Is Digitizing the Answer to Scaling Youth Financial Services?

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

By Sonali Rohatgi, Technical Advisor, Digital Solutions

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

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

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

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

The survey results surprised us in many ways:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Neil Brandvold


How Interoperability Can Strengthen Agriculture and Nutrition

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

By Paige Kirby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Erica Bustinza, Chief of Party, mSTAR/Liberia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erica Bustinza is the Chief of Party of mSTAR activities in Liberia. She has worked in development for over 10 years in various geographic regions and sectors, primarily focused on access to finance, economic development and technology integration.

Why Are Women Less Likely to Own a Phone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want DFS Uptake? Do Feasibility Assessments – PERSPECTIVES FROM MSTAR/BANGLADESH

As mSTAR’s project in Bangladesh comes to a close this fall, mSTAR/Bangladesh staff write on their perspectives from four years of a successful project, where mSTAR/Bangladesh helped enroll over 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 Tajmary Akter, mSTAR/Bangladesh Technical Specialist

At mSTAR/Bangladesh, we have found that digital financial service (DFS) feasibility assessments are an excellent method to accelerate DFS uptake. When determining digital financial service feasibility, assessments are integral to understanding and analyzing context. They provide insights to understanding community needs, challenges, opportunities and potential action and are proven to be an effective method for learning and evaluation.

In the Bangladesh context, the DFS market is dominated by mobile financial services, especially person-to-person money transfers; other usage options have not yet reached a significant portion of the unbanked, low income and rural communities. mSTAR/Bangladesh has conducted several assessments since 2013 to understand this and explore opportunities for DFS integration in development working areas, especially health and agriculture.

As a member of the mSTAR/Bangladesh team, I was able to take part in several assessments addressing some of the following objectives:

  • Mapping the existing transaction patterns among key actors of relevant value chains and analyzing existing rules and regulation (e.g. government regulation for mobile money).
  • Identifying the constraints or root causes that explain why DFS is currently not being adopted among unbanked, rural and low-income populations.
  • Identifying opportunities based on assessment findings to troubleshoot existing challenges and accelerate DFS in the broader context.

The assessment findings significantly contribute to troubleshooting challenges by identifying community needs. For example, from learnings identified in assessments, our team was able to contribute to the design and execution of two DFS innovations targeting smallholder farmers and businessmen in rural communities:

  1. A card-based micro-credit facility through agent banking with Bank Asia, in partnership with the USAID Agricultural Extension Support Activity.
  2. An agri-credit facility through mobile bank accounts with the IFIC Bank, in partnership with the USAID Rice Value Chain activity.

Assessments have the potential to help drive DFS innovation by analyzing opportunities in existing transaction channels like our team did in an agriculture value chain assessment in February 2017. This kind of assessment not only explores opportunities at the local community level but also at the organizational level. The assessment showed that adopting DFS in a suitable way could offer an organization’s increased operational efficiency by saving time, resources and costs. Another recently published assessment conducted by the mSTAR/Bangladesh team determines DFS feasibility in agricultural mechanization value chains.

Through different assessments, our team has been able to provide insights and recommendations for why, what and how DFS may integrate efficiently into different sectors. Through these efforts, we have been able to support our overall goal of supporting, building and accelerating the DFS ecosystem in an effective manner in Bangladesh.

For the full list of assessments completed under mSTAR/Bangladesh, see the Technical Reports section on this webpage.

Tajmary Akter has been a technical specialist with mSTAR/Bangladesh since September 2016. She has experience working with agriculture, nutrition, livelihoods and market development programs with an expertise on gender issues. She completed her Masters in Anthropology and has worked as a development professional for more than eight years.


As mSTAR’s project in Bangladesh comes to a close this fall, mSTAR/Bangladesh staff write on their perspectives from four years of a successful project, where mSTAR/Bangladesh helped enroll over 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 Ataur Rahman, mSTAR/Bangladesh Project Lead

For the past four years in Bangladesh, the mSTAR project has worked to completely transform USAID implementing partner (IP) payment streams. When we first started project operations in Bangladesh in 2013, we found that almost all project expenditures in Bangladesh at the field level were being done in cash. This is not that surprising. Cash is the most widely accepted form of payment across Bangladesh. InterMedia’s Financial Inclusion Insights found that 67 percent of Bangladeshis have yet to adopt DFS. But cash is risky and can be expensive, in terms of travel and staff costs needed to transport it around. Our job was to help show IPs the benefit of digitizing those transactions and supporting them to do so.

To date, mSTAR/Bangladesh has helped enroll over 24, 000 individuals—a majority of whom are women—into digital financial service accounts and helped USAID IPs and their beneficiaries transact just over US $2 million digitally. Since transitioning to digital payments, IPs like WorldFish realized annual savings of US $19,150 and reduced the administrative burden on technical staff by 600 days annually. Another IP, Dnet, saved the equivalent of 20 full-time staff per year in reduced administrative tasks while realizing an annual benefit of around US $60,900.

Here’s how we’ve transitioned these IPs and saved them valuable time and money.

The first step we take when digitizing payment streams is fully assessing the need or use of payments by understanding the beneficiaries of a project and the project itself. Through direct conversations with project staff and beneficiaries, we have found that while most program staff own mobile phones and are aware of mobile money, most don’t use it. Those who are adoptees only use basic products and services, such as personal transfers. This is because they are often broadly unaware of the intricacies of digital financial services (DFS), such as mobile financial services and agent banking products, and therefore lack trust in them.

Our conversations with projects made it clear that awareness is key. By increasing DFS-specific knowledge, we find that projects immediately recognize the benefits and are keen to adopt. While some organizations are trying to increase the uptake of DFS by increasing their knowledge and capacity to use DFS products, more effort and engagement is required. To this end, the mSTAR team in Bangladesh has focused its energy on increasing DFS-specific awareness among USAID-funded project staff and beneficiaries.

We provided hands-on training directly and through partner organizations to interested projects to promote DFS products among groups that previously had little access to such information. Group work in workshops and discussions identified potential gaps and established methods to overcome challenges. These workshops targeted each level of an IP, from project leads and finance staff, to program staff, frontline managers and beneficiaries, so that we could tackle every link in the IP value chain.

We found that it is important to include all levels of staff in the process to grapple with challenges throughout the management structure. A top-down approach often excludes practical field realities from the conversation, although DFS can’t be implemented without interest and buy-in from top management.

At mSTAR/Bangladesh, we have found that knowledge is power. An informed person is more likely to adopt DFS as compared to a person who is unaware of DFS and its potential. This reflects the need to better promote DFS products and their associated benefits in a language that can be easily understood by those who may find it difficult to differentiate between myths and facts. In our first year and a half, mSTAR/Bangladesh primarily reached out only to development projects but with time, we began to engage with donor agencies, DFS providers and regulators to identify gaps and to come up with realistic solutions. mSTAR/Bangladesh believes that access to formal financial services is not a luxury but a basic need for all—and awareness raising is one of the tools that can help inform stakeholders of the ways forward to achieving this goal.

 Ataur Rahman has been the project team lead for mSTAR in Bangladesh since its second week of implementation in October 2013. Prior to joining mSTAR, he was the head of outreach at Dnet for the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) Bangladesh Initiative where he helped to design and implement mobile value added services and pilot the use of mobile money within the program. Before that he worked for the Bangladeshi government’s Access to Information (A2I) program led by Prime Minister’s Office funded by UNDP and the Bangladesh Telecentre Network (BTN), a collision of ICT4D initiatives secretariats.

More Awareness-Raising Activities Are Needed to Increase Use of DFS – Perspectives from mSTAR/Bangladesh

As mSTAR’s project in Bangladesh comes to a close this fall, mSTAR/Bangladesh staff write about their perspectives from four 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 Kazi Amit Imran, mSTAR/Bangladesh Communications Specialist

“We do not have any scope to adopt digital financial services in our project” – this is exactly how many development projects react when they hear about digital financial services (DFS) for the first time. Even though USAID has mandated the use of digital payments as the default method for its implementing partners since 2014, lack of technical knowledge and misunderstanding about what is required to use DFS still holds back many projects. One of the key components holding back DFS adoption is lack of awareness, both among the general population and development organizations whose programs support them. This is in part why many Bangladeshis—and development organizations—are unaware of and often hesitant to try DFS products.

The reality in Bangladesh is that the majority of the rural population still uses cash to make financial transactions. This segment is often broadly unaware of the intricacies of DFS products, and therefore can lack trust in them. While some organizations are trying to increase the uptake of DFS by increasing their knowledge and capacity to use DFS products, more effort and engagement is required. Even years after their introduction to Bangladesh, many people are still unaware of DFS, such as mobile financial services and agent banking products.

The importance of increasing DFS-specific knowledge is crucial for spurring adoption, and the benefits that come from having access to formal financial services. Over the past four years, the mSTAR activity in Bangladesh has focused on increasing DFS-specific awareness among USAID-funded project staff and beneficiaries, particularly through publications, blog posts, videos, and other multimedia content. We developed different kinds learning documents targeting different audiences including project leads, finance staff, program staff, frontline managers and beneficiaries. mSTAR/Bangladesh’s approach to awareness raising was very much focused on tailoring content to appeal to and meet the needs of specific audiences.

Early on, many USAID-funded implementing partners (IPs) were hesitant to use DFS often due to a lack of awareness and capacity, although with technical support from mSTAR/Bangladesh that began to change. By documenting and sharing the learnings from these early adopters, we were able to convince other USAID IPs to consider the potential benefits of DFS to help them enhance operational efficiency and better achieve their development objectives.

Though it varies from context to context, we’ve found that sharing success stories of beneficiaries and infographics, in particular, have had a dramatic impact on influencing IPs to consider DFS. The success stories validate the benefits and the changes that DFS adoption brings about to individuals’ lives, as well as to IPs at an organizational level. The infographics, meanwhile, helped them to very easily visualize the benefits from transitioning to DFS, such as this one, which captured the impact using DFS had on achieving project objectives. Meanwhile, our infosheets have brought about price transparency in the DFS market in Bangladesh for the first time. Prior to our creation of the first Mobile Money Infosheet in 2014, it was not possible to find information on corporate pricing on any of the mobile financial service (MFS) providers websites. Once we started putting their prices and service offerings side by side, they took notice. bKash, for example, the country’s largest MFS provider waived their disbursement fees for all USAID projects and also reduced their cash out fees for recipients of payments from USAID projects from 1.85 percent to 1 percent.

At mSTAR/Bangladesh, we have seen that an informed person is more likely to adopt DFS compared to a person who is unaware of DFS and its potential. This reflects the need to better promote DFS products and their associated benefits in a language that can be easily understood by the intended audience.

You can view all of our learning documents online here.

Kazi Amit Imran served as the Communications Specialist for mSTAR/Bangladesh from May 2014 to May 2017. Prior to this he served as a Communications Manager at BRAC. He has a masters degree in development studies and business administration.

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

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

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.