Niger is the largest country in Africa, with one of the world’s lowest population density at 14 per square km. Despite the massive logistical challenges of a country that’s mostly Sahara desert, the government is driving an ambitious digitisation programme aiming to leapfrog other countries in adoption of technology solutions, the Villages Intelligents programme. Global NGO CARE has been working in Niger for decades to build the Village Savings and Loans Association (VSLA), a 500,000-strong network of groups of mostly women, helping communities save without a bank account.
hiveonline has been selected by CARE to pilot our solution in Niger, to help digitise the VSLA and get access to lending, payments and wider markets for their merchandise, while there’s a natural fit with the Villages Intelligents programme, where we can work alongside local and international entrepreneurs to build integrated digital solutions. The first week of October saw us visiting customers and potential partners in the vast country.
Teaming up to empower small and micro businesses
We spent two days together with nomadic herders, government, businesses, local technology entrepreneurs, agriculturalists, NGOs and the VSLA getting inside how traditional communities have learned to use telephones and read in the local language, but now want to reach out to the rest of society for commerce, health, education and communication.
Our infrastructure partners FieldCloud are also working on the programme, helping to solve infrastructure challenges presented by the distance and mobile communities, with solutions such as mobile satellite receivers and local cloud storage, while we’re also drawing on our network for hardware solutions like phones, built in Africa, suitable for the harsh conditions and heat.
The project will repackage our flagship app to solve the same problems – administration, cashflow and trust – in a country where only 7% of the population has a bank account, but where mobile adoption is accelerating rapidly. For hiveonline, it’s a great market as there’s limited competition, and we can help local microfinance to reach their target market in rural villages.
Visiting a dairy collection centre, we experienced how eager the manager and workers are to adopt digital solutions to solve their supply chain challenges, collecting milk from 800 primary producers and distributing it to Niamey, Niger’s capital city, where there’s strong demand but problems reaching the market. Access to digital money and greater markets would expand their distribution system and give them opportunities to manage variable pricing, realising greater value and reducing waste. Excitingly, these collectors are already operating a barter system with grain and are very open to exploring different types of value exchange.
Empowering women in Africa to grow their business
We visited a VSLA group in a rural village – where the women didn’t have access to many phones, and didn’t recognise our “send” symbol, but were still keen to engage with digital solutions to reach new markets and build their businesses through credit. Today, their group of 28 women holds less than 300 EUR so they can’t borrow enough to buy the animals they need to establish businesses, but by connecting them with the local microfinance provider we could help them to build their stock.
The microfinance provider faces the problem of using cash; because of the risk, he has to send out armed guards when he distributes cash, making his costs high and meaning it’s not economically viable to visit these small communities today. By digitising the process and taking cash out of the equation, we can give both ends of the market access to each other, and extend the opportunity for the women to sell the goods they produce.
In the city, VSLA groups are more connected, creating even more opportunities – they’ve already been successfully lobbying government for greater women’s’ rights and working with local schools to keep girls in education, and as well as growing their businesses to wider markets they have visions of building community centres and providing skills development for local people. It was truly inspirational to talk to such formidable women, and to understand the challenges they face and explore where we can help .
We discussed the opportunities with the African Development Bank, the Minister for Telecommunications and Digital Finance, the World Bank and Niger’s third largest microfinance institution, who are keen to work with us to make the project succeed. It is rare that all parties are so open and forthcoming, so this project is truly inspirational.
We’re extremely grateful to CARE for giving us this opportunity to address one of the world’s most challenging, but most exciting markets. The next step is to progress with our full pilot plan, which kicks off in December.
UPDATE: hiveonline stopped working on the CARE eArziki project in March 2020 after mutual agreement to end the partnership. While the savings group application was developed and tested, it did not go live and was not used by groups in Niger.