, implemented by ACDI/VOCA, supports the scaling up of agricultural investments to improve the competitiveness of important value chains in Ghana, and is supported by Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s global huger and food security initiative.

In Ghana, buyers drive from the south to buy food from the rural, agricultural north. But due to a lack of banks in the north, buyers must carry huge sums of money as they travel across the country. Dealing with this amount of cash is risky and cumbersome for buyers and farmers alike.

Doris explains how her ADVANCE II team sat down to think about how they could eliminate the risk of carrying large amounts of cash. Mobile money provided a perfect solution: it diminishes the threat of theft and ensures buyers are able to pay farmers efficiently and smoothly. Plus, mobile money is simple to use and offers the ability to access additional financial services such as savings, insurance, and credit.

To implement the mobile money solution, ADVANCE II partnered with MTN, one of the largest mobile network providers in Ghana. MTN piloted the mobile banking service with a farm in northern Ghana. They first trained a group of nucleus farmers, farmers who contract and provide support to smallholder farmers, in the mobile money service. After being trained by ADVANCE II, the nucleus farmers subsequently trained 1,072 smallholder farmers. Farmers enjoyed the service Doris says, and approached ADVANCE II asking to scale up the project. So ADVANCE II trained input dealers and out grower businesses.

After success with the farmers, out growers, and input dealers, ADVANCE II saw more benefits mobile money could offer. The farming communities Doris and her team work with have savings and loan associations, where each farmer contributes weekly towards production for the next season. “The women still have to keep these moneys in metal boxes kept under the beds,” says Doris. So her team partnered with MTN and Fidelity, a banking firm, to digitize the savings and loan associations.

ADVANCE II and the farmers they work with are excited about the results of mobile money, and plan to scale up the program to 10,000 smallholder farmers. “I would recommend it to any project that would want to implement mobile money or digital finance as part of their project approach,” says Francis Ussuman, Regional Coordinator on the ADVANCE II team.

In the video below, Doris, Francis, and local farmers show how ADVANCE II implemented mobile money in Ghana and impacted the agricultural sector.

As the video 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, read the Guide to the Use of Digital Financial Services in Agriculture. If you have specific questions or feedback, contact digitaldevelopment@usaid.gov

2016: A Year of Digital Development in Action

In 2016, mSTAR implemented 41 activities.

It was a year of dedicated work towards mSTAR’s goal of using technology to improve lives in underserved communities.

Read our 2016 Annual Report.

Our 2016 activities spanned Central America, Asia, and Africa. They included  diverse activities such as the Innovations Awards for original uses of data for resilience; a widely-received report on alternative business models for connectivity; and a Financial Inclusion Forum highlighting Bill Gates. All 41 activities were exciting and meaningful; here are our most noteworthy:

First of its kind digitally-enabled micro-credit in Bangladesh.
One of the biggest challenges farmers face in Bangladesh is that they pay back loans weekly. Paying loans so regularly can cause a snowball effect of debt for farmers who, due to the nature of farming, don’t have a steady weekly income. Once crops are in the ground, it may be a few months before they have income. To pay back the original loan farmers are often forced to “take out other loans…and rush to sell their crops immediately after harvest,” Josh Woodard, mSTAR Regional ICT and Digital Finance Specialist, has said. Rushing to sell  crops means farmers often don’t get their full market value. To address this, mSTAR has worked with two different banks in Bangladesh, Bank Asia and IFIC Bank Limited, to launch two new digitally-enabled micro-credit products for farmers; the first using NFC-enabled debit cards, the latter using mobile wallets. Both of these products have much lower interest rates than alternative options offered by microfinance institutions, as well as much more attractive repayment terms—a single repayment after six months, instead of weekly installments. With these products, farmers can now pay after harvest. No longer in a rush to see their produce, they are more likely to receive a better price. In a country where most people work in agriculture, these new products could be critical to stemming poverty and breaking a cycle of debt. Over 250 farmers have signed up for the initial pilots of these two products, and both banks are already eyeing expansion to thousands of more farmers.

Mobile money salary payments for teachers in Liberia.
Through mobile money, mSTAR is transforming the daily lives of teachers in rural areas. In 2016, mSTAR successfully rolled out mobile salary payments for teachers in Nimba County. Sixty-seven teachers received payments in the first mobile payment payroll. 100 percent reported saving time compared to traditional direct deposit. Mobile salary payments also helped teachers save money. Before, teachers reported spending approximately 13.5 hours and $25 of their salary to pick up their money. After mobile payments, they spent an average of 25 minutes and $2 in service fees to cash out their mobile money. The success of the rollout has resulted in buy-ins to roll out mobile money to health workers and to teachers nationwide.

Addressing the data gap in mobile phone users.
mSTAR, USAID/Mozambique and DFID, through DAI’s Financial Sector Deepening project, set out to clearly understand the landscape of growing mobile phone users. mSTAR and partners interviewed over 6,000 mobile phone users and non-users. The survey garnered valuable information and data about the availability and accessibility of mobile technologies and the way people use mobile phones in their daily lives. The findings will allow USAID staff in Mozambique to make smarter programming decisions as they increasingly rely on digital technologies to deliver better results.

In 2016, mSTAR used technology for better development outcomes across sectors. We encouraged innovative uses of data for resilience and rolled out mobile money products that show real promise in improving daily lives and diminishing the threat of poverty. In 2016, we continued to establish digital technologies as some of the most exciting and promising avenues to improving lives among the most vulnerable throughout the world.

Review our 2016 Annual Report (with pictures!) here.