A couple weeks back, John Munyi, our lead developer at hiveonline set out from Kigali for a trip out to Niger to see our the hiveonline community finance app in action. He told me all about it on a quick call this week!
Arriving to Naimey for App Testing in Partnership with CARE Niger
With the aim of collecting and incorporating feedback about product design and usage from selected VSLA groups, John with representatives from our local partner CARE and a number of field agents, visited five VSLA groups over the course of the trip. The groups met in small facilities in the community, organized and designed for the meetings with a circle of chairs and a floor of carpets set up for the women. On other occasions, materials are distributed or workshops take place in this space, but primarily this is a place of business transactions.
As the group assembles, excitement is apparent over the introduction of the new VSLA technology. After a brief introduction of John, the CARE team and the field officers, they get to work. For the secretary, this is the second time she is seeing th App. The first time it was introduced by a field officer on a previous trip. But the rest of the group, this is their first time interacting with the platform.
The field officer steps in and gives eArziki and the project a short summary. Then the whole VSLA is broken down into smaller groups, five groups of six persons, so that everyone can get a chance to see interact with the App up close. Each small group appoints a temporary secretary and they run through a mock meeting.
To some women, the advantages of using VSLA technology to run their group were immediately apparent. Members remarked that it is good knowing that meeting information is secure and that if anything happened to their record book, information would not be lost. Many were excited for the future phases and implications of the technology for the VSLA: not having to go to the secretary to see the book or know balances, developing a full digital marketplace for products and services, and access to microfinance for boosting business activities.
Boosting Livelihoods and Community Entrepreneurship
At its base, the hiveonline mission is about creating opportunities for community entrepreneurs through financial inclusion. After a tour of the community, John explained how it was both interesting and inspiring to see the economic activities that were powered through VSLA groups.
Individual women took out loans from the VSLA for their business such as making bag lunches for workers. On the group level, loans were taken by larger groups or the whole VSLA for products requiring more inputs or infrastructure- making juices, ground nut candies and cakes to be sold at schools in the area. John even got a chance to try some of them!
New VSLA Technology: Mobile Phones and Data Connectivity
The trip also tested assumptions about the women in communities that he visited, especially in regard to overall familiarity with the technology. While some women were a bit shy of touching the device, around 90% were comfortable, some of the secretaries also have quite advanced smartphones.
Yet, when it came to phone usage, for the most part phones have been used for communication via WhatsApp messaging or calling & sms. VSLA technology introduces a new use case for the phone: for business, record keeping and financial transactions. With these new use cases come new challenges and, as test sessions continued over the course of the week, some of the difficulties became more apparent.
With Niger being the least developed country in the world, it isn’t a surprise that mobile data connectivity isn’t that reliable and while we’ve built the app to be low on data consumption, we experienced issues with latency and intermittent connectivity that we hadn’t seen when testing ourselves. We’ve got several ideas on how to improve the connectivity of the app and have already delivered some modifications that we think will help. It does show that building applications for remote communities comes with its unique challenges.
Overall, the trip provided extremely valuable user feedback. While it was exciting to see the community finance app being tested by the women who will use it, the trip also highlighted some work that still needs to be done. The team at hiveonline is looking forward to fixing bugs, driving design, and incorporating more features into the platform into the New Year.
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.