+ eVouchers to the Food vs. Cash debate

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A new World Bank report seeks to answer one of the oldest questions in development aid: should we give cash, or food? To answer this question, they looked at most of the available evaluations, discovering that the evidence to date suggests that both cash and food have a similar impact, while cash tends to be cheaper.

At the end of the blog post, the author briefly mentions that “vouchers seem an underexplored modality, particularly as they can now, just like cash, be delivered through a range of technologies.” I was surprised that they did not look at the recent IFPRI study (analyzing a World Food Programme experiment), which did, in fact compare vouchers to both food and cash. This study also found that cash was cheaper than food, but that vouchers were even cheaper. As the Economist observed, the results suggest “a switch from universal subsidies to vouchers could be the most efficient way of boosting health as well as relieving poverty.”2014-05-12 11.03.03

Through my role managing eVouchers at Zoona, I participated in a pilot with the Government of Malawi and a local non-profit, AICC, which tested how e-vouchers could improve the efficiency of the Government’s seed subsidy program for smallholder farmers. The independent evaluation of the 2013/14 pilot found cost savings as well as a significant reduction in fraud versus the use of paper of vouchers.   We will be expanding the pilot this year and will have more results to share in mid-2015.

In countries that are pushing for financial inclusion and where subsidies are a large part of the economy, e-vouchers are an important tool. As an agrodealer in Malawi named Boston told me: “The e-vouchers must be used. In Malawi, we are moving toward e-money, and e-vouchers are part of that transition.”

Our experience with eVouchers, as well as the experience of many other programs worldwide, suggests that vouchers, especially delivered electronically, should be part of the food versus cash debate.

Fighting for Local Walkability

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It turns out, like many other places in the United States, the DC Zoning Code has not been updated since 1958, a time when the US Government actively supported suburban sprawl, car-centered development, and white flight from urban centers.   It was assumed, then and often now, that every American would have a car, and would be happy to use it for just about everything – going to school, buying a carton of milk, or seeing a friend.  However, this trend is reversing, and many Americans are now demanding walkability  (a few reasons include saving money, the popularity of car sharing services, losing weight, spending more time at home, helping the environment, supporting local businesses…).  We still drive cars, we just choose to do so a lot less, if at all possible – and often it’s not possible, due to outdated zoning codes across the country.   (This paragraph is basically a summary from some of my personal favorite books on the subject: Walkable City by Jeff Speck, Happy City by Charles Montgomery, and Arrival City by Doug Sanders.)

As many of my friends know by now, I’m increasingly interested in how the design of the places where we live effects our health, happiness, and jb1294193196227R1120521909xlability to integrate different types of people into a community.  While I think a lot about what these issues mean for the places where I work (see blog post here), I found that they are just as pertinent, and debated, here in my home of Washington, DC, where the Coalition for Smarter Growth, among many others, is fighting for 3 key changes to the zoning code: lowering minimum parking requirements for new stores and apartments (since 40% of DC households do not own a car), allowing for corner stores (since it’s technical not legal to build a store in a residential neighborhood), and allowing for accessory apartments – which basically means that homeowners would be allowed to rent out a basement or garage that they aren’t using, which would increase the stock of affordable housing.  I was scheduled to speak at the Zoning Commission hearing for Wards 1 and 2 on February 13, which was cancelled due to inclement weather.  As I am unable to make the hearing rescheduled for February 26, I sent in a written testimony, copied below.  I would love to hear your thoughts on these issues and how they resonate with your hometown.

I’m 30 years old and I’ve lived here in DC with my husband in Lanier Heights/Mount Pleasant for 3 years now.  I’ve never testified or even participated in an ANC or Zoning Commission meeting before. However, I am here today in support of the proposed update to the DC zoning code, especially the revised parking minimums and the allowance of more corner stores, because I truly love my neighborhood.  I love my neighborhood because my husband and I, like 40% of the households in DC, don’t own a car, and have never felt the need to purchase one.  We can walk to buy groceries, go out to eat, or shop locally, and when we need to go farther we have easy access to two bus routes and to the metro.  We both have annual Capital BikeShare memberships, often use DC taxis, and use the Zipcar that is just steps away from our front door whenever we need to drive out of town.

I love my neighborhood because it is dense, walkable, and diverse, and because of that, I choose to pay higher rent then I would elsewhere.  As my husband and I look to put down roots and to buy a home, we understand that to stay in the District of Columbia we will be choosing to take on a higher mortgage. Sadly, after of months of searching, many of my friends, married couples with two middle- to high-income jobs, have already given up the idea of purchasing a home with the District, and either continue to rent or have moved to a suburb.  As for my husband and I, simply put, we cannot take on the higher cost of a mortgage here in DC and own a car, which entails gas, insurance, and host of other costs.  I have seen signs in my neighborhood protesting pop-ups (new condominiums build within old rowhouses); I too would like to maintain the old character of the neighborhood. However, I hope that this can be done through other mechanisms besides parking minimums, which ignore that many residents in our neighborhood choose to, or cannot afford to, own a car.  I want to stay here, but without affordable family housing I won’t be able to – and since the cost of building parking dramatically drives up the cost of housing (it costs about $50,000 to build one parking space in DC), I urge you to re-consider parking minimums.

I also urge to consider that as more young families choose to take advantage of the incredible public transit along with bike and car sharing options available in this city, corner stores will be vital to ensuring that we all can walk to get a carton of milk.  This walkability is why I love my neighborhood, and why I recognize my neighbors who shop at the same local stores and frequent the same bus routes, a familiarity that simply would not exist if I always traveled in my own vehicle.   This walkability is why I choose DC over my home state of Virginia, where I feel that I spent too much of childhood sitting in traffic.  And it’s why ask you to consider the changes to the Zoning Code today.

Sincerely,

Chrissy Martin

Thoughts about Interoperability in Mobile Money

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Although I have worked and spoken to mobile money operators in many countries around the world, my last trip to Tanzania was the first time that I have heard one of these operators explicitly advocate for interoperability. In fact, he asked a room full of organizations to use their power as consumers to demand interoperability in mobile money in Tanzania.

In his argument, he implied that interoperability should happen at the mobile wallet level. In other words, that mobile money operators should agree to allow customers to send money from the mobile wallet account of one operator directly into the mobile wallet account of another operator, much as you can send a wire transfer directly from one bank account to another bank account. Currently in Tanzania, as is common in many countries dominated by the MNO-led model of mobile money, a customer can send money from their mobile wallet account to someone not registered with the same operator. However, this money is not sent to a mobile wallet, but it sent as a one-time use token, or a coupon, that can be redeemed in full at an agent location authorized by the sender’s mobile money operator. This is more analogous to a situation where I write you a check that you can only cash out at my bank, and that you cannot deposit directly into your own bank account.

The man mentioned previously was using the very broad term interoperability, as many people do in the mobile money industry, to describe this one specific type of interoperability, interconnecting at the mobile wallet level.

However, as the GSMA Mobile Money for the Unbanked Group has correctly pointed out, interoperability can happen at many different levels, and a more nuanced view of the term can help the industry in each country to find the optimal way to encourage interoperability to bring maximum benefit to both operators and customers. These levels include, but are not limited to:

  •  Individual Wallet – as described above
  •  Agent Network – the sharing of agents through non-exclusivity, as is the case in Tanzania (but not in other markets including Kenya)
  • Value-Added Services (VAS) – allowing 3rd-party, independent companies to build products that link to multiple operators at once.
A non-exclusive agent in Kenya.  Photo from nextbillion.net

A non-exclusive agent in Kenya. Photo from nextbillion.net

It is this last area that I think is most interesting and practical to discuss, especially at this point in time when mobile money operators are still, as the GSMA points out in the same report, young. I’ve argued for this before in Haiti, and I saw again in Tanzania how vital it is for services such as bulk payments. In order to pay people en masse for salaries, social welfare payments, bonuses, or any other type of payment, it is simply not practical to ask an organization to demand that all recipients use the same cell phone company to receive money. When they do, I’ve seen in countries from Afghanistan to Haiti that people simply replace their preferred SIM card with the SIM of the operator necessary to receive the transfer, at the specified time of transfer. When this is the [informal] solution, mobile money is no longer convenient to the consumer, and is not increasing the loyalty of that customer to the MNO (stickness), one of the main stated objectives of MNOs for promoting mobile money. It also increases the likeliness that the customer will not receive the transfer for multiple reasons: the SIM may have expired (if they haven’t used the voice functionality in a certain amount of time, as per the rules set by each MNO), they may not see the message if comes through at unpredictable time, or the token may expire before the person is able to redeem at an agent. These cause all sorts of operational issues for the sending organization, which could fill at least another blog post, so I will leave them to the reader’s imagination.

In Kenya, these problems have not presented as much of an issue because of the dominance of one MNO, Safaricom, in both the voice and mobile money markets. However, as other markets scale up mobile money services which have more competitive markets, MNOs are going to need to be much more open and creative about allowing 3rd parties to create VAS that link to all competitors, thereby promoting the entire ecosystem. Companies in Tanzania including Selcom and KopoKopo are already working with the MNOs to develop these types of services for bulk payments and merchant payments, respectively – which will require contractual and technical agreement. In fact, I would argue that this is the only way that these markets will successfully move beyond transfers and airtime purchases to more sophisticated products and services.

Could African Cities be Walkable?

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Jeff Speck recently published a fabulous new book entitled Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America. I must put a disclaimer here that I have not, in fact, finished the book, but there are so many insights in the first few chapters that I couldn’t wait to write about the implications that these US-centered ideas can and should have on cities throughout the world. Couldn’t one write the same book on how necessary it is to build walkable cities in Lagos, Nairobi, or Port-au-Prince? I think anyone that has sat in the infamous traffic in any of these cities would agree with me when I say emphatically, yes.

lagos traffic

 

And we need to ask these questions now. As The Economist pointed out a few months ago, “Sometime in 2013, whether by a birth in the Makoko slum or a job-seeking migrant stepping off a minibus at the motor-park, Lagos will overtake Cairo to become Africa’s largest city.” And yet, even that article talks about the need for better public transportation, without mentioning the simulatenous need for cities to both have public transport and to be walkable.

Why walkable? As Speck describes in detail, walkable cities make people healthier, happier, more productive, and wealthier. Literally. Just a few examples:

  • Wealthier: Almost 85% of money spent on cars and gas leaves the local economy.
  • More Productive: In Europe, you can have 5 meetings in different locations. In Nairobi, 2? If you’re lucky? This leads to measurable differences in productivity when comparing Portland, Oregon (very walkable) to Atlanta, Georgia (a city where most people drive.)
  • Healthier: One study found in San Diego that 60% of residents in a low-walkable neighborhood and only 35% in a nearby walkable neighborhood. During the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, hospitializations for asthma attacks actually went down, despite a temporary doubling of the population, because people decided to walk or take public transporation rather than drive (due to fear of traffic because of the crowds.)

In fact, he echoes many social scientists before him who have highlighted the evil impacts of suburbanization to an extent that makes you want to send policy makers from the 1950s onward to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity (ok, maybe that’s just me.) There are many examples of how policies have pushed suburbization over vibrant, walkable downtowns. One recent study, for example, shows how federal government support is skewed towards single-family homes, rather than multi-family developments (aka, apartment buildings that are prominent in condensed, urban areas. ) This is just one of many examples of active policy and financial support for sprawl from local, state, and federal governments for at least the past 60 years.

The good news? In the United States, the housing crisis has created an unprecedented opportunity for the market to shift, as people are ditching their big houses in the suburbs for small homes with shorter commutes – a trend highlighted by Brookings Fellow Christopher Leinberger. There is organic, bottom-up, market demand that is breaking through entrenched car and oil lobbies to finally encouraged real change to the way that we build cities in America. People now will pay a premium to live in walkable cities. As evidence a home with a high score on the popular website Walk Score can sell for 5 to 10 percent more than a similar house with a lower score (Speck 26.)  So demand works both ways – yes, many people want to live in big house with yards, but many people will choose a option that allows them to drive less, if given the chance.

The question then becomes, is the demand present in Lagos and Nairobi? I don’t think we know. There is an inverse relationship between wealth and demand for cars: the poorest people in any city or country desire to own cars because they are status symbols, while the richest people in these same cities reach a point where hours of traffic lead them in the opposite direction, wanting to live in areas where they can walk or bike to work. Another way to put this, quoting the blog This Big City, is that poor citizens in African cities “walk despite the un-walkable urban environment, not because of it.”

So how do we build on the organic demand for walkable cities driven by the wealthy in each city, while still ensuring that the benefits of walkability are available to all segments of the population? A contributor the magazine Intelligent Life recently asked this question to one of the world’s leading architects, Simon Foster. While Foster has done very little work in Africa, he did note that development of Africa slums require ‘a very different approach to the design-profession response to wipe it clean and superimpose another order, which completely disregards the fact that, notwithstanding the horrific deprivation, there is an underlying social order and an organic response to needs.’ Well said.  We need a better understanding of how bottom-up demand and consumer preferences can drive the creation of healthy, vibrant, and movable downtowns across income levels.

There are certainly policies that can both avoid top-down vast urban improvement projects while avoiding the temptation to actually support urban sprawl, thereby creating the vehicular nightmare that is getting worse by the day in cities around the world, especially those in Africa. Many of these policies may simply be the lack of policies – letting cities develop organically through the efforts of innovators and entrepreneurs. In perhaps one of my favorite books ever, Arrival City, Doug Sanders describes some of these policies through a poetic worldwide tour of urban migration. For example, ensuring that ‘slums’ include multi-use buildings where new arrivals can easily set up a shop or small restaurant, rather than high-rise apartment buildings with strict zoning restrictions, is one way to support entrepreneurship and keep cities walkable and economically vibrant – even in areas labeled as slums.

There is so much more to write and I’m not even half through Walkable City. What do you think are specific policies that can improve African cities?

 

Reflections for a New Year: Keeping it Real

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In an early work experience in development, I spent 4 months at a civil society organization in Tanzania, Twaweza. The founder of Twaweza, Rakesh Rajani, has many years of experience in advocacy in Tanzania. He started this new organization in order to focus on what is dynamic at the citizen level, meaning those things that are part of the lived reality and not aid-driven. This term, lived reality, struck me as a brilliantly simple way to frame what we all know can so often be wrong with aid: it is rooted in the assumptions, goals, and reality of the donors and aid organizations, rather than those people we are trying to help.

I try to come back to this idea every so often as a way to check in on my own career: is my work still sitting within that lived reality? It is really driven by the every day needs of the people we work with?

When I was at Twaweza, Rakesh higlighted 4 aspects of life that tend to part of this lived reality in Tanzania and elsewhere, including media, such as radio, TV, newspapers, and mobile phones; religion; consumer good networks such as Coca-Cola and soap; and teachers, who exist in almost every community

.Lived Reality Blog

I was reflecting on this, because I honestly worry sometimes that the area of our industry that I focus on, mobile technology, has become overhyped, a “darling of the aid community” that is driven more by the desire to be sexy and innovative by the reality on the ground. I originally decided to focus on mobile technology because I thought it was empowering: putting the ability to communicate and to instantly receive information in the hand of every individual, no matter how geographically, socially, or economically marginalized…what could be more powerful than that? However, with donor-driven projects and goals of scale pushing mobiles for the sake of innovation, rather than empowerment, I started to wonder if technology-enabled development still fit into the lived reality (while never doubted that cell phone themselves definitely do.)

During my recent trip to Uganda with USAID, we interviewed many implementing partners about how they might use mobile money. Many of the Cheif of Party’s and Finance directors we spoke to about the possibility of using mobile payments to improve programmatic or operational goals were skeptical. One agricultural COP in particular said “sure, we’ll use it someday, but the farmers, and my staff, just aren’t ready for it.” In our following meeting, we met his 2 Ugandan project managers, who told us that, on the contrary, the staff and the farmers were already using mobile payments regularly in their work, since it is simply the cheapest and most convenient way to send money and to purchase goods from the capital.

This is indeed an ancedote but it’s one that reminds why we got excited about mobile technology in the first place: it just works for people.  It’s simple, fast, and cheap.  Our programs should make it more so, not less, and should focus on how people are already using mobile phones, not how we think they should.  It also reminds me that I can continue to this role of connecting aid agencies to tools and processes that people are already using in their every day lives.  I’d love to hear your stories about how you ensure that your work fits into the lived reality of the everyday lives of the people we hope to support.

Game on: Mobile + Money = Better Health

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This morning I spoke at USAID’s MiniU on Global Health at George Washington University with Charley Johnson of the USAID Mobile Solutions Office, Dustin Gibson of Johns Hopkins, and Pamela Riley of Abt Associates.  The pearl?

1.7 billion people with access to a mobile phone have no bank account.  1 billion phone owners lack access to health care.  Game on: mobile + money = better health. 

The goal of the talk was to describe why I believe that mobile money will have a powerful impact on public health, from the perspective of my work at MEDA, where I support the organization in leveraging mobile across our 6 areas of focus – Savings, Youth, Rural Finance, Woman, Agriculture, and Health –  to make each area more efficient & effective in creating Business Solutions to Poverty.

Narrowing in on how mobile money can improve post-disaster resilience, I focused on Haiti, where a recent evaluation of non-conditional cash transfers after the earthquake found that mothers who received cash spent it on food, refrigeration, cooking, and health services, and therefore (we assume) were able to better stabilize the health and nutrition of their families.  However, this cash aid was rare and slow – after the earthquake, there simple was no way to move cash around the country due the lack of banking and transportation infrastructure, and Haitians were largely unable to receive either cash aid or remittances from family members abroad.

Understanding that the inability to transport cash around the country was one of the key hindrances to humanitarian relief efforts after the earthquake, the Gates Foundation and USAID turned to mobile money to ensure that these problems can be avoided in the future.  The resulting incentive grant, the Haiti Mobile Money Initiative (HMMI)  resulted in two mobile money products, T-Cash and TchoTcho Mobile.  The question now is, has it worked?

The good news is, yes, at least, it’s starting to.  The clearest example is the from only last month, when Hurricane Isaac made landfall near Port-au-Prince, where over 400,000 people still live in tents.  Digicel was able to send cash aid to 5000 mothers within 2 days of the hurricane, an unprecedented response time for distribution of cash aid, since the mobile money transfer via TchoTcho Mobile reduced the time and infrastructure needed to distribute cash.   We can assume that these mothers, like those after the earthquake, used this cash to maintain the nutrition and health of their families while rebuilding their homes yet again.  There are several other organizations using TchoTcho Mobile to a variety of humanitarian and development projects.

Moving from mobile transfers in post-disaster relief, I covered a different end of the mobile money spectrum:                       supply-chain management. MEDA has been working with the government of Tanzania since 2004 to prevent malaria infection through the distribution of Long Lasting Insecticidal-treated Nets (LLINs) through the Tanzania Net Voucher System, or TNVS.

The program uses vouchers to provide a sustainable and convenient way to partially subsidize the cost of the voucher to women, while still encouraging the habit of paying for bed nets, which increases the likelihood that bed nets will actually be used. Last year, TNVS switched from a paper voucher system to an e-voucher system, so that now beneficiaries receive the voucher to their mobile phone, and all transactions are monitored electronically.   In less than a year of implementation, the program has seen 3 key impacts:

  1. An estimated 30% savings in operation costs
  2. It is now possible to manage liability by having vouchers automatically expire after 60 days
  3. It is now possible to have real-time insight to the gaps in the supply chain, i.e. lack of demand for nets in certain areas or lack of supply in other areas, issues which keep vouchers from being redeemed. With the paper system, if a voucher wasn’t redeemed, there was no way to tell if the reason was on the supply or the demand side.

These are  only two of many examples of how mobile money can improve public health.  Other points that I appreciated from other panelists and audience members:

  1. The health sector is also a crucial way to promote the uptake of mobile money due to the size ot the sector in most countries.
  2. If health practitioners choose to design a program and need support from the mobile money operator, they need to sell the program based on the operator’s bottom line.
  3. In Kenya, the pilot run by John Hopkins and panelist Dustin Gibson to test using mobile money to incentivize vaccine uptake found that moms like mobile money more than airtime (in Kenya, where MPesa is ubiquitous) and that is important to involve husbands in order to increase uptake.

Where do you think the greatest potential is for mobile money to improve public health?

Can the iHub’s Success be Replicated?

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There is a lot of talk about whether or not M-Pesa’s success  in mobile money can be replicated in other African countries (the best answer thus far comes from this GSMA research, which basically says yes in East African, and not yet outside of the region.)  There is a similar conversation happening in the context of innovation hubs, where Kenya has yet again set the gold standard with the iHub.  The iHub “is part open community workspace (co-working), part vector for investors and VCs and part incubator.”  It is has spun off several new companies, registered thousands of members, and become the meeting place in East Africa for the international tech community. This wild success has inspired similar innovation hubs to sprout up across the continent, and many are struggling to live up to the high expectations set in Nairobi.

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the Bongo Hive in Zambia twice now.  The Bongo Hive is a innovation hub in the spirit of the iHub, which aspires to support the tech community in Zambia. It was started about one year ago and is run under the inspiring,
volunteer leadership of Lukonga Lindunda.   During my visits, it was clear that the key difference between the Bongo Hive and the iHub is fairly simple: in Kenya, there already was a tech community before the iHub, and this community was craving a gathering space.  In Zambia, there is no existing tech community, and therefore the Bongo Hive has to build the community at the same time as creating a space – which results in an entirely different purpose and set of challenges than those that faced the creators of the iHub.

Kenya benefits from a relatively well-educated urban population and an entrepreneurial environment driven in no small part by M-Pesa.    In Zambia, on the other hand, many of the those who come to the tech hub are young, fresh out of university, and with few job prospects because of the high unemployment in the country. Therefore, the greatest success of the Bongo Hive, thus far, has been providing a space for these young graduates to join an informal learning environment where they can practice programming skills, and subsequently gain employable skills.  In fact, the Bongo Hive has thus far spent next to nothing, living off of in-kind donations of a few computers and a temporary space, and yet has had real impact on the lives of several young people  who are now gainfully employed, thanks to the experience gained by simply showing up and programming.  These results, in my opinion, show an extremely strong return on investment.  I can only imagine the impact that this space could have with a bit of funding for more computers and a permanent space.

The innovation hubs I’ve seen outside of Kenya, including the BongoHive, the iLab in Liberia (one I have yet to visit, but which I have followed closely through my dear friend Kate Cummings), and the Ayiti Living Lab in Haiti, realize that they there are operating in a different context than Nairobi and therefore have a different mandate.  Theirs is one of social change, of building a community that is not yet tangible, and equally, of building the confidence of young people who are so often deprived of learning critical skills during their formal education.  The Bongo Hive benefits greatly from the support of the iHub founders, and many big names in the African tech community have already made their way to Lusaka, to inspire and work with young Zambians who wouldn’t have had an opportunity to meet role models from companies such as Google and Ushahidi otherwise.  So while it may not be replication, it is impact, one step at a time.