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Our Digital Journey with Savings Groups: What We Got Wrong and the Lessons We’ve Learned Along the Way

Published by
October 5, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Non-governmental organizations, financial institutions, and DSG solution providers wish they had a better understanding of their national landscapes when they started working with DSGs.
  • Barriers to digital uptake are multifaceted and generally underestimated by new entrants. Challenges include limited access to devices, internet connectivity, agent network coverage, and social norms. Even the most elegant DSG app can fail due to a barrier in the ecosystem.
  • Digital transformation takes time and patience. The solutions deployed by the respondents today are the result of several years of iterations in product design, delivery channels, and partnerships.

Take Action

  • Learn the language of DSGs. Digital savings groups lie at the intersection of savings groups, financial inclusion, and technology – each with their own body of knowledge and technical language. Misunderstandings between stakeholders are common. Consult the DSG Glossary, use the right words, and ask the right questions!
  • Invest in the collection of market information – now. Through existing structures, begin collecting market information that will support your continued strategy, product, business, and partnership development.
  • Connect with other DSG stakeholders at the national level and explore what’s working, what isn’t, what’s in the pipeline, and what’s on the horizon.

The DSG Hub recently sat down with some early developers and adopters of savings group technologies – an international NGO, a financial institution, a technology company, and a payments service provider – to reflect on their digital journeys. 

  • The NGO: Anthony Mang’eni, Regional Technical Advisor, Microfinance and Youth, Catholic Relief Services
  • The financial institution: Mubanga Kambikambi, Regional Advisor, Finance Accelerating Savings Groups Transformation, VisionFund International
  • The technology company: Jerrie Lwebuga, Director, Special Projects and Strategic Partnerships, Ensibuuko
  • The payments service provider: Koen De Beer, Savings Project Manager, Cyclos

What did they get right and wrong about DSGs? How has their thinking and programming in DSGs evolved over time? And what advice do they have for others?

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

QUESTION 1: How did you start working with digital savings groups?

Anthony Mang’eni: “At Catholic Relief Services, the conversation about DSGs started in 2009 guided by the question: ‘How can mobile money complement [savings group] operations?’

In Kenya, most savings professionals work with informal savings groups or investment clubs called chamas. Our involvement with DSGs began through interactions with developers who started promoting their e-ledgers among these savings and investment groups.

I started interacting with developers in 2010 to l talk about linking savings groups with the M-PESA platform, which was big in Kenya.”

Mubanga Kambikambi: “VisionFund’s work with DSGs started as a pilot in 2014 to find a digital solution for an array of challenges facing informal savings groups in Zambia. We developed a digital group savings account and individual accounts for members. This innovation enabled groups to conduct all their usual transactions (including savings, loans, and repayments) in a digital format, using mobile money.”

Jerrie Lwebuga: “Ensibuuko is more than a software company. We are a team of passionate engineers and financial inclusion professionals deploying technology solutions to community-based savings and loans organizations. Our solutions help these organizations to automate data, processes, and payments.

We started in 2014, initially digitizing Savings Cooperatives and Credit Organizations (SACCOs) through our MOBIS microfinance platform and integrations to mobile money systems and payment platforms. In 2017, with support from USAID, we developed MOBIS for Savings Groups, a digital ledger application for Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs). Since then, Ensibuuko has served over 250,000 customers in Uganda, through 120 SACCOs and 1,600 VSLAs. By the end of this year, we will expand to Malawi and Tanzania, reaching a total of 5,000 VSLAs, and complete integrations with six new banking partners.”

Koen De Beer: “Cyclos is a payment and banking software. We support over 1,500 payment systems, with over a million users across most countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. For nearly 20 years, we’ve delivered an array of solutions for banks, MFIs and insurance companies, alongside a social initiative, called Cyclos for Communities, which is a free, open-sourced, digital platform for social organizations and informal groups of savers.

Since the COVID pandemic, we have also found a more fertile ground for the digitalization of savings groups and in 2020 we developed the Cyclos Savings Group App. We are now piloting the application with AMC in El Salvador and Catholic Relief Services in Guatemala.”  

JACD1H Members of women?s SILC group (Savings and Internal Lending Community) dance together during a meeting Upper East Region, Ghana.

QUESTION 2: What did you wish you had known when you started working with digital savings groups?

Anthony Mang’eni: “We all assumed that in an M-PESA country like Kenya there would be rapid uptake of DSG apps. The assumption was that a good app would have it easy. In fact, uptake depends on group demographics and a variety of other challenges including device barriers, lack of internet connectivity and social norms.

Where DSGs are linked to e-wallets, there are also often liquidity management and cash safety issues related to the mobile money agents. If any of these and other barriers are not addressed, a good DSG app can fail, irrespective of its technical or business functionalities.

We also realized that most of these apps are not free. After closing out projects, the groups had to deal with user fees, which is a crucial factor for sustainability.”

Mubanga Kambikambi: “VisionFund Zambia’s DSG solution rides on the platform of a mobile network operator. Three layers of information are critical for scaling- up the solution in rural areas:

  1. Network coverage map: Which locations have reliable connectivity?
  2. Agent network map: Distance between groups and the nearest active agent.
  3. Group status: NGOs typically keep databases of the groups that they have formed, but seldomly update them. It would be extremely helpful for us to know which groups are still w active, what their current financial performance metrics are, best contact information, etc.

We wish we had better data when we started.”

Jerrie Lwebuga: “I wish we had started with better market information on the VSLA landscape in Uganda. It’s very hard to find a community in Uganda without a VSLA, but it’s also hard to get reliable information on active VSLAs. This year, we’ve undertaken a landscape study of VSLAs in Uganda.

Initially, several of the financial institutions we approached were hesitant to work with us due to lack of information about the groups. Today we have better data that shows a total of $14m of transactions through the VSLA and SACCO platforms in the past two years. We’ve demonstrated the market opportunity, which helps us get buy-in from financial institutions.”

Koen De Beer: “As a technology provider you secretly hope that one solution will fit all, and you expect savings group methodologies to become more aligned with technology.

Though the basic principles are similar, we were surprised by the diversity of savings group methodologies which were occasionally structural and profound. It became clear that the technology needs to be highly customizable to work for each organization and methodology. This was a huge challenge and a game changer in our product development strategy.”

QUESTION 3: What did you get wrong and how would you do it differently today?

Anthony Mang’eni: “It was easy to take the developers to the field to visit savings groups and to co-design features for the apps. But in retrospect, I realize that NGO staff working on savings groups need to better understand the developer’s language so that they are able to communicate the user needs to the FinTechs.”

Mubanga Kambikambi: “We faced three main challenges in the development and implementation of our digital solution for savings groups.

  1. 3-PIN technology: The time period for development of this crucial component was underestimated.
  2. Route to market: In the initial stages of product roll-out savings groups did not trust the technology. To overcome this challenge, we conducted product sensitization events and played money games where group members moved money from MNO wallets to group and individual accounts and back again. This helped build trust in the system.
  3. Recruitment:– We initially recruited customer relations officers centrally but when we realized that they suffered from language and cultural challenges we began recruiting staff locally.”

Jerrie Lwebuga: “Smartphone penetration is low in VSLAs in Uganda, averaging 1-2 per group. MOBIS is an android-based application that runs on smartphones and we initially underestimated the challenges for VSLA members to acquire and use smartphones. This was a huge setback for our processes, and we’re now doing things a bit differently.

To promote investment in smartphones we realized that there must be clear value for the money, and that our use cases were not always understood. With support from GSMA, we’ve embedded a ‘Digital Technology and Mobile Inclusion’ curriculum in the application and in all group training. Each DSG now also includes a ‘Digital Transformation Agent’, which is a trained group member that serves as a peer trainer. These support systems help members get better value for their investment in a smartphone.

 Additionally, we’re now working with sponsor organizations, and in collaboration with our partners, to improve access to smartphones in targeted areas through free distribution, smartphone financing, and targeted advertising.”

QUESTION 4: What are your organization’s current plans with regards to digital savings groups? Are they different from when you started? If so, in what ways?

Anthony Mang’eni: “After a number of years of small discrete pilots in individual countries, CRS is planning to conduct a more robust pilot in several countries, to promote digital savings groups using our sustainable community-based trainer (PSP).”

Mubanga Kambikambi: “VisionFund works with savings groups through a program called Finance Accelerating Savings Group Transformation (FAST). The program has four key elements:

  1. Bank linkages – loans, group savings accounts and insurance provided to mature savings groups.
  2. Embedded education – foundational World Vision and other partner training programs [in important areas including child and maternal health, child protection, and women’s economic empowerment].
  3. Digital solutions – a paperless approach.
  4. Local staff – field officers are recruited locally and live in the community. They gain trust because they understand the local culture and customs.”

Jerrie Lwebuga: “We are not trying to make a living offering software to SACCOs and savings groups; we are laying the infrastructure required for delivering digital financial services in rural areas. SACCOs and savings groups happen to be a strategic channel for us to reach rural customers.

The ultimate outcome for the work we do is that rural customers have access to affordable and relevant financial services they can use with ease, for example, pay for agricultural insurance and school fees digitally from single savings group accounts and from the comfort of their homes.”

Koen De Beer: “Today, Cyclos can deliver highly customized savings groups apps in less time, with much more value, flexibility, and a personalized user experience.

Secondly, the digitalization of savings groups produces so much interesting data, much more than we expected. We are transforming this into useful information and tools for all stakeholders: savings groups, members, field agents, and back office.”

QUESTION 5: Based on your experience, what is the most important advice that you have for organizations starting their digital journey with savings groups?

Anthony Mang’eni: “Engage staff and partners who are closest to the problem at the conception stage; develop your staff’s capabilities and language in digital savings groups; go for it with a very open mind and an adaptive management approach.

And, [as facilitators] we have a role to play in terms of consumer protection. Digital literacy and financial education are now needed more than ever. While we introduce these groups to the digital economy through various savings groups solutions, we have a responsibility to mitigate the risks of reckless borrowing once these groups are linked to credit-led companies.”

Mubanga Kambikambi: “Working with savings groups in rural areas is resource intensive; it requires the organization to navigate the plethora of challenges that have financially excluded these populations. This requires multi-sectorial players all pushing in the same direction to effectively create an enabling environment to sustain service provision by the financial sector. Map and engage your stakeholders.”

Jerrie Lwebuga: “The digital divide remains high. This segment [rural populations, mainly women] requires a holistic approach, including digital literacy, improved access and affordability of handsets, and support to overcome social barriers.”

Koen De Beer: “Choose the right team and technology based on your needs. Switching to another technology could be more challenging than the initial digitalization process.

Involve savings group members more often, so they can access and benefit from their financial data, knowing it is treated with respect and privacy.

And finally, by digitalizing, groups will lose some practice in financial administration because the software automates some processes. We must all contribute to further the development of financial literacy and group management. These are important skills for personal and community development!”

Conclusion

Anthony, Mubanga, Jerrie and Koen represent different stakeholders, yet their respective digital journeys with savings groups share some common threads: early mistakes, incomplete information, continuous learning, iterative adaptation, holistic approaches to complex challenges, and coalition building among diverse stakeholders.

Photo credits: MaTontine and The SEEP Network

About the Author(s)
David Panetta,
David is executive director and founder of LGP, a social enterprise that provides advisory, project management, and learning services in global development.

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