technology for development

Scaling Up our DIY Self-Help Group App with Partners in East Africa

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Community-savings-and-credit-group-rural-Tanzania-East-Africa-open-source-mobile-app-code-innovation In early 2015, Code Innovation and our partners at One Hen Inc. visited the implementing partners for our Self-Help Group app in Ethiopia and Tanzania. After a successful pilot in 2014, our plan was to scale up the use of the app by 1000% focusing on new users in food insecure areas of both countries.

We met with partners at Tearfund Ethiopia and with Tearfund Tanzania's local NGO implementers, the Christian Council of Tanzania (CCT) to decide on a viable plan for multiplying our impact and rolling out a new-and-improved iteration with content that we estimated would last for about six months worth of weekly Selp-Help Group meetings. According to our previous coordinator, during our 2014 pilot in Ethiopia this was about the time it took for new groups to raise enough capital and develop enough business acumen and group momentum to begin to give their first loans.

This is a write-up of how Phase 2 of the project went, in terms of fidelity to our plan and also around ICT4D best practices and lessons learned. Wherever possible, we'll tie what we're doing and learning into the Digital Principles because we're proud to be one of the endorsing organizations contributing to this emerging field of practice.

 

An Overview of our DIY Self-Help Group App

(If you're already familiar with our project, feel free to skip this section. You can also read more background here and here.)

For those of you new to the project, in 2013 we began working with the US non-profit One Hen Inc. to digitize and scale Tearfund Ethiopia's successful Self-Help Group model of savings and credit groups, themselves adapted from the model pioneered by Myrada in India. The groups have shown a cost-benefit ratio of approximately 1:100* with long-term and far-reaching social and economic impacts on members and their communities, lifting people out of poverty over time with very little outside support.

Working closely with Tearfund Ethopia, we adapted their Self-Help Group modular curriculum to a mobile interface on a free and open source Android app you can download from the Google Play store here -- although it's very much still in Beta for now. Over a 12-week pilot, we found that the facilitators thought the app was a useful professional tool and facilitation guide and that they'd already begun using it to start new Self-Help Groups not officially involved in our pilot.

 

Our Plan for Phase 2, a.k.a. How to Scale 1,000% in Six Months

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Based on the positive feedback we got from Self-Help Group facilitators, we sought to expand our reach in Ethiopia and begin working in a new country, Tanzania, with the same organizational partners. With DfID funding, we were able to focus on food insecure regions facing hunger because of the failure of the previous year's rains. Due to a poor harvest because of the drought, families and communities in these regions were considered particularly at risk for hazards related to food insecurity. Our partners selected the Humbo and Angacha regions in Ethiopia and Kongwa in the Dodoma region of Tanzania to scale-up our pilot with 25 new Savings and Credit Groups to be created in each country over six months of field implementation.

Because we were working in two districts in Ethiopia, and also to see if closer supervisory support would yield better weekly reporting data, we tried a new approach to coordination, appointing one District Coordinator for each area, supervised by a single Project Coordinator based in Addis Ababa. In addition to regular check-ins by email and phone, the Coordinator visited every other month in person to ensure the District Coordinators were feeling supported with the technology and the savings and credit group formation process.

In Ethiopia, we worked with experienced Self-Help Group facilitators working in new parts of the country starting groups of primarily young people out of school and over age 18. The focus on youth created some challenges because there was an assumption that young people did not have any source of income, although Tearfund's program model specifically addresses this assumption with a reframe of available local resources and close-to-home economic activities. Nonetheless, we did see below average group retention rates in Ethiopia because the SHG system itself was not established in the communities we selected and was, instead, fairly unknown. Accordingly, parents and youth members were quick to get discouraged and to discourage others from attending the groups. In the Nazaret region, where we first piloted, SHGs had been established for over a decade and belonging was considered to be admirable and beneficial, so this was our first time as a partnership facing a situation where people did not show up with motivation because of a favorable context. Also, in some cases youth decided to enroll in school or move to urban areas to look for work during the pilot program period, so SHG membership was more variable than is usual for Tearfund Ethiopia programs.

In Tanzania, our partners at CCT decided to work with entirely new and inexperienced facilitators in regions where Pamoja groups ("Pamoja" means "together" in Kiswahili and is CCT's name for our Savings and Credit Groups) had not yet been established. This created a number of early challenges that were evaluated to be worth the extra effort because of the acute community need for this kind of support system, given the hazards and risks members were facing around food insecurity and with the drought. It meant that our Coordinator spent half of his time directly working with and training facilitators on the mobile technology, app functionality and reporting protocols, but also that the gains that we saw over time there showed that the program can work in a new and extremely challenging use case.

Because we're still early in the app development and digitization process, we continued our system of weekly feedback from facilitators to get specific inputs on areas of the curriculum that worked well and that need expansion. This system continued to give us the real-time, actionable data that we need to make strong iterations between phases, and we anticipate continuing it in the future until we move out of Phase 2 (testing with new countries, partners and in new world regions). Phase 3 will happen when the app can be used by a new, inexperienced facilitator to successfully learn facilitation skills, recruit and start a group, and save and lend while building group ties over time. We have a ways to go, but we'll get there!

 

What Went Well in our Rapid Scale-Up

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We are happy to report that a number of key areas went extremely well. We're going to summarize them here, but do get in touch (info@codeinnovation.com) if you'd like to hear more details as we're keen to share what we know with our ICT4D community.

  • App Functionality and Usability: The app did not require repeated training for new facilitators to use, especially around the key curricular areas of meeting content.
  • Expanded Content around Case Studies, Games and Stories: We hoped to include content in the app that would take group members well into six months of weekly meetings, and we succeeded in doing that with our expanded curriculum around social business skills development, conflict resolution and disaster risk management/disaster risk reduction. Facilitators and group members enjoyed the illustrative content in particular, and over the course of Phase 2 we've collected a wealth of additional content to help us build out the curriculum further.
  • Facilitator Training: Our new module created a step-by-step training guide for new facilitators to learn basic skills, recruit group members and develop self-organized learning for their own professional development. We heard from facilitators throughout field implementation that it was an appreciated part of the content.
  • Facilitator Preparation: Before each module throughout the content, we expanded the information needed to prepare facilitators for their weekly meeting. We heard that this was an extensively used part of the app this time around and were requested to continue building it out as a resource for planning meetings.
  • Hardware: We selected locally-purchased Tecno tablets available for about $200 in Ethiopia per device and about $100 in Tanzania per device. The higher cost in Ethiopia is due to national taxes on ICT, as the tablets themselves were almost identical. Every device continues to function without damage at the time of writing, a testament to the care with which our facilitators treated them and also to the durability and appropriateness of the tablets themselves in rural East Africa.
  • Reporting and Supportive Supervision: Weekly reporting kept facilitators, coordinators and us in close contact to problem-solve proactively and ensure that our content and UI/UX was meeting their needs in running groups and also in their own professional support and development. In Tanzania, reports were sent via facilitators' Gmail accounts and our users created a What's App group on their own initiative to share success stories, keep in touch and help each other resolve group, tablet or meeting challenges.
  • Secondary Benefits of Accessible Mobile Technology: In most cases, facilitators used their tablets for professional and personal development, including engagement with LinkedIn, online news and Facebook social networking. In many cases, facilitators began to pass around the tablet during meetings so that members took turns facilitating the key discussion points during group meetings. In a few cases, facilitators made their tablets available to community and group members to access the internet, creating strong secondary benefits in areas that did not previously have easy access to mobile technology.

What We Learned for Future Partnerships

There were some key areas for lessons learned as well, detailed in brief here. Again, please do get in touch (info@codeinnovation.com) if you're keen to hear more about these, as we'd love it if no one in ICT4D ever made these same mistakes again!

  • Solar Chargers: In all cases where hardware is provided, we will be advising partners to purchase locally sourced solar chargers to enable the tablets to be charged directly by the facilitators whenever needed. Relying on local charging stations is both time-consuming and expensive, and could in the future be a source of low motivation to use the app.
  • App Updates: Because access to mobile data is so slow and wifi is often completely unavailable, we needed a new system to update new app versions so that facilitators would be sure to be using the latest app version. We are using our Coordinator's laptop and installing APKs directly onto tablets during field visits in the future. But this is a function of our beneficiaries being in unusually remote areas underserved by electric infrastructure. If we were targeting robust growth in an urban area, this recommendation would likely not apply.
  • New Group Formation: We had anticipated that 25 groups would be fairly easy to form over six months in each country, but in fact we will only reach our target in late 2015/early 2016. In Ethiopia, working in a region where SHGs were not known by the community made their establishment slower than anticipated. In Tanzania, new facilitators were only ready to create new groups after their existing ones had been established for about three months, so relying on facilitators to create multiple groups should anticipate some phasing delays. At the moment in Tanzania, new group creation is on hold because members would not have the income needed to contribute to savings, since it is the very end of the dry season and family resources are very scarce. A few weeks after the short rains begin (in December or January, we hope), members will once again have the financial resources and be able to begin group savings.
  • UI/UX and Usability Testing: Secondary app functionalities were not as easy for new users to navigate as the curricular modules, namely our Community (or social media) section and our group login system. Based on usability testing directly with facilitators in Tanzania, we have a great list of priority fixes in this area.
  • Multimedia When Possible: Adding photos and illustrations, especially for case studies, will help to make the content more personal and come alive for members and facilitators. It was a repeated ask from our group interviews and something we're looking into while keeping in mind that we don't want the app (already around 10MB) to become too heavy to download in low-bandwidth areas.

 

What our Self-Help Group App Group Members Had to Say about the Project and our Process

During a recent field visit to CCT's Pamoja Groups in Kongwa, Dodoma region in Tanzania, we were able to interview nine groups in four village areas.

In our Self-Help Group model, each group member contributes weekly through buying two types of shares, social shares and savings shares. Each week, each member contributes one share to the social fund, for use by group members in emergencies. In addition, they can buy savings shares at a minimum and maximum set by the group.

In all Pamoja groups, the social fund is repaid without interest and had minimum 1 share @ 500 Tsh contribution per week, slightly less than $0.25 at the time of our visit.

In Mautya Village in Kongwa District, Dodoma Region, participants reported:

  • "We are facing hunger in our families and communities because we are primarily agricultural and because of the lack of rains last year and the failure of our crops."
  • "We are using the social fund to buy food."
  • "Group social ties give us strength to face the challenges of the drought together. We do not feel alone."

In Nguji Village in Kongwa District, Dodoma Region, participants reported:

  • “We are facing hunger in our families and communities because we are agricultural and because of the lack of rains and the failure of crops.
  • "We are using the social fund to buy food and pay school fees."
  • "Because of the group, we are not facing too much hunger at the end of the dry season and we feel supported by each other."
  • "Belonging to the group helped to improve my existing business and my profits have increased."

One-third of the participants in Nguji owned their own mobile phones and 80% had their own businesses.

In Machenje Village in Kongwa District, Dodoma Region, participants reported:

  • "There is no rain, and everyone here are farmers. Bad harvest means hunger. Lack of rain increases the price of food."
  • "If I don’t have money, I can take a loan to invest in a business and use the profit to pay back the loan and buy food for my family."
  • "Our economy is so much affected by the drought because we depend on agriculture and there is no rain or harvest. It is difficult."
  • "Because I now have a small business, I can buy food and eat with my family."
  • "If someone is sick, a loan [from the social fund] can take them to hospital and pay for their immediate needs."
  • "If a group member has any emergency, anything in life, we can support them."
  • "These groups are good. We encourage anyone to join. However, know that if you take a loan, it can be challenging to pay it back so that another person is able to take a new loan."
  • "The community originally thought that these groups were a trick, but now that they've seen our success and the capital we've raised, they themselves want to join."
  • "I had a business before, but I was inexperienced. Belonging to the group helped to improve my business skills and share with others. Now, I am helping my family to have a good life."
  • "Belonging to the group has really helped my family. With a loan, I have been able to expand my tomato selling business."
  • "This is a bad year because of the lack of rain, so buying shares every week is difficult, especially now that it is dry season. My savings come from collecting firewood in the bush and selling it in the village."

30% of the group members had businesses before joining and 46% do now. 58% own their own mobile phones.

In Laikala Village in Kongwa District, Dodoma Region, participants reported:

  • "Life is difficult. I joined this group to get out of poverty."
  • "In most cases, we struggle to pay for school fees and because of the group, we make sure that we pay for all the school expenses."
  • "Using the tablet has introduced me to new things and ideas, and it is good for me."
  • "The social fund is for problems or unexpected disasters."
  • "Our group made an IGA whose profit goes back into the social fund, because we depend on it so heavily now. The IGA involves buying sugar and rice wholesale and each members sells some and returns with the profit."
  • "People should join groups because they are sustainable. Members are there for each other and will continue to be there to help each other."
  • "This community depends on agriculture. Without rain there is no food. We have hunger and no money to buy commodities. We are all affected."
  • "Without a good harvest, there is no money and without money, you cannot buy anything. There is no water for gardening."
  • "Without food at home, after a poor harvest, loans help our families to eat."
  • "With the problem of the lack of rain, most people are bankrupt so others can’t help, but the group can help, especially with a small business."
  • "I didn't have a business, but then I took a loan and now I have a profitable small restaurant."

13% of the group members had businesses before joining and 52% do now. 55% own their own mobile phones.

Next Steps for our DIY Self-Help Group App

We are in discussion with CCT, Tearfund Tanzania and Tearfund Ethiopia to continue to scale up with their new and existing Pamoja and SHG facilitators in the coming months and into 2016. In addition, we have a new partnership with World Vision Tanzania working with their Volunteer Savings and Loan Associations with groups in the Babati regional cluster (of Tanzania). Stay tuned for more developments early in the new year, when we'll be releasing a new-and-improved iteration based on what we learned during this Phase 2.

Our own goal at Code is to scale the Self-Help Group App impact to 1 million direct beneficiaries within three years. Because of the economic and social need, we hope to concentrate mostly in sub-Saharan Africa but it will depend where we find implementing partners and funding. Of course, as we iterate closer to a stand-alone app with full functionalities, , our own inputs for consecutive iterations will become less necessary.

We hope to find partners in all parts of the world, but in Africa in particular, who are interested in using our Self-Help Group app to train and support facilitators starting their own groups in their own communities, helping to empower people to create social and economic support systems that reduce their vulnerability to stresses, shocks and poverty.

Want to partner with us on this or other projects? Get in touch (info@codeinnovation.com)!

* Cabot Venton, C et al (2013). “Partnerships for Change: a cost benefit analysis of Self Help Groups in Ethiopia.” Tearfund, Teddington, UK.

African Tech Hubs: eMobilis in Nairobi, Kenya

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computer teaching training a young woman at eMobilis technology institute in Nairobi, Kenya African tech hubs and innovations labs train the next generation of African leaders and entrepreneurs who will use technology to solve challenges faced by their countries and communities.

In order to help bridge their work and make connections between African tech leaders and Silicon Valley, where we spend the summer teaching at Singularity University’s Graduate Studies Program, we’re profiling a handful of African tech hubs and innovations labs.

In this ongoing series at Code Innovation, we’ll be asking tech leaders from across Africa how they work, what their business model looks like, what challenges they face and how those with capital and resources can support them.

Our intention is to encourage connections and collaboration between the African tech scene and Silicon Valley.

In our first interview in the African Tech Hubs series, we’re profiling Ken Mwenda, co-founder and Managing Director of eMobilis Technology Institute, based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Code: Hi Ken. Welcome to our interview series! Would you share a little bit about who you are and how you got started in technology?

Ken Mwenda: Hi. I’d be happy to. eMobilis is a software development training institution and incubation hub based in Nairobi, Kenya that has been in operation for the past five years.

We train youth and develop custom mobile applications for organizations both locally and globally – everything from e-learning mobile apps to business apps designed to streamline operations.

Our organization was founded at a time when Safaricom, the creator of Mpesa, overtook East African Breweries as the most profitable company in East Africa. That, and the entry of four new telecom companies into Kenya, marked the advent of a boom in the telecommunications sector and the dire need for more talent to avoid the rampant poaching of network engineers and mobile product developers.

When we opened our doors to students, we were the first of our kind in sub-Saharan Africa. It was necessary to pioneer this kind of training to respond to digital opportunities in a focused way, as no other colleges or universities were doing so at the time. From courses on network infrastructure, GSM, the evolution of 3G and radio propagation, we then progressed to launch programs on Java, PHP, mySQL, HTML5, Android and Windows Phone. As the industry evolved, it become clear that there were also phenomenal freelance and entrepreneurship opportunities presented in the exploding mobile software development space, as a result of global app stores and the low barriers of entry for developers with a globally appealing software product.

eMobilis is accredited through the Government of Kenya and has trained over 2,200 students to date, 65% of these on scholarships funded through industry collaborations.

Our vision is to empower local youth to tap into the myriad opportunities that the mobile and software development industry offers so that they can innovate, create and improve their situation in life through use of digital tools.

student learning mobile programming at emobilis mobie technology institute in Nairobi, Kenya

Code: How did your organization get founded and how is it being run now?

Ken: eMobilis was founded by 3 directors who pooled together capital and resources from personal savings. We set up in an area known as Westlands within Nairobi’s core and now have 3 fully-equipped labs and an incubation room. Each of the three labs has a capacity of 30 students at any given time and part of our commitment to students is to offer high-speed internet, high performance PC’s and a conducive environment for learning that includes test devices and a test server.

It took us one and a half years to get government accreditation through the local Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. This rigorous process vetted our teaching staff, and included inspecting our premises and also scrutinizing the curriculum.

Typical courses run between 1 month and 3 months and all require creation of a mobile app as part of the hands-on methodology. We expose students to the publishing process and give them some ideas on how to monetize their skills.

We also offer off-site Boot Camps and have partnered with top universities in Kenya to conduct certain trainings at their campuses. Over the years, we have worked with the University of Nairobi, JKUAT and Africa Nazarene to train their students in mobile programming.

eMobilis has been engaged by both Google and Microsoft (Nokia) to conduct specialized training programs. In the case of Google, it involved a series of workshops to assist small and medium sized businesses to set up their own websites using the GKBO (Getting Kenyan Businesses Online) tool.

Our software development division is 2 years old and sprung from the numerous requests we were getting from companies that wanted a specific, custom mobile app created and the whole project managed by a vendor. Having expertise and a reasonable amount of experience and accumulated research on mobile apps, we ventured into creating apps for companies on contract.

Code: What is your business model?

Ken: Our business model is multi-pronged. We run some programs where students pay full tuition while other programs are on full scholarship.

For instance, in the mlab East Africa program, where the mandate was to grow and develop the mobile technology ecosystem, the best and brightest students were shortlisted competitively and given full scholarships for a 4-month training program. Many have gone on to form start-ups, some work on a freelance basis and another 60% have been absorbed into employment by banks, IT companies, small businesses and multinationals, typically in their IT departments. Funding from Infodev, a division of the World Bank, enabled us to offer full, merit based scholarships at the mlab facility with our lecturers and curriculum.

eMobilis is also a co-founder of mlab East Africa, a World Bank initiative consisting of 5 regional mobile laboratories around the world tasked with incubating start-ups, hosting a major developer pitching conference, training, mentoring start-ups and supporting the growth of the mobile tech ecosystem. The consortium hosting the lab consists of iHub, University of Nairobi and eMobilis.

We seek out partnerships with corporations to offer custom tailored programs. One such partnership was with Nokia before they were bought out by Microsoft. Their goal was to promote local content on their devices through relevant and exciting mobile applications that helped them sell more phones. Nokia would fully fund a program for students that helped up-skill and expose strong developers who create useful and appealing mobile applications.

We have partnered with organizations such as Google, Microsoft, Safaricom, Salesforce and KEMRI to offer youth trainings on Android, website development through HTML5, Windows Phone and USSD mobile software development programs.

On the software development division, we have worked with different international organizations including Code Innovation and One Hen Inc. to develop a ground-breaking, multilingual mobile app that enables facilitators of Self Help Groups in Ethiopia and Tanzania to effectively learn and manage groups through mobile tools, resources and the app’s user-friendly interface.

Our model is also to seek out partnerships to create amazing apps for private as well as for non-profit organizations that want to leverage the power of mobile and to extend their reach and effectiveness with their customers or constituents.

computer lab at emobilis mobie technology institute in Nairobi, Kenya

Code: Do you work in open source? What is your experience with the open source community?

Ken: We do. When we run programs on Android, HTML5, and others we build on curriculum and resources openly available through the open source community. We also direct our students to developer forums and communities so that they can contribute and also further their research as they code.

We consider the open source community an amazing place to share ideas and learn best practices from each other.

Code: What has been most challenging?

Ken: There are numerous challenges, many of them that come with the territory when you decide to pioneer a concept as novel as mobile software development training in Africa. Code schools and academies are still fairly uncommon. In the early days there was very low awareness on this area of training. Traditional education and institutions did not teach mobile software development and so we had to spend heavily on marketing and awareness building so that potential students could get excited about the opportunities afforded by the mobile space and how they could learn through us.

As a start-up, we had cash flow issues and lack of bank financing as software related businesses in Kenya typically do not qualify for bank loans and are considered high risk. Expenses spanning rent, salaries, quality equipment and marketing proved quite high as we raced to ramp up and attract solid student numbers to cover operating costs.

Being in the Education sector, we also needed to get accredited by the Government and that took a great deal of time and effort to help the Quality Assurance department at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology understand our curriculum, process and the outcomes of the training. This was long and rigorous but important to us since as an organization, we wanted to be compliant and to be able to assure parents and students about the quality and value of what we offer.

Additionally, there was the challenge of both finding highly qualified and passionate lecturers who understood this relatively new field, had developed their own apps and could communicate effectively to train students and motivate them as developers.

Another challenge to contend with is adapting to the rapidly changing technology landscape where technology companies fold, new programming languages emerge, standards compete, equipment becomes obsolete and staying on top of all this to remain relevant is not entirely painless.

graduating students at emobilis mobie technology institute in Nairobi, Kenya

Code: What are your organization’s specific areas of expertise?

Ken: Software development training – Android, Salesforce, HTML5 and so forth, youth capacity building, and mobile software development for private firms and non-profits.

Code: What are the issues or problems that you care most about?

Ken: Solving the unacceptably high rate of unemployment in Kenya, which stands at 40%; ensuring that globalization does not leave our youth behind as the world rapidly goes digital and we lose out on opportunities for work; facilitating creativity and unleashing the potential of our youth to innovate; establishing Kenya as a hub of excellence for software development globally and to ensure we train top-notch talent; building the tech ecosystem, including attracting venture capitalists to invest in African start-ups to solve the funding issue and to provide mentorship; and growing as an organization and escalating our impact.

Code: What projects are you most excited to be working on?

Ken: Mobile software development projects with partners who can pilot, who have the reach and ability to roll out our mobile apps across Africa and have the desire to collaborate with us to iterate and grow together on various projects with proven social impact potential.

Code: What are your plans for the next few years and what sort of help do you need to achieve them?

Ken: To open 4 more centers with fully equipped labs across Kenya, form 10 key partnerships with mobile value added services companies, hire 2 dedicated staff for business development and to secure software projects, expand the range of programs and courses that we offer as technology evolves, work on 8 innovative and meaningful mobile app projects by Dec 2016, secure a $70,000 grant to allow us to offer scholarships to approximately 100 bright youth from East Africa over the next 12 months, and hire for an Alumni and Jobs Manager to strengthen our job placement office.

Code: What companies or organizations would do you most like to be connected to and why?

Ken: We would like to be connected to organizations that fund scholarships and those that want to outsource software development work and are willing to form a partnership either for knowledge transfer or collaborative social impact projects. We would also like to connect to Singularity, Stanford and MIT for exchange programs and teaching partnerships.

Code: This has been great, Ken. Thanks for the interview! How can people get in touch with you?

Ken: Karibu! They can visit our website, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or get in touch with me directly by email at ken@emobilis.org.

An Overview of Our Self-Help Group App Pilot

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Self-Help-Group-mobile-app-microcredit-microfinance-microsavings-codeinnovation.com This is the second article in our series about the Self-Help Group app project. In the first article, we explain a bit about the Self-Help Group as a model and explore "Why the Self-Help Group Program Model Is Ready for Mobile." If you'd like to receive our updates by email, subscribe here.

Appifying the Self-Help Group Model

In the summer of 2013, Code Innovation began speaking with development economist Courtenay Cabot-Venton about the exponential impact she had assessed in a Self-Help Group (SHG) project funded and implemented by Tearfund Ethiopia. As we talked about the potential of using mobile to adapt the approach and help take it to scale, Courtenay became Director of International Programs for the U.S.-based the financial literacy and microfinance educators at One Hen, Inc. We worked together with Tearfund Ethiopia to create a project plan for an early iteration of the app in Phase 1. The goal was to develop, test and iterate a Self-Help Group app that trains facilitators how to start and lead a strong and self-reliant SHG, because we see mobile as being the best way to take this innovative and impactful approach to scale.

Once we had secured funding and agreed on an implementation plan, the next steps were to begin the process of user-driven design with Tearfund's expert facilitators and program team. Through extensive Skype and email conversations, we began to understand the existing ecosystem that Tearfund, their partners and the SHG model work within. We also began gathering all of Tearfund Ethiopia's SHG content: everything from facilitator training materials and trust-building games to the sample passbooks each SHG members carries to keep track of her savings and loans. Tearfund already had a project model with a cost-benefit ratio of 1:100 that grew steadily at 20-30% per year -- it was up to us to build on what was already working and to adapt their approach for m-learning. Over months of collaboration, we developed a mobile curriculum that mirrored the basics of the SHG process with modular content for self-guided group development and a basic structure for each meeting.

We worked with a group of application developers and technology educators in an organization called eMobilis based in Nairobi, Kenya. Because the app would be tested in East Africa, we chose capable developers from the region who were able to input around user interface and user experience (UI/UX) with confidence because they had a clear understanding of our target market and user base.

We believe that the open source standard is a game-changer for international development and humanitarian aid, and should be mandatory in all innovations and ICT4D projects, so the Self-Help Group app is built on an open source platform and released under a GNU General Public License. We are publishing our open source code on GitHub in a couple of months. We also made our content material free and open under the Creative Commons. Some of our partners were not familiar with the open standards of ICT4D, and we took the opportunity to share about the importance of the aid and development community building around the open source ethic. We found that communicating the value of open source helped to align our partners around a similar vision for the end-product of our collaboration: a free open source Self-Help Group app that trains facilitators to seed and lead the SHG process.

Phase 1 of the Self-Help Group App

You can find the Self-Help Group App free on the Google Play store here -- but please note that although this is the latest version, it is not intended for use by untrained or unsupported facilitators yet. If you are interested in using it and testing it out, please contact us at info@codeinnovation.com so we can advise you when we'll have a version that's ready for that use case.

Here are the core areas we created for Phase 1 of the SHG app:

Modules, Lessons and Steps: The basic content for the SHG process, from a group's first meeting to when they are ready to give their first loan, happens here. We divided our content into three Units that mirror basic group formation, from setting out structures for participatory decision-making to deciding on bylaws and what to do if a member taking out a loan is delinquent in paying it back.

Each SHG meeting has a series of steps. To make the basic structure of meetings easy to follow, we created a Meeting Checklist screen that helps facilitators to ensure that the group has covered everything for that week before the meeting adjourns. Although our facilitators were extremely experienced, they found the Meeting Checklist helpful to guide the SHG meetings, using it as a memory aide when they needed it.

By the way, we're changing the language of the content sections to Units, Modules and Steps in Phase 2 in order to move away from overly school-based curricular language. We wanted to ensure that the facilitators don't feel the need to lead or "teach" the content, but rather to participate collaboratively without hierarchy in the process; this was just one of many ways we sought to do that.

Facilitator Preparation: Becoming a skilled facilitator is not something you can learn from reading material in an app; it takes attention, focus and lots of practice. All the same, we seek to create a strong training for facilitators who want to create and catalyze their own SHGs. In Phase 1, this material was very basic and in some places, non-existent, as we were focused on getting the basic content of SHGs covered and not yet on facilitator support.

Supplementary Materials: We wanted to be sure that the SHG app didn't replace or substitute for any of the paper-based bookkeeping and accounting practices of the SHGs. To ensure that they were maintaining a paper-based analog system for their savings and loans, we uploaded versions of forms and tables that they might find helpful in their bookkeeping process. There can be a temptation to use technology for everything that it is capable of; but if we had encouraged groups to share their sensitive financial data with the app, we would be decreasing the transparency of their current process, decreasing the number of people in the group who gain financial literacy through practice and exposing it to risk (via lost or malfunctioning hardware) and potentially exposing their data to theft as well.

Community: This is the social section of the app, the place where groups can add some text about who they are and upload a photo to share with other SHGs. This section also included a section for the SHGs to record audio and video stories.

Resources: This includes training material, a list of good games to use during SHG meetings, a loan calculator and a list of the financial forms and templates references within the app content as "Supplementary Material."

We designed the app with a simple UI/UX because our primary users are not smart phone literate and we knew that the majority of them would be using smart phones for the first time. Tearfund Ethiopia provided the smart phones, Vodafone Smart II’s that had been donated by Vodafone. We built the content so that no data connection was required, and because the app wasn't on the Google Play store yet, facilitators had to learn how to use a free APK Installer to manage their versions. Luckily, because our facilitator cohort was so small, this did not prove the technical hurdle that it could have been.

Field testing of the app's content within SHG groups lasted 12 weeks, or three months, with three experienced facilitators (two women and one man) each leading two groups of 15-20 young people, some in-school and some out-of-school. A project coordinator, hired and supervised by Tearfund, trained and supported the facilitators and served as an intermediary between Code Innovation's team and the implementers on the ground. The coordinator sent weekly written feedback reports to the group that the Code team would follow-up on via email. Weekly, each facilitator filled out an Amharic feedback forms for each group she facilitated. These were then translated by an external translator with no connection to the project, to minimize the potential of editorializing our primary source data. At the end of the pilot, we collected information from the youth in the SHG groups personally, finding out what they enjoyed and what they didn't about using a smart phone in the SHG process.

The feedback schedule was heavy during Phase 1 because we did not have an ICT4D specialist on the ground to input on how things were working and where we were failing. We needed regular feedback to be as detailed and real-time as possible, so that we could make decisions on project implementation to fix any issues in-process and before they became distracting to the process.

After the pilot, we debriefed the facilitators screen by screen, ensuring that our Amharic translations were up to scratch and also that the flow and content of the UI/UX mirrored the expertise of how facilitators preferred to lead the formation and growth of an SHG. We were most surprised by the overwhelmingly positive feedback from our facilitators. Aside from some content adjustments, Amharic translation issues and technical issues here and there, they were happy with what we had created and considered it a useful, valuable tool in their work.

What We Learned from our Self-Help Group Pilot in Phase 1

Overall, the Phase 1 of testing the SHG app was a success, in that the app worked reasonably well at doing what we wanted it to do, namely to help facilitators move through the process of forming a new SHG. However, we also had numerous failures that we've learned from that are strengthening the next iteration in Phase 2.

Here is a snapshot of the biggest lessons learned. We're happy to share in more detail about any of them -- just email elie@codeinnovation.com.

ICT4D Lessons Learned

These are the lessons learned that pertain directly to ICT4D's Principles of Digital Development and that we think might be most relevant to the ICT4D community.

Group learning with a one-to-many approach: At Code, we like to up-end the industrial assumption that technology should be one-to-one, especially in low-resource environments. If even one person in a community has a smart phone, it can be used as a powerful tool for change. The SHG app leveraged this same model, relying on a facilitator with access to a smart phone or tablet, as a way to impact the entire group or groups with information and guidance on how to establish and strengthen an SHG.

Facilitators determine when to use the app in SHG meetings. Our Project Coordinator was right to encourage the facilitators to use the app as they saw fit and to decide for themselves whether to use it actively in a meeting. The experienced facilitators working with us on the pilot rarely needed the detailed content prompts, but did use them as a tool to prepare for meetings and to check in and make sure they'd covered everything. This was a good move, as it avoided the technology taking center stage and distracting the group from the content and purpose, namely the creation of strong SHGs. As we start using the app with less experienced facilitators we’ll keep a close eye on how it alters the normal dynamic of meetings.

Translations done as locally as possible: It was challenging to work in Amharic for Phase 1 and our developers in Kenya hired Amharic translators whose language didn't meet the criteria of our partners at Tearfund Ethiopia. Because of this, we spent a lot of time and energy tracking and fixing text line by line that would've been better focused on quality activities like improving UI/UX and content. Next time around, we will source our translations with the input of our implementing partners.

Amharic script on Android phones: In our Community sections, where we expected the groups to create a brief introductory profile, we hadn't thought to enable the smart phone keyboards for Amharic typing. This was an oversight, but because we didn't discover the issue until the debrief session after the pilot, we weren't able to fix it during field testing. Where different scripts and alphabets are involved, we cannot assume that an appropriate keyboard will be integrated automatically.

Poor speaker quality for audio materials: Several times within the content of the app, we relied on audio case studies that the groups would listen to. However, speaker quality on the donated Android phones wasn't good enough for the groups to understand what was being said. In Phase 2, we are supplementing audio case studies with written transcripts and our partners are eager to improve the quality of the locally-purchased hardware to include better speaker quality.

Social: Our social sections were embedded within the content of the app in Phase 1, but didn't take into adequate account the privacy and security issues of our users. This is an area we'll build out and test more in Phase 2. One Hen in particular seeks future features where youth SHGs share their stories, challenges and best practices with each other, so this is something we're building slowly with each phase. We noticed, also, that it’s difficult to anticipate when a social (outward facing) activity will seem appropriate within the normally internal and private process of a group. Our efforts to guess at the right moments were not successful; so we are moving the social content out of the core curriculum and into its own area. In this way, groups that identify an eagerness to try out a social function can navigate to the appropriate section and find structure for their experience when they are ready.

Internet connectivity: We meant to build the app so that it did not require any data or connectivity to operate, but users who navigate to certain social sections found their phones trying to connect—or worse, using data. Version two will include tight controls around the phone’s appetite for data so that no user costs are incurred in its routine use. Because facilitators will have periodic access to free wifi to send their data and download new versions as we scale in Phase 2, the latest version of the SHG App will be available on the Google Play store for our facilitators to automatically download, so they don't have to learn how to manually install APKs.

Self-Help Group Content Lessons Learned

This section explores the content of the app as it follows the standard SHG process. It includes how well we were able to adapt the analog process into a digital experience, and places that we're already building out for Phase 2.

Time before first loan: After our document discovery process, we were able to draft basic materials that help a facilitator establish an SHG. Over the 12 weeks of our pilot project, we were able to test the entirety of this content, but in reality a group takes much longer to establish. Group members need time to develop and explore business ideas and to save enough capital to be ready to give their first loans. In reality, the app needs to stretch to about a year of content, although there will be a range in how fast or slow some facilitators might like to explore the content modules. This means that our field testing is going to run longer in Phase 2, for a minimum of six months, and we'll be getting weekly feedback on the filler content we develop and how it works in the field.

Cash box vs. banking vs. mobile money: Most groups in rural areas use a cash box to hold their savings and develop a consensus-based protocol to establish trust and transparency around who holds the money and how they secure it. In urban and semi-urban areas where banks are available, groups are encouraged to start their own bank account. In the future, we see SHGs electing to use mobile money as a way to hold and manage their group savings. This was content detail we didn't focus on in Phase 1, but that will be increasingly relevant as we scale and move to two-country implementation in Phase 2.

How to show impact for in-school SHGs? We realized in our pilot debrief that parents of in-school SHGs are very eager that the groups not encourage small business loans to individual members because they want their children to have extra incentive to stay in school. Because the standard metric of success for SHGs, on a group and a community level, are the small businesses that are created by its members, we are focusing on finding new ways to measure impact and success for these young people, including group income-generating activities (IGAs) that could raise the capital holdings of the group without creating distractions from school and also ways of encouraging in-school youth to support their own further education and training.

Implementation Lessons Learned

These are things we learned about how to be more effective and efficient in our working process. It's great when ICT4D projects can test and iterate quickly, and we saw areas to improve around these specific points.

Coordinator buy in to ICT4D: We realized midway through the process that our Project Coordinator was not supportive of the ICT4D process and did not think that technology should be used in resource-poor contexts because it created needless attention towards disparities. This meant that we were often having philosophical discussions about the value of our pilot and the SHG app with the person we were looking to coordinate the implementation of testing the app in the field. A project coordinator position is regularly difficult to hire for as it requires cross-cutting ICT4D and content-specific skills, and to make things a layer more political, it is usually done by the partner organization so we do not have direct supervisory control over the person who plays the largest role in determining the quality of the process. Perhaps we will write more about this in a separate article in the future, as our lessons learned about how to hire for ICDT4 projects with partners may be useful to the wider community.

Facilitator feedback: We asked for detailed feedback from facilitators after each of their two weekly SHG meetings. Despite training them on the need for and importance of high-quality detailed feedback, it was difficult to get answers from them about specific areas where they relied on their own expertise to fill in the gaps that the app didn't cover. It was also difficult to avoid duplication of their reports across both meetings; in most cases, the content was almost entirely identical. Facilitators only spoke Amharic so conversations around quality feedback had to be mediated by our Project Coordinator, who was not entirely bought in to the process. All the same, we received enough quality feedback to make important changes for our Phase 2 iteration.

We hope that this in-depth look at Phase 1 of our SHG app project is useful to ICT4D practitioners and to those working on similar m-learning projects. We are currently in process with Phase 2, scaling 1,000% in Ethiopia and Tanzania over 2015 . We'll be posting updates here and continuing to document our work for the community.

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Thanks for reading! For more information about our work with mobile education, ICT4D and the Self-Help Group app, email info@codeinnovation.com. You can subscribe to future updates from Code Innovation here.

Our HuffPo article on Technology for Development: Shifting the Status Quo in Africa

Our article over at The Huffington Post's Impact's B-Team section is up, co-authored with One Hen partner Courtenay Cabot Venton. We share how our open source Self-Help Group mobile app is helping to scale a successful program model and bring collaborative and participatory development, including microcredit, financial literacy and business education, to the poorest of the poor. Check it out here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/courtenay-cabot-venton/technology-for-developmen_b_6581786.html

 

 

Exponential Technologies and Social-Ecological Design

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Teaching about exponential technology and social-ecological design in resilient systems at Stockholm Resilience Center (www.codeinnovation.com) The Stockholm Resilience Centre is making super useful contributions to humanity and to the planet. They’ve pioneered the nuanced and data-driven concept of “Planetary Boundaries”—the thresholds beyond which we cannot predict the behavior of our planet or our ability to live on it successfully. (The Centre’s Executive Director, Johan Rockstrom delivers a succinct TED talk on the concept here.) Or, for a brief paragraph about each of the 9 boundaries, see here. This concept and others pioneered at the Centre are helping to frame some of the decade’s most urgent debates around climate stewardship.

SRC is staffed primarily with scientists and researchers, but it is working actively to create positive impacts and to foster innovation. Maja Brisvall, who I first met during the Graduate Studies Program of Singularity University, was inspired by the potential impact of exponential technologies to create a similar initiative at SRC called LEAD. In close collaboration with SU mainstay, Kathryn Myronuk, and with contributions from SU's core impact faculty, this program will be culminating in December 2014. While LEAD offers the popular mix of entrepreneurial skills, exponential technologies and social impact, it also incorporates SRC’s priorities by requiring participants to focus their innovations on ecological systems or biodiversity. To the best of my knowledge, this is currently the only program focused on this potent overlap.

While applying exponential technologies to problems in health care or education is a fairly straightforward (and popular) undertaking, far fewer people have taken a serious look at how these technologies can be brought to the service of earth systems and into an area typically looked after by foresters and farmers. We’re watching this intersection very closely at CODE and doing our best to help it develop. If you are working on a technologically advanced initiative to strengthen existing earth systems, get in touch and let’s chat.

Our contributions to the LEAD program hinged on identifying four different industrial age assumptions that limit our vision and impact when thinking about innovations within our social and ecological systems. These are:

  1. Technological innovations should be for the individual and scaled on a 1:1 basis.
  2. Technological innovations should be delivered from the top down.
  3. We should develop our innovations on the assumption that we will continue to centralize and urbanize, discounting other trends and trajectories.
  4. Programs and initiatives should be designed to last and grow indefinitely.

Stay tuned for more detailed thinking around these points.

Also, in case it isn’t obvious, if we don’t work together on bolstering our existing ecosystems and biodiversity, we’ll soon find ourselves treading the dangerous and objectionable path towards Geo-engineering, an exponential technology that we want to keep in the box.

Why Our Ebola Hackathon Index is Very Sad

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About the Ebola Hackathon Index (www.codeinnovation.com) A few weeks ago, Code Innovation was approached and asked to contribute a short video on content and challenges to an Ebola hackathon.

Hackathons, if you’re not familiar with them, are short, focused events where coders, makers and innovators of all kinds come together to create solutions around a given problem or challenge. In this case, they are a great way for those of us far removed from the Ebola virus outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to imagine ways of contributing to the ongoing response.

We declined this request because we’re too far removed from the emergency response at this point to be able to provide anything but the most basic of context. We sent them this article on Tech Crunch, “How the Tech Sector Can Help Stop Ebola,” and told them to read every story that Buzzfeed’s Jina Moore has filed from Liberia.

But we reached out to a few of our friends in Monrovia to see if they’d be keen to contribute. “How many Ebola hackathons are there?” one asked. We wondered too.

A quick Google search lead to 10 Ebola hackathons that had happened or were planned for the imminent future, and we started to get curious. Were these groups aware of and coordinating with each other? Were they sharing valuable resources from the field, so that people on the ground weren’t besieged with constant requests for videos and other material?

Two weeks ago, we cataloged the list and wrote to each and every one of them. We sent them this:

"We are a West Africa-based technology company that works in countries now facing the Ebola virus outbreak. We are working on mobile behavior change communications and other responses, and in the last few weeks we have been approached by different ‘Ebola Hackathons’ and asked to share information about context and challenges.

"After consultation with our colleagues who are working directly on the Ebola response in the field, we learned that many of us have been approached by many different Hackathons, and as a group we wondered if the Hackathons were sharing information with each other, both in terms of information they were getting from the field and in terms of outcomes.

"So, at Code, since we’re not as busy as our colleagues who are in Monrovia right now, we thought we’d ask on behalf of our colleagues and friends. And, to make things easier on everyone, we thought we’d create a place where different Ebola Hackathons can learn about other Ebola Hackathons and post outcomes of their work. Even better, maybe some of the groups will find others interested by the same outcomes and start to work together, making their efforts that much more effective and likely to impact the situation on the ground.

"We made this: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1K1E-82Fy5k9jbI_2FfRnIDjK7knUqXvM6s53TvMbTn0/edit?usp=sharing

"Please feel free to create yourself a worksheet and add outcomes, contact details, and whatever else you would like to share about the process. We will be sharing this document with our colleagues in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

"Thanks in advance for the collaboration and cooperation."

Two weeks ago, we got a handful of replies. “We’ll use the spreadsheet — great idea!” one group responded. Another asked us if we could make them a video and we told them to ask other Hackathons for materials they could share and use.

Since then, not one of the hackathons have posted in the spreadsheet. No one has posted materials to share amongst the group. No one has shared outcomes or listed a point of contact where other hackathon hosts — or people wanting to support and work on solutions together — can learn more.

I don’t know what to tell myself about why this is. I work in international development and I’ve lived in Liberia. I care intensely about the place and am deeply proud of my friends and colleagues who are working on the response. I know they’ve been inundated with “please send our hackathon a video” requests, and I know from experience that many of them wanted to respond. Unfortunately, whatever responses were offered to these different events have not been shared in the way that we in the open source community like to see.

I’m sharing this here in a hope that other Hackathons take the document and use it to coordinate amongst themselves—or replace it with a collaborative environment of their own creation that we can promote on their behalf. I don’t see the ones on the list paying any attention to the basic tenants of collaborative cooperation and open source. But here’s hoping this changes their minds and that we can actually work together — instead of just saying we are.

Here is our open Ebola Hackathon Index: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1K1E-82Fy5k9jbI_2FfRnIDjK7knUqXvM6s53TvMbTn0/edit#gid=0