For the rural poor, especially women, accessing formal financial services is nearly impossible. Few have the formal identification needed to open an account; others lack a stable job or collateral needed for a loan. Informal Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) offer group members access to credit and a way to grow their savings. VSLA membership has reached nearly 9 million people globally. The 2013 Finscope survey on Financial Services in Uganda revealed that almost 30% of Ugandans save money through these informal groups.
VSLAs are made up of 25-30 members where each member saves a fixed amount -- at times, as little as 20 cents a week. The savings are lent out to members as loans that are repaid with interest to be "shared out" at the end of year when all the accumulated cash is divided. Between meetings, all money not lent out is stored by the group treasurer in a metal box secured with three locks and three keys that are held by three separate key holders. Savings can yield big money over time -- by the end of a one-year cycle, some groups have the equivalent of thousands of U.S. dollars locked in the box.
The Barclays Innovation Project
In collaboration with Barclays Bank, Grameen Foundation launched the Barclays Innovation Project to sustainably provide mobile financial services to poor households through VSLAs. The project builds upon Barclay’s current work with VSLAs through Banking on Change, a partnership between Plan UK, CARE International UK, and Barclays that aims to increase access to basic financial services in disadvantaged communities.
Following Grameen Foundation’s Solution Innovation Process, we began our exploratory research to understand the unique needs and values of VSLA members in Uganda. We learned that as most savings groups are cash-based, the potential for fraud and theft is very high. Group members told us that treasurers feared keeping such large sums of money in their house because it made them the target of thieves. When explaining their meeting procedures, groups described elaborate methods for disguising and hiding the box when bringing it to the meeting place each week.
While some institutions such as Barclays Bank have offered savings accounts to groups to provide a safe place to store cash and earn interest, most groups still face the challenge of distance, as few bank branches are located in rural communities where groups meet. The members who served as signatories for the group account told us that carrying large sums long distances meant they had to face the risk of theft while traveling. Women were occasionally excluded from serving as signatories at the bank because they didn't want to damage their reputations by traveling far with men who were not their husbands or relatives. In addition, the cost of transportation and meals for selected members to spend the day traveling to the nearest bank branch and back is costly for the group. As a result, instead of regular small deposits, deposits are infrequent and high value. Grameen Foundation and Barclays knew that this represented an opportunity to work with group members and mobile network operators to design a mobile product that would make savings group transactions more secure, efficient, and transparent.
Airtel Uganda and GSMA mWomen
Guided by a human-centered design process, Airtel Uganda and Grameen Foundation worked with VSLA members to develop Airtel Weza, a service that allows VSLAs and other forms of savings groups, such as Chamas or investment clubs, to store their group’s cash as mobile money. Airtel already had the mobile money infrastructure in place. However, the problem was that mobile financial services are tailored to individuals and secured by a single PIN number. For a group to feel secure depositing money into this virtual system, they needed group-level security. Leveraging the groups’ familiarity with a three key system to secure the physical cash box, we developed the service so that three members must each enter a PIN to approve cash withdrawals. In addition, for all transactions, SMS confirmation messages provide the exact amount of all transactions to ensure transparency.
Weza was made possible by a grant received from the GSMA mWomen Programme, which works with the mobile industry to increase women’s access to and use of mobiles. As of November 2014, more than 100 groups in Uganda have signed up whose membership includes more than 1500 women.
The members have been giving Weza rave reviews. Namwase Sarah from the Kiyunga Youth Drama Group explains that, "they [the members] like the security so much, since its just a SIM card that is being used. It’s not bulky, it is very hard and impossible for a thief to know that you have money kept on it — not like those big boxes that we used to have, where anyone could see that you’re carrying money and hence rob you."
Savings groups have also noted the increased transparency that makes it more difficult for a member to embezzle funds. Kairiki Monica told us that, "Now, we as members, are so confident knowing our money is safe. There are no worries about the treasurer and her friends stealing it."
Monica also emphasized how convenient Weza is. She explains that, "Now days, if we have too little cash [in the box], and we want to give out loans, we just make a call to Madam Hanifa (an Airtel Mobile Money agent) and she brings the cash to us. Whenever we need the money, we instantly get it. We love it so much!"