Thursday, December 12, 2013

All Aboard!?

Despite the raging success of M-Pesa in Kenya, the spread of mobile payments in neighboring countries has been more restrained. Less reliable phone networks, a different rural/urban distribution, mistrust of the technology, and even education levels have been cited as possible explanations for the comparatively subdued reception of mobile money in other parts of Africa.

When Vital Wave began working with USAID Uganda to help non-government organizations (NGOs) make bulk digital payments to trainees at health and education workshops around the country, one thing was clear: the transition from cash to digital payments had to be logical and smooth for NGO staff so they would accept the change and advocate its advantages to trainees. Vital Wave's field implementation team began by reaching out to NGOs in Kenya and Tanzania, which had started to make the transition to digital payments. Research showed that it was preferable to work with "aggregators" (companies that managed the payments process) rather than directly with network operators, and discussions with USAID, NGOs and other players pointed to concrete ways the aggregators' platforms could be upgraded to better serve NGOs. After selecting five NGOs and three aggregators in Uganda, the field team decided to test the digital payment process with NGO staff. These pre-tests would allow aggregators and NGOs to functionally test the system while fostering internal buy-in and reducing the risk of beneficiary resistance.

The program is still underway, early results are promising, and the takeaways so far are worth considering. Many well-conceived projects in developing countries are scuttled by a lack of local buy-in. This is usually clear after the project is completed, but it's the early decisions and actions that determine whether local recipients will see the benefits and work to adopt a new technology, process, or idea. In the case of digital payments, the benefits for the NGOs are not the same as the benefits for the trainee recipients. NGOs see cash payments as risky, vulnerable to fraud or theft. Trainee beneficiaries may see a text message confirming payment in a dimmer light than the warm glow of cash in the hand. Reconciling these perceptions will require the development and adoption of a much broader system of mobile money - particularly by local merchants - but for the NGOs participating in the program, learning from pioneers and turning staff into advocates are crucial early steps.