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50 for 50: The Power of Digital Finance

By Simona Haiduc and Robinah Zawedde

This essay is a selection from the special edition of UnPoverty by Mark Lutz. The new edition has been released in celebration of Opportunity International’s 50th Anniversary, featuring new chapters from leaders throughout Opportunity’s history. To receive a copy, simply make a donation of any size to Opportunity and we’ll send it to you.

The economic landscape of Africa is changing because women like Stella, Millie and Charity are starting and sustaining their own microenterprises.

Stella Msambachikho is an entrepreneur in Malawi who sells clothing and accessories in a market. She saves money for her daughter’s education in an account with Opportunity Bank. Millie Nakule farms coffee in Uganda. Through the profits of her farm, each of her children have received a university-level education. Charity Chege owns a prep school in Kenya—the school is her business and her calling. The power of digital innovation is one common thread in the life journeys of these three women. By integrating digital solutions into their work, these women have built successful businesses, changed the lives of their families and transformed their communities.

Stella: Digital Banking

Stella sells clothing and accessories sourced from Tanzania. With her first loan of $300 from an Opportunity partner, Stella purchased more inventory and set up a stall in a bustling marketplace. Before she took her first loan, she traveled the neighborhood, selling clothes she carried in a bag. 

Stella first heard about Opportunity International Bank Malawi from another entrepreneur in the market. She was surprised that there was a financial institution that opened its doors to microentrepreneurs like her. Most banks only served wealthy clients and larger companies and corporations. But Opportunity Bank was different. We opened our doors to people like Stella, and we wanted to be highly accessible. Our vision was to provide access to critical financial services—bank accounts, loans, savings, insurance—to micro and small entrepreneurs through multiple locations. Our goal was that every microentrepreneur anywhere in the country could find financial services within a 60-minute walk or ride from their home or work. 

Stella walked into a nearby Opportunity Bank branch and opened an account that came with a biometrically-enabled card. She had access to her money at the touch of her finger. For the first time in her life, Stella had a safe way to save her money and protect the funds. Biometric digital technology is extremely important in protecting a woman’s assets, such as savings accounts, especially in the event her spouse passes away. The bank card gave Stella access to her cash 24/7 at our ATM in a mobile banking van that made weekly stops in a location close to her market. A teller rode along in the van and provided in-person assistance to any client who needed help. Stella and the other members of her community were experiencing digital financial inclusion, some for the first time.

Stella also registered for our cellphone banking services because she heard that mobile banking would allow her to bank with agents located both in the market and in her village. She could deposit and withdraw cash from her business account and make payments to other vendors on her own basic cellphone—the inexpensive kind that nearly everyone in Africa now has access to. Our cellphone banking services don’t rely on data-enabled smartphones and apps, so they are more widely available to entrepreneurs like Stella. After she accessed her account on her cellphone, she could check her balance and transfer funds right in her stall in the market.

The biometrically-enabled bank card and cellphone banking made banking cheaper, safer and closer for Stella. Her income increased, and she could save money for her daughter’s education. For Stella and 45 million other entrepreneurs in Africa, digital solutions have ushered in financial inclusion at an unprecedented pace.

Millie: Digital and Agriculture

Millie Nakule, a widowed grandmother who lives in the rural region of Mityana, Uganda, started her coffee farm in 2005 without much knowledge about the cultivation of coffee trees.

Millie joined the Miseebe Coffee Cooperative, where she first learned about Opportunity’s financial services and was connected to Barbra, one of our Farmer Support Agents.

Barbra’s story is told earlier in this chapter. She is a successful local coffee farmer who has taken on a leadership role with the cooperative. Using video-based trainings, Barbra taught Millie how to properly care for her coffee trees. They accessed accurate weather information from Barbra’s smartphone. Like Millie, many rural women first learn about Good Agricultural Practices from the digital training resources on tablets and smartphones given to Farmer Support Agents. Together, Barbra and Millie increased the yields from Millie’s acreage. Millie opened a bank account with Opportunity Bank and signed up for cellphone banking—using the basic phone she already owned—and started taking out agricultural loans to invest in her farm. She accessed those funds directly through her mobile wallet.

Millie didn’t know why she was able to access these services on her cellphone any more than most of us know why our cars start when we turn the key. Even though our clients are using basic cellphones, we can utilize the power of the latest in digital innovations. Back in Opportunity’s office, we have been developing platforms that synthesize and aggregate data from all our agriculture value chain users. Based on the analysis of this data, we create algorithms that figure out the creditworthiness of borrowers. These are small but important gains that drive down costs and make our services accessible to people like Millie. Over the last few years, Millie has used her loans to plant more than 100 new coffee trees on her farm and has invested in important inputs, like fertilizer, to improve the health of her trees.

Through the Miseebe Cooperative, Millie sells her coffee berries in bulk to Samuel Wasija, a local agribusiness entrepreneur. He maintains the equipment that sorts and processes the different types of cherries from the coffee trees. The coffee is then stored in one of his warehouses before it is sold in bulk to Ibero, a coffee exporter company based in Kampala.

Millie’s farm has changed since 2005; the most notable change is that she’s producing and selling more coffee. She received quality training in coffee Good Agricultural Practices, thanks to Barbra and the resources they accessed on the smartphone that Opportunity gave her when she became a Farmer Support Agent. Millie uses agricultural loans designed for smallholder farmers like her, and she also has a reliable buyer in Ibero. She is producing around 2.2 pounds of coffee berries per tree per year, which is twice the average yield for her region. With the increased income from her farm, Millie paid for the education of all her children.

Good Agricultural Practices, and all the benefits they bring, are becoming increasingly available to farmers across Africa, thanks to the technology utilized by our Farmer Support Agents.

Charity: Digital and Education

Madam Charity Chege is the school manager of Mt. Clare Prep School in Kenya. Mt. Clare is one of the many schools in Kenya that is visited by an Opportunity education specialist. A few years ago, an education specialist introduced Charity to the School Development Plan. Our education specialists offer school managers like Charity access to the School Development Plan through the Pathways to Excellence model, which details important aspects of running a school across 17 different domains from issues of safety to issues of sanitation. The Pathways to Excellence model starts with the committed staff at schools like Mt. Clare and offers specific steps and plans for meeting their unique challenges.

The first step was for the staff at Mt. Clare to rate themselves across all 17 domains. Then, they chose the domains they wanted to work on to improve the school. Charity’s staff chose to focus on five domains: School Culture, Teaching and Learning Resources, Parent and Community Engagement, Marketing and Branding, and Finance and Business Management.

The School Development Plan gave Charity handholds for improving her school, but everything happened on paper. Charity and the other teachers carried the paperwork in giant binders. The little office space they had was crowded with stacks of paper, and they could not quickly compare results with other schools using School Development Plans.

In 2019, we partnered with Chalkboard for Education to digitize the Pathways to Excellence model. We are mobilizing funding to give participants tablets loaded with valuable content and aiming to give out over 10,000 tablets in the next two years. The combination of digital content and in-person training provided by our education specialists is referred to as the blended learning model.

The education specialist working with Mt. Clare provided Charity with a tablet and trained her to use it to work with the Pathways to Excellence content. When asked about the advantages and disadvantages of the blended learning model, Charity only describes the advantages.

Resources for continuing education are far more accessible for her and other teachers, and the digital platform makes it easier for Charity to prepare for workshops with other school managers. Before each workshop, Charity can access a list of expectations about what she should plan on learning. She assesses her own level of comprehension with a quiz at the end of the session. Paper booklets can’t provide immediate feedback like the Chalkboard app.

Because of the app, Charity is also better able to gauge the school’s progress on the School Development Plan: “Having the Chalkboard for Education App motivates me to keep reading the content and helps me identify different areas all the time that may require development or renovation. This has enabled me to have a growth mindset as I am also able to access my School Development Plan more easily, unlike the previous ones we wrote on paper, which were easy to lose.” Charity passes on that “growth mindset” to the staff at the school.

Each teacher at Mt. Clare gets a chance to work on the Chalkboard app. Charity says of the staff, “Their teaching and learning have improved because we use the app as a point of reference for best practices.” In addition to speeding up communication, the app usage helps everyone stay on the same page.

School managers in locations across Kenya collaborate more quickly and frequently than they did before the digitized content. Charity says that Chalkboard motivates the managers to work together: “My partner and I have continually worked together even during the implementation. We are able to screenshot steps that are within a domain while guiding each other.”

Mt. Clare saw an increase in enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic because they had the technology they needed to facilitate a transition back to classes. The access to digital solutions could help Charity and the rest of the staff tackle another huge challenge. Charity says, “Our biggest obstacle is lack of resources to acquire land where we can set up a conducive school because in Kenya, especially in urban towns, land is very expensive.” The solution to this problem may very well become accessible to Mt. Clare because of digital platforms provided through Opportunity International. Maybe the solution will be the result of the Finance and Business Management domain in their School Development Plan. Or maybe it will come from a conversation with another school manager on the Chalkboard app.

In this digital age, it feels like the entire world is online. But there are people, particularly women, who are still on the outside of this phenomenon—people who can be reached with programs and technologies like the ones developed by our team. From Malawi to Uganda to Kenya, these women leveraged technology to change their own lives and their communities. One of the brightest sides of rapid digital progress is the possibility of financial inclusion for women like Stella, Millie and Charity.

Digital innovations have enabled Opportunity to drive down costs throughout our entire suite of offerings. Over many years, we have experienced this in banking, insurance, agriculture, education and across every one of our current initiatives. As we become more proficient in our primary areas of focus, we have been able to take on new pilot programs in pursuit of our vision of a world without extreme poverty. In the next chapter, you will be introduced to three relatively new pilot programs seeking to empower people living on the lowest rung of the world’s economic ladder—those classified by the World Bank as living in extreme poverty, living on less than $1.90 per day.

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