self help group platform

Self Help Groups Catalyze Women's Economic and Social Empowerment

This week, we’re sharing video content that helps to explain the impact of Self Help Groups—the groups that we support by building a customized, open source digital platform. This week’s first video focused on how SHGs build resilience and the second looked at the social transformations that SHGs make possible.

Today we’re sharing two new videos, both exploring how women benefit, in particular, from membership in Self Help Groups.

One of the major gains available to SHG members is financial independence from their husbands. Instead of relying upon unpredictable sources of revenue from their partners, SHG members work together until they can meet their needs, take loans and invest in their businesses.

As SHG Facilitator, Stella Millanga says, “Women don’t want to depend on their husbands. They want to lift themselves from the challenges of poverty.”

Elie Calhoun, Principal at Code Innovation elaborates, “People already know that women are likely to spend their money to help secure the well-being of their children and their families. Self Help Groups can amplify the impact of this good decision making, by helping women to profit and become independent financial actors.”

The business and financial literacy of our curriculum draws on more than a decade of field-tested materials from India and Ethiopia, where Self Help Group programming has a rich history.

We are proud to aggregate the highest quality content and then move it into the Creative Commons where it has the greatest likelihood of benefiting people around the world.

It’s no surprise that social empowerment goes hand-in-hand with financial independence. Where SHGs take root, gender roles and social roles can become more fluid. The power dynamic in a household can flip.

Young women may start to see role models emerge from an older generation, as women support one another through their learning and entrepreneurship.

There are truly inspiring stories emerging from the community of SHG members: members who started off by saving handfuls of grain can be running their own network of dump trucks back and forth across national borders moving commodities by the ton.

There are limitless ways to rise out of poverty and SHGs help vulnerable populations to hone in on the most strategic pathways while minimizing the downside risk.

Stay tuned for our next post that explores the impact of mobile technology on SHGs in particular.

Social Transformation as an Outcome of Women's Self-Help Groups

This week, we’re sharing a series of short videos that explore how Self Help Group (SHG) programming is a transformational and trend-setting approach to ending poverty.

Yesterday’s video highlighted how Self Help Groups improve the resilience of women members and their households to shocks. Today’s video focuses on the broader, social transformation that Self Help Groups enable.

In smaller towns, the impact of Self Help Group programming can be felt throughout the community. Our implementing partners describe how small communities can be transformed by Self Help Group programming.

Because of the benefits they realize, SHG members often show an enthusiasm for helping to start additional SHGs in their community or in neighbouring communities.

“This passion for SHGs has lead members to create powerful network effects in countries where SHG programming is mature,” says Nathaniel Calhoun, Principal at Code Innovation.

“In such cases, we see groups nominate members to join regional associations or even national level federations. These members become more sophisticated in their understanding of global economy and politics and use their united power to lobby government or the financial sector to meet their needs.”

Next, we’ll explore how Self Help Groups advance women’s financial independence and social empowerment.

When women start to make massive contributions to the financial wellbeing of their families, gender norms can start to change in ways that bring more opportunity to women of all ages.

Usability Testing the Self Help Group Digital Platform

A woman in Kongwa District, Tanzania shares her experience of being in a Self Help Group. ( Photo by Rita Langley, CC-BY 4.0)

A woman in Kongwa District, Tanzania shares her experience of being in a Self Help Group. ( Photo by Rita Langley, CC-BY 4.0)

New Round of User Acceptance Testing

We decided to initiate another round of Self Help Group (SHG) Platform User Acceptance Testing (UAT) that was run in early 2017, with 9 facilitators in a workshop-style day in Kongwa, Tanzania.

All of the participants were involved in SHG programs run by Tearfund Tanzania partner Christian Churches of Tanzania (CCT), who have been using the app with a select number of their SHG facilitators since it was first piloted in 2015.

The 9 facilitators present ran 21 groups between them, involving 517 members. Time was allowed at the beginning of the workshop for non-guided usability testing of the new features, and assessment of issues found there preceded the UAT. As well as the UAT workshop day, we met with them and their groups in the field and heard stories of individual member’s success as well as group resilience.

Rather than assess the successfulness of SHGs overall, the SHG project’s UAT aims to assess the app’s ability to aid in that process by providing education and job support for facilitators.

Key feedback points from the UAT session:

We heard about the advantages of using the app over other facilitation methods. While the volume of information in the curriculum was an obvious advantage here, the facilitators were also appreciative of the ease of updates. Additionally, they talked about the amount of time they spend studying and preparing for meetings, which is considerable but necessary, and the benefits of having a powered device to do that on whenever they had the time, rather than needing a light on at night to read.

Challenges

The key hurdles to facilitating with technology continue to be access to charging facilities, and infrequent connection for those who have to travel to receive a cell signal. We've written more about this here.

Digital advantages and perception of technology

The facilitators were asked some additional questions focused on the way that their use of a tablet was perceived. Of the people in their groups, approx. 45% of people had their own mobile phone, but only a tiny number had access to a smart device.

For 5 of the facilitators, their facilitation tablet was the only smart device in their village. While group members were excited to have use of a tablet, there were some reports of envy from those not in the group. One facilitator mentioned he worries that certain groups of youths will see him carrying it and take it.

However, it was overall seen in a positive light, and the tablets were an aspirational asset for the facilitators who were proud of their access to and expertise with technology. All of the facilitators used the tablet’s other features (camera, phone, email capabilities) for personal and community use outside of its original intent.

Conclusion

We're training our Self Help Group coordinators to run User Acceptance Testing and User Acceptance testing protocols independently. In the future, we will be able to access a network of SHG coordinators to test when we want to explore how certain features are working or could be improved. We see UAT and UT as a key part of the Digital Principles 'Design with the User'.

Experiments in Collaboration

proportional-piling-code-innovation-self-help-group-app-workshop-web.jpeg

proportional piling helped us visualize what indicators were the most important to capture in the app Early this month, we invited nearly 50 people to join us in Nairobi for a two day “Co-Creation Workshop” in order to help us determine development and partnership priorities for our Self Help Group Digital Platform.

This mobile app began as a simple directory of content, tailored to the cultural context and organizational needs of Tearfund in Ethiopia (who have great expertise with the program model). But we built for scale and our app is becoming a multi-lingual, content-rich digital platform capable of meeting the needs of a much wider partner ecosystem.

There are hundreds of millions of people around the world who participate in savings groups and self-help groups. And there are scores of organizations who devote time and money to founding and supporting these groups because of the transformational impact such groups have demonstrated in vulnerable communities.

There is a diverse and fast growing ecosystem of technologies being built for these groups, often focused on digital bookkeeping, mobile money transfers or enabling monitoring and evaluation protocols to provide transparency into group health and function.

We’re focused on providing a content-rich, field-tested volume of curricula specifically crafted for facilitators to use during group meetings, along with curricula that helps facilitators to develop their skills outside of the meeting context.

The organizations that joined us in Nairobi included large international organizations that are already household names, to smaller national NGOs that may be focused on spreading just a few hundred groups per year. A few donors, technologists and government organizations rounded out the field.

Nathaniel Calhoun leading a discussion on development priorities for the next version of the app

Different NGOs have different thematic priorities like improving conditions around water and sanitation, for example, or improving maternal and neonatal child health. They also run different varieties of group, for different durations and with different norms and expectations around interest and “pay-outs” or “graduation.” On top of that diversity, organizations operate in a variety of linguistic and cultural contexts.

When we received funding late last year, we made it clear that we’d need to gather together our potential partners in order to take direction from their needs and perspectives. That’s what this workshop was all about: bringing organizations together to look for areas of consensus that can determine where we invest and develop.

In advance of the workshop, there was trepidation among organizers and participants. After all, in other contexts, these organizations can emphasize their differences and their special ways of modifying the basic programmatic nugget: people saving small amounts of money together each week for their mutual benefit.

Although 90% of the people in the room focus many of their working hours on promoting and supporting self help or savings groups, when we asked people to raise their hands if they knew five or more people in the room, only a handful could do so.

We thought it would be helpful for these different organizations to learn about one another's (sometimes competing) priorities for (at least) two reasons: first, it will help our user community to understand that our development priorities are not set at random and that things which might not be immediately helpful within one organization’s context might be critical to another; second, we hoped to see priorities converge.

Our sessions focused on a few key areas:

* The front-end of the application—what you can see if you download the app from the play store (link)—which is what our facilitators and group members see;

* The back-end of the application—what you see if you have a password-protected coordinator login. Dashboards and panels that give you an indication of how your groups are functioning and what sort of data has been gathered from them.

* Different methods for monitoring and evaluating the groups, whether to validate the program model in general by surfacing increased resilience and prosperity, or whether to track aspects of the impact of our involving technologies in particular.

* What sort of thematic content is most urgent for these groups? What is most live-saving? What brings the greatest prosperity and health?

We assigned seating so that people from the same organizations and countries were rarely together and relied heavily upon table discussions to fill out worksheets that would then be presented to the larger group. We’re still chewing through roughly 150 pages of concrete and quality suggestions and perspective from the event.

And one of our favorite event innovations was to leave the last two and half hours relatively free on the second day, a Friday. We asked each organization to sit with one of our team members for 15 minutes at a pre-agreed time and provided a table of 15 minute time slots—all the rest of which were open. We encouraged participants, throughout the event, to make meetings with one another and to use those two and half hours to connect with one another.

But this was a Friday afternoon after the formal closing session of the event; so there was, understandably, some worry that people might pull a vanishing act. Instead, organizations sat together in all sorts of combinations even past the time we’d allotted for the meetings.

Having been at a ton of conferences that generate momentum and then end with some calls to collaborate afterwards, it felt great to move the “end” forward by a few hours and actually give that collaboration a chance to develop.

We’re grateful to all those who attended and to the Foundation support that it made it possible for us to hose this event. Stay tuned to hear what development priorities float to the top and which organizations join us soonest to continue improving upon this powerful open source tool for development.

Diverse partners implementing self help and savings groups came together to inform our app development process

What the Data Tells Us About our Self Help Group App Community

Over the two and a half years that our Self Help Group (SHG) app has supported facilitators of this high-impact program model, we have seen our user community grow to almost one thousand users. As we look to the future to plan how to further improve the resource, we wanted to share and summarize how and where the app has been used to date.

The Self-Help Group app is a digital resource for facilitators who are actively learning facilitation skills and mobilizing and mentoring active SHGs. If you’re not familiar with the SHG model, we’ve summarized it briefly below before exploring what the data tells us about our community of users.

A Quick Introduction to Self Help Groups

Self-Help Groups are microsavings and microcredit groups who voluntarily come together, both for social support and to provide the group with savings and access to credit for their businesses or income-generating activities.

They usually comprise about 15 members who meet weekly, buying shares in a joint savings pool that grows substantially over time and is used to give business loans to members with interest. Members also typically pay into a social fund that is used to give emergency loans to members for personal reasons, interest free.

SHGs differ from another savings and credit group model called Volunteer Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs), most significantly because the group stays together over many years and does not pay out the join savings pool, but rather allows it to accumulate into what can become sizable capital.

When we first started to digitize the SHG program model, we did so because we found this approach to social and economic empowerment to be among the most effective and long-term that we’d seen, both for individual members and the larger community.

Our Reach to Date

So far, thanks to the support of private donors and the UK Department for International Development (DfID), we have been able to introduce the SHG app to both Tearfund and World Vision International, for their SHG and their VSLA programs respectively. Although the app’s curriculum for groups follows the SHG, and not the VSLA, model, we have heard from VSLA facilitators that it remains an effective resource for facilitators.

To date, the community of SHG members whose groups are using the app numbers approximately 1,000, at around 75 installs for groups of about 15 members each, taking into account the devices that Code and our developers use for testing, and that prospective partners are exploring to see if the app is a good fit for their savings and credit group programs.

Between Phase 1 (Ethiopia only, 2014) and Phase 2 (Ethiopia and Tanzania, 2015-16), our user base has grown by a factor of ten. It is our goal in future iterations to double our community base, and a stretch goal to multiply our numbers by another factor of ten, in this case to reach 10,000 total SHG members. Our three to five-year goal is to reach one million SHG members with this resource, although clearly we have a long way to go to get there.

Our Geographical User Base of Supported and Unsupported Users

self help group app platform graph of installs by country
self help group app platform graph of installs by country

When we look at the data about where the app is being downloaded, we see something interested and unexpected for this stage of our app’s development. We are still in progress building and testing the app, and collaborating actively with our facilitators and user community as we do so, to co-design and truly create a useful product for our clients, i.e. SHG facilitators supported by organizations and governments all over the world.

Even though the app is not finished, we see that only 35% of our installs are from facilitators supported by partner organizations in Ethiopia and Tanzania. The rest of the installs are from groups or facilitators that are unsupported by our team directly, and we see from our administrative back-end that many of these installs are active, i.e. they are hosting groups with names, who meet regularly and move through the curriculum, and even answer our in-app evaluation questions to provide us with valuable member data.

This observation is particularly interesting because of 27% of our total installs come from unsupported groups in India, where the Self Help Group model originated and where the government has institutionalized the SHG model as an effective poverty alleviation strategy.

This remains unexpected and will be an interesting metric to track over the coming months and years. In future app versions, we hope to add a data field when new groups register that encourages them to provide contact information, so that we can learn more about what is happening.

Hardware Connectivity Challenges for Self Help Groups

self help group app platform graph of installs by app version
self help group app platform graph of installs by app version

We built the SHG app to be used without mobile data or wifi connectively, once the device has been installed and the language options selected by the user. In the areas where our facilitators work, the cost of data connectivity can be prohibitive, even when there is signal available – and usually, a data signal can be hard to find.

This poses a challenge when we release new versions of the app, because if facilitators cannot access the new version wirelessly by using their data – and most of them cannot, nor do we expect them to – a program coordinator is responsible for physically visiting the facilitators and installing an APK by hand onto their device from their laptop.

This is rather arduous and time consuming, so we attempt to limit new versions to only one per quarter, and to coordinate with our partners so that they are confident of how to perform and troubleshoot an APK install of the app onto multiple different devices.

About 50% of our installs are currently running the latest version of the SHG app, while approximately 35% of the rest are running quite recent versions that include notable user experience and user interface improvements from our initial app. This leaves approximately 15% of users who are likely running a very old version of the app that has not had an opportunity to connect to any network or update itself.

Whether this is because of connectivity issues or attributable to other things, we understand the importance of having facilitators use the most recent app version and of working with coordinators to ensure that they have an opportunity to update the app on their program hardware, whenever possible.

Hardware Availability where SHGs Operate

self help group app platform graph of installs by app device
self help group app platform graph of installs by app device

Another important area for us to focus what type of Android device is being used to access the app. The majority (62%) of our users are on unknown devices and less than 10% are using the program-provided Tecno tablets purchased locally in Ethiopia and Tanzania.

This is promising, as we chose to purchase hardware for partners who were eager to pilot the app within their program models as an incentive to reduce the risk of them joining our user community. However, we understand that providing hardware is neither sustainable nor advisable as we move from our initial pilot towards a more mature product and are already bridging away from this model.

Already, we have partners who do not rely on us to support the costs of hardware, but as we scale we anticipate potentially continuing to cover the cost of a small portion of devices upfront, as we have seen it reduces the risk for new communities who want to use the app as a digital resource but who do not yet have the wider organizational buy-in to pursue large-scale hardware purchases.

As smart phone penetration continues to increase, and we believe strongly that these trends will continue, we anticipate the need to purchase hardware for new partners to rapidly diminish. We have already observed that Android handsets, rather than tablets, are owned by a growing portion of SHG facilitators and even by some SHG members. In addition, to further decrease barriers to using the resource, we hope to make a feature phone-accessible version of the app for users who are on older and more affordable devices as well.

Mobile Network Operators Serving the Digital Self Help Group Community

self help group app platform graph of installs by app carrier
self help group app platform graph of installs by app carrier

Although almost half (44%) of our installs do not have carrier information to share with us, we can see the major East African mobile network operators (MNOs) are represented by our community: MTN, Safaricom and Airtel. At the moment, this data is not particularly useful, however, if we were to create a feature phone version of the SHG app and want to use shortcodes, knowing which MNOs are most accessed by our community in any given country would help us chose the correct carrier or carriers to partner with.

In Summary

We are at an important juncture in our SHG app project, and it’s important for us to share where our community is, what devices, networks and app versions they’re using, as this data can help us as we look to the future, where we hope to finish our app build and further grow our user community.

We hope that this overview has been useful to the ICT4D community and are eager to learn from others doing similar work and facing similar challenges. If you’d like to get in touch about using the SHG app in your programs, or you’d like to learn more about the project and our plans for the future, please get in touch by emailing info@codeinnovation.com.