100s of Youths are Using Tech to Connect Farmers to Resources – This 2017 Digi Winner is Building Opportunities in Uganda

We’re taking a behind-the-scenes look at the 2017 Digi winners. 2017 winner Feed the Future’s Uganda Commodity Production and Marketing Activity created EzyAgric, a massively successful digital platform which opened doors for both unemployed youth and smallholder farmers. Formerly unemployed youth are trained and serve as agents on the platform, helping farmers gain access to information and finances, increasing their production and resilience. EzyAgric’s results have been transformative, from empowering youth with tech skills to connecting farmers with deeply-needed resources. This interview was conducted with Robert Anyang, Chief of Party of the Commodity Production and Marketing Activity. Apply for the 2018 Digi Awards here by July 13th!

Q: What’s the project?

Robert Anyang (RA): Without access to formal financial services or transparent market information, smallholder farmers in Uganda struggle to obtain high quality inputs and agricultural financing. With support from the ag-tech start up Akorion, Feed the Future Uganda’s Commodity Production and Marketing Activity (CPM) developed a platform called EzyAgric for village agents to collect information on a farm’s location, soil properties and production activities, creating a digital profile to help farmers gain access to financial products and services. Since the pilot in 2014, CPM has exceeded most of its targets. The activity has profiled 130,253 farmers, allowing them to access more than $59 million in loans for crop production, creating employment opportunities for over 700 youth as village agents, enrolling thousands of farmers in crop insurance and providing more than 400,000 farmers with access to market information.

 

Q: What’s the local impact?

RA: 28-year-old Shallot Asimire was just an ordinary jobless young woman out of school doing regular home chores. Shallot was introduced to us through a colleague. We trained her in using various ICT applications and equipped her with a smartphone, which she used to start providing agricultural services to coffee farmers through EzyAgric. Shallot now earns over $4,000 per year and assists her husband.

Q: What surprised you most throughout the process of creating and implementing the tool?

RA: I was surprised by the quick uptake by some farmers and the government’s interest to build a similar project in the same line cutting across the whole country.

Q: What would you say to other projects to encourage them to use digital tools?

RA: I would encourage other projects to build sustainable innovations. Work with agile and self-driven youth to create an enabling environment to build innovations that are easily adaptable by the private sector.

Q: What does being a Digi winner mean to you?EzyAgric2

RA: The most important meaning of this to me is the deep knowing that I made a difference for others: seeing a group of youth grow a multi-billion company reaching out to more youth and farmers.

mSTAR and USAID developed videos of each winner, viewable here. All USAID projects and activities are invited apply to the 2018 Digi Awards.  

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Learning from Ebola: How Mobile Money Can Prevent Health Crises

By Jonathan Kourgialis, Program Officer

mSTAR/Liberia ended activities in May 2018 after enrolling 4,870 civil servants across Liberia into mobile salary payments and successfully handing the mobile salary payment program over to the government. This post is part of a summer blog series on mSTAR/Liberia: what went well and why, how we overcame challenges, and lessons for the future. We’re writing from a management angle, monitoring and evaluation angle, a communications angle and a digital financial services angle. 

The Ebola outbreak hit Liberia hard. From 2014 to 2016, there were 10,678 cases and 4,810 lives claimed. Weakened from a protracted civil war, Liberia’s healthcare system struggled to keep up with the epidemic. Failures in the health system created severe consequences on the ground. One of those failures, with dire ramifications, revolved around payments.

As the Ebola outbreak raged, the Government of Liberia and partners introduced new financial incentives to compensate frontline health workers for the severe risks encountered when combatting the disease. However, the government and its partners were not able to transfer these new payments reliably to frontline staff, who were often placed in remote areas with limited access to banks. The government and its partners relied on cash, which was disbursed throughout Liberia by “pay teams,” who drove cash to rural towns. A pile of factors including quarantines, poor road and banking infrastructure amidst the ongoing crisis, low liquidity, and fear of the disease made pay teams inefficient and slow. Delays in the disbursement of payments contributed to health worker strikes, further crippling response efforts. The difficulties in making payments and the ensuing health workers’ discontent highlighted the critical role that efficient payment processes play in mobilizing health workers during a health emergency.

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A clinic in Lofa County, Liberia, one of the first counties in Liberia hit with Ebola.

To avoid the recurrence of a payment breakdown like this, mSTAR worked with the Government of Liberia’s Ministry of Health (MOH) to build a set of standard operating procedures (SOPs) for payments to health workers through mobile money. When working efficiently and smoothly, mobile money has proven to make a significant impact on health crisis outcomes. At the height of the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, for example, the digitization of salary payments is estimated to have saved 2,000 lives in Sierra Leone by eliminating strikes by unpaid response workers. This is estimated to have saved almost $11 million in security and other costs related to moving cash. The SOPs mSTAR created for the MOH ensure the MOH’s payment functions will be strong enough that if a future emergency occurred, whether it was Ebola or another epidemic, health workers at the frontline would be compensated for their contributions and willing to stay on the job.

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Navigating rural Liberia’s roads.

To create the SOPs, mSTAR first mapped MOH’s complicated payment types, systems, and streams. This included salaries paid to MOH employees through traditional government payment systems, incentive payments to contract workers paid directly by the MOH, and allowances to health workers paid directly by the MOH, each differentiated by funding stream. MOH staff are paid through funds from the GOL and funds from donors, so systems and streams are unconnected and not interoperable. Taking this into account, and utilizing mSTAR’s data systems, interoperability and mobile money expertise, mSTAR and the MOH came up with the three key tasks for the MOH to complete in the case of a health emergency:

  1. Coordinate data exchanges of staff and payment information between the MOH’s unconnected databases;
  2. Register health workers for mobile money payments within GOL systems and with the mobile money service providers (if necessary); and
  3. Disburse mobile money payments across the various payment streams.

The SOPs outline how to accomplish these tasks and graphical flows and steps breaking down each. This included recommendations on how mHero, a two-way mobile phone-based communication system, can efficiently register staff for mobile money payments and alert the MOH to mobile payment issues.

mSTAR built in recommended safeguards for the success of the SOPs such as the creation of a mobile money payments emergency committee to oversee the implementation of the SOPs during an emergency and the establishment of mobile money payment accounts specifically for MOH payment streams prior to an emergency.

While theses SOPs are tailored to the Liberian MOH’s systems, the collaborative effort to develop SOPs for the scaling of mobile money payments for health workers, or any type of emergency responder, is replicable in other contexts. It is a necessary endeavor for governments of any country vulnerable to health or natural disaster emergencies. As was seen in Liberia during Ebola, making sure that those risking their lives to save others are compensated in a timely and efficient manner is vitally important to overall emergency response efforts and is worth investing in prior to an emergency. While we hope that the Liberian MOH does not have to use these SOPs in the future, they are now prepared to pay frontline staff if the need arises again. We recommend that other governments prepare themselves in a similar manner where possible.

Jonathan Kourgialis is a Program Officer at FHI 360. He has focused on mSTAR’s work in Liberia, building and strengthening the Government of Liberia’s mobile money salary payment systems. Jonathan currently works on civil society and peace building projects.

‘I feel so proud when I wear it’ – How This 2017 Digi Winner’s SmartCard Won Over Hearts & Brought Results

We’re taking a behind-the-scenes look at the 2017 Digi winners. Hear from ADVANCE II on what it means to be a Digi winner and the hugely beneficial, but completely unexpected outcomes, of their digital solution. This interview was conducted with Emmanuel Dormon, Chief of Party of ADVANCE II. All USAID projects and activities are invited to apply for the 2018 Digi Awards here.

Q: What’s the project?

Emmanuel Dormon (ED): ADVANCE II works to improve the competitiveness of the maize, rice, and soybean value chains in Ghana. As part of this, the project provides training to farmers. But ADVANCE II struggled to get accurate registrations and data from the trainings, so we implemented a smartcard ID technology that stores and tracks data. The ID cards allowed USAID and project officers to see real-time results and build more effective programming. ADVANCE II has successfully tracked over 120,000 people who participated in 5,111 training sessions and increased the number of trainings tailored to female farmers, a previously underrepresented population in trainings.

Q: What’s the local impact?

ED: The tool is efficient and saves farmers’ time.

“The computer brings up my name. After training is over, I don’t have to sit down for long before they record my attendance. The card encourages us to attend the meetings and it saves our time,” says Meli Alhassan from Tamalgu Community in the Karaga District in the Northern Region.

“The card encourages us to attend the meetings and it saves our time.”

Beneficiaries receive more targeted trainings. With the smartcard, the project is able to target training topics to specific communities and smallholder farmers. The project has been able to accurately link the number and specific types of trainings to behavior change, and tailor specific topics to female farmers based on analysis of the data captured using the smartcards system. This means that female farmers who generally have less access to land and less time to manage their farms because of other household chores get the opportunity to improve their farming activities with targeted interventions as well as strategies to empower them to take more control over their lives and resources.

The tool has enhanced the confidence and reputation of women. The use of the smartcard has increased the confidence of women beneficiaries. It gives the women a sense of pride when others get to know their association with the project. “Formerly, as a woman you could have money but you could not get a tractor to plough for you until all the men’s fields had been plowed. But now, because of the USAID ADVANCE card, when you have it, they can easily plough for you,” Amama Sulemana from Tamalgu Community in the Karaga District in the Northern Region says. Memuna Adoku of the same community added, “whoever sees you with the card will know you are in USAID ADVANCE. That alone gives you some respect.”

“Formerly, as a woman you could have money but you could not get a tractor to plough for you until all the men’s fields had been plowed. But now, because of the USAID ADVANCE card, when you have it, they can easily plough for you.”

Increased sense of belonging and communal engagement. Socially, the smartcard improves engagement among farmers. It provides a form of identification to those without any formal ID, as is often the case in rural Ghana. The cards also provide a sense of belonging for the project beneficiaries especially at the community level. “The smartcard is very good. Anytime I attend a training, I put it on and it makes it easier to identify me. I don’t have to mention my name; the card gives my personal details, farm size, yield and other information. I feel so proud when I wear it. In fact, I even put it on when I am attending programs like outdooring, marriage ceremonies. We are able to flow well with each other,” says Fati Sulemana, a smallholder farmer in Nansoni community in the Northern Region.

This sense of identity that the card provides to the smallholder farmers was not anticipated but it has become a very important factor that enables them to access services more easily.

Q: What surprised you most throughout the process of creating and implementing the tool?

ED: The high level of appreciation of the tool by the farmers. Given the low level ADVANCEBabyof literacy and technology adoption in the rural areas, we were not certain as to how readily the farmers would accept the use of the smartcards. It was surprising to see how quickly they welcomed it.

We were also surprised by the pace of learning by project officers. Most (about 80 percent) of project staff accepted and learned to use the tool within the first month of its introduction. About 10 percent of staff, mostly the older ones, took a longer period to fully embrace the tool and use it fully.

Q: What would you say to other projects to encourage them to use digital tools?

ED: The smartcard improves data capturing and monitoring, thereby eliminating the risk of double counting. The use of the smartcard is good. It enables the project to determine the training attendance rate of farmers and follow up on beneficiaries with poor attendance. As of March 2018, the project had effectively tracked 129,900 beneficiaries who have attended trainings within the four years of use, and provides almost real-time data for analysis and effective management decision making.

Data analysis is faster and easier with the smartcard. 

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The tool helps to accurately update information on the farmers with respect to their crop yield, household, and other participants in the household. On a weekly basis, we can know how many farmers have been trained and in what topics. We are able to track which particular training a farmer has received, the percentage change in the yield and then, a percentage change in the income of the farmer. We are able to cross tabulate various elements to determine which assumptions about training (and specific topics) are correct and which ones are not, thereby enabling project managers to decide on necessary changes and adaptations.

The smart card system guides some operational decisions. The smartcard makes community engagement more efficient. Before we engage community members, we know how many resources we need because we know the total number of farmers that are in the community. High data quality is assured with less effort and time in addition to easy identification of beneficiaries because they are assigned unique ID numbers.

Q: What does being a Digi winner mean to you?

ED: All of us working for the project feel very proud being a Digi winner. It shows that being proactive, innovative and technology-driven is recognized and it is the way to go as a project. When we used paper rosters, we were not able to correlate the training activity with the farmers and harvesting data because we couldn’t uniquely identify farmers. We also recognize that having been winners, a lot is expected from us and we are redoubling our efforts to remain leaders in the field of adopting digital tools to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our interventions to attain the desired project results and goals. Winning the Digi award also increases our credibility as a project.

mSTAR and USAID developed videos of each winner, viewable here. All USAID projects and activities are invited apply to the 2018 Digi Awards.  

4 Keys to Make Your Project Handover Successful, No Matter the Circumstance

By Erica Bustinza, mSTAR Project Director

mSTAR/Liberia ended activities in May 2018 after enrolling 4,870 civil servants across Liberia into mobile salary payments and successfully handing the mobile salary payment program over to the government. Over the summer we will be posting a blog series on what went well and why, how we overcame challenges, and lessons for the future. We’ll be writing from a management angle, monitoring and evaluation angle, a communications angle and a digital financial services angle. 

Project closeout is a hectic time. There’s a list of detailed tasks to accomplish, from finalizing results and lessons learned to equipment disposition. But what if closeout plans are rocked by a natural disaster? Or a financial shock? Or a government transition?

For the first time in 12 years in Liberia, a new president was elected to power. It was a peaceful transition of power that the country celebrated, but it also coincided perfectly with mSTAR/Liberia’s scheduled closeout. Charged with supporting the government to offer mobile money salary payments to civil servants, mSTAR/Liberia’s planned closeout included a comprehensive handover of intricate tasks to government leaders. However, a new administration meant that many government colleagues who supported the project were being replaced. The mSTAR team couldn’t ask the government to reschedule the transition and it was unclear if there would be enough time to ensure the new administration would fully be able to take ownership. In the last few months of the project, navigating the transition appeared daunting.

From 2016 to 2018, mSTAR/Liberia supported the government in offering mobile money as a new payment option for civil servants. Before this payment option, the only way for civil servants to receive their salary was to travel down dangerous roads to banks in distant cities where low liquidity forced them to wait, often for days. Throughout this journey, civil servants spend huge sums of money on lodging and food, in addition to missing work. With the mobile money salary payment option, however, civil servants can receive their salary on their phones. This option has saved civil servants 12 hours at work and 979 LD on average, which is roughly 7 percent of the average salary.

For two years, mSTAR worked to make this payment option a success. mSTAR built consensus with government and private sector stakeholders to enroll civil servants in the program through over 60 local events across all 15 Liberian counties. Through this work, over 4,500 civil servants enrolled in the payment program and the country’s two mobile money providers signed on to offer their services.

Yet from June 2017 all the way to March 2018, elections and the change of administration caused an all-around distraction for both mSTAR and government staff, impeding progress during key months for implementation. Fortunately, several government counterparts felt the gains that had been made and were motivated to push for activities to continue, even if at a reduced pace.

In the last six months of mSTAR/Liberia’s activities, it became clear that mSTAR’s only option for a smooth handover was to begin project transition early and involve as many relevant stakeholders as possible. As election campaigns heated up, it took several months to hold initial transition meetings, but mSTAR remained persistent. Following the inauguration in January 2018, the new administration greenlighted select mSTAR activities and the mSTAR and GOL teams sprang into action. During the final months of the project, major sustainability activities were achieved including three large-scale regional trainings for district and county staff, a high-level stakeholder sustainability meeting and a final closeout event featuring public statements of support from each key stakeholder, many of whom were from the new administration. The project not only met, but surpassed expectations.

mSTAR’s Keys to Closeout Success:

  1. Build sustainability into project design. The project built government ownership into the design. Stakeholders knew from the onset that the government would own the initiative. From the start, the mSTAR team worked towards that goal. This understanding made the eventual government transition smooth.
  2. Involve local and technical staff in key parts of implementation. mSTAR worked with the GOL technical teams rather than focusing on politically-appointed decision makers. While senior staff were replaced in the new administration, the technical teams remained. The technical teams were proud advocates of the program and obtained critical buy-in from the new administration.
  3. Create collaborative and cost-effective mechanisms. At the project onset, mSTAR and the GOL knew the GOL would not be able to sustain the large-scale enrollment events that mSTAR was supporting, so they created a separate enrollment method called “individual enrollments.” This system utilizes processes that are already in place, eliminating the need for additional funding or time-consuming new functions for overstretched rural staff.
  4. Keep energy and momentum high. The government was energized to continue scaling up the project because they saw positive results. Benefits the government saw include:
  • Staff spend less time collecting salary
  • Staff have more time on duty at health facilities and schools
  • Staff reported fewer complaints pertaining to salary issues
  • Staff experienced financial savings due to reduced transportation and other related costs when collecting salary at the bank

In light of these four keys, the importance of building ownership into the project design remains paramount. It not only prepared the project and the GOL for the transition, but also helped mSTAR reach and exceed project goals and build civil servant trust in the system. County and district staff reported that they understand the importance of their duty and that they would continue to encourage civil servants to transition to mobile money salary payments. Leadership in Monrovia said the same. “We will run with this program,” said James M. Beyan, the Director of Human Resources at the Ministry of Health, at the closeout event. James Armah Massaquoi of the Ministry of Education echoed, “We will continue the effort of mobile money. We will not allow the dream to die though the challenges seem big.”

Erica Bustinza 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. She holds a MSc in International Development from Tulane University and a BSc from Bradley University.

The 2018 Digi Award Application is Now Live!

The second annual Digital Development Awards are now live! 

While the applications are open, we’d like to look back at the 2017 Digi winners. The 2017 winners represent exemplary uses of digital technology across sectors, regions and contexts. We’re excited to share some behind-the-scenes interviews with the Digi winners featuring what the Digi means to them and what it takes to implement digital technology successfully. In this interview, the B+WISER project gives us their inside take on being a Digi winner.

Q: What’s the project?

A: B+WISER from the Philippines. B+WISER teamed up with Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to develop the Lawin Forest and Biodiversity Protection System, which revolutionizes how the Philippines prevents forest destruction. Through Lawin, forest rangers digitally record observations about forest conditions, species and threats to provide geo-referenced, up-to-date information that informs DENR’s forest protection actions at all levels.

See B+WISER in action in the Filipino rainforest here.

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Rex Telon uses Lawin.

Q: What’s Lawin’s impact on local communities?

A: Before the innovation, the DENR had only little information about the efforts of the forest rangers in the field. With Lawin, rangers like Rexmel Telon, who has always believed protecting the forest is a priority to safeguard the livelihood of future generations, are now being appreciated for their forest protection efforts. The digital innovation changed the way Rex and 3,000 other rangers approach forest protection. Their observations on the status of the forest and threats to the natural forest can now be easily shared to the local, regional and national level through the SMART Connect web platform, allowing DENR to do data-driven and transparent decision making for forest and biodiversity conservation. A comprehensive approach to forest protection is imperative in addressing the threats to forest and its biodiversity. The innovation provides the data needed for improving the design and implementation of the DENR community-based livelihood programs. Activities such as establishing agroforestry farms, energy crop plantations and the hiring of community members as forest guards, are being implemented in areas where data shows increased level of forest threats to engage the communities as part of the forest protection efforts, minimizing destructive anthropogenic threats. In addition, the innovation empowers local communities to take an active role in protecting their forest resources such as the case of Mount Kitanglad, an ASEAN Heritage natural park in Mindanao, where 320 indigenous people volunteer guards use the innovation to protect the park.

Q: What was most surprising throughout the process of creating and implementing the tool?

A: The Lawin digital innovation was designed to scale at the onset. It was surprising to see the overwhelming buy-in from DENR at all levels and the swift manner in which the DENR decision makers demonstrated commitment to scale-up the system. In less than two years, Lawin was transformed from a small-scale forest protection system in seven sites comprising a total 240,000 hectares of natural forest to a national system that will protect more than 7 million hectares of natural forest. The strong local ownership of the innovation is demonstrated by DENR’s significant investment of more than $20 million annually and the daily use of the innovation by more than 3,000 staff.

Lawin has been so successful that the DENR wants to expand it to cover all the environmental mandates of the Department including the monitoring and assessment of its flagship reforestation program, as well as the compliance of mining operations and the tourism and coastal management efforts, among others.

Q: What are the keys to successfully implementing digital technology?

A: Local ownership is paramount both to successful implementation and sustainability. Inclusive participation of partners and relevant stakeholders is bwiser5important in understanding the development challenge, defining workable solutions and agreeing on stakeholder roles to address the situation. In particular, you need to determine the data and information gaps that stakeholders and decision makers need to overcome. At this point, you can think of the value that digital innovations can bring to address these gaps. It is critical to work together with the counterpart in the development of the innovation, thinking of the users, the potential to scale, and the possibility for its sustained implementation even beyond the project. To the extent possible, work on a cost-sharing scheme for carrying out capacity-building activities and ensure a critical mass of users can be trained. Cost-sharing (having skin in the game) for capacity-building events will help increase local ownership of innovation. Finally, one cannot underestimate the contribution that simplicity and user friendliness can have at the moment of scaling up a digital development innovation – keep it simple!

Q: What does being a Digi winner mean to B+WISER?

A: The Digi Award brought a sense of accomplishment and recognition not only on bwiser4the part of the USAID project, but more importantly, on the part of the DENR. The award showed the government that their efforts in the development and implementation of the system in partnership with USAID represents best international practice. Their participation in the Digital Development Forum where the Digi winners were recognized, and the award itself, resulted in renewed commitment on the part of the authorities for the sustained implementation of the Lawin system in the Philippines.

mSTAR and USAID developed videos of each winner, viewable here. All USAID projects and activities are invited apply to the 2018 Digi Awards.  

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.