Relentless pursuit of an equitable world

The Optimist

Woman uses DreamSave

The pandemic is forcing us all online. Can self-help and savings groups for low-income women go digital, too?

When DreamStart Labs and Project Concern International (PCI) piloted a mobile app in women’s savings groups in rural Tanzania in 2019, some members were dubious at first. The groups allowed women to save, pool their money, and borrow—a kind of community-led savings and loan. In each group, there could be hundreds of small transactions each month, and they kept track of them by hand, in a big paper ledger.

This mobile app could do the bookkeeping for them. But some women weren’t sure. Why did they need an app when they already had a system? And besides, could they learn to use it?

Wes Wasson, CEO of DreamStart, was confident they’d quickly master the technology. (Keeping an accurate ledger by hand, he said “is 10x harder.”) But they’re also seeing some additional benefits to introducing this kind of technology to women’s groups that go well beyond bookkeeping. “Women have been overlooked for far too long when it comes to technology,” Wasson said. “Mobile can play a key role in unlocking that potential if you take the time to understand their unique challenges, concerns, and goals from the beginning.”

Savings groups like those in Tanzania—which are often referred to today as Women’s Empowerment Collectives—have been around for decades. In places where women are excluded from formal banking, they promote financial literacy and allow women to, say, take out loans to build a small business. There are also Women’s Empowerment Collectives organized around other topics, such as self-help, information-sharing on agriculture, and as of 2020, even pandemic response. In India, thousands of members of grassroots women’s organizations quickly manufactured more than 100 million masks, 200,000 PPE kits, and 300,000 liters of hand sanitizer.

Indeed, with COVID-19 the need for women’s access to mobile is especially acute. Governments and NGOs are increasingly providing COVID-19 relief funds digitally. They’re also pushing out health information via mobile. At the same time, the need for social distancing has cut into people’s ability to meet in-person.

Most women’s savings groups are decidedly low-tech. Could an app make them even better? Especially during a pandemic?

So far, the technology looks promising.

The app piloted in Tanzania, called DreamSave, is now being used in eight countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It provides an intuitive interface where deposits are tallied, loan repayment is tracked, and members can easily see their own money, and the entire pool, grow. There’s also a way to set and track goals. Only one phone is needed for the group, although if women have personal phones, they receive SMS messages reflecting their transactions.

The math, of course, is done automatically. That cuts meeting times in half—hours that time-burdened women can use for other things, said Sybil Chidiac, a senior program officer working on Women’s Empowerment Collectives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. An app like this can also reduce training costs, she noted, as governments and NGOs work to form more of these empowerment groups. The app itself can provide the training. “They have it all in the palm of their hands,” she said.

The electronic records can help women establish a credit history, too.

Wasson said he’s seen how the technology promotes empowerment—economic and otherwise. Women can learn new technology in a supportive group, which can be a bridge to broader mobile use for women who may be intimidated or don’t know its potential.

A recent study surveyed people before and after using the app. At the beginning of the study, women in groups that switched from paper to digital were more likely than men to say they were “not confident” in using the new digital technology. Women were also much less confident in their answers around savings goals: How much they had, what they were saving for, and how much it would cost. But six months after using the mobile app, the gender gap in both these areas had disappeared.

Looked at more broadly, having a mobile phone “really promotes access, knowledge, and networking,” Chidiac said, whether through a Women’s Empowerment Collective or outside of it.

Certainly, there are hurdles and potential pitfalls. Sexism, fixed gender norms, financial barriers, and structural issues thwart women’s access to mobile, and putting a phone in a woman’s hand isn’t going to solve those problems.

Still, using the power of a mobile phone to amplify women’s empowerment seems to have enough potential that others are working on various ways of digitizing Women’s Empowerment Collectives, too, including NGOs, banks, mobile operators, and small regional start-ups.