It’s a bright morning in Gulu, Uganda when Aneno Juliet, the Village Enterprise Innovations Coordinator, and I begin the thirty-minute drive to Paicho, a sub-region of Gulu. We collect Zita Akwero, a Field Associate, along the way and the excitement builds within the Toyoto Prado. Today’s a big day at Village Enterprise. It’s the first time in Uganda that we will attempt transferring grant money to our program participants through mobile payment, rather than providing hard cash.

Over the past year our staff from different functional teams (finance, programs, etc.) of both country offices, began the process of redesigning our disbursements to ensure the safety of our staff and business owners and maintain the integrity of our disbursement process. Using insights gained from field observation and focus group discussions, the team used Human Centered Design to synthesize learnings from the field as well as from other organizations (lessons learned from the BOMA Project, GiveDirectly, etc.) to design a solution for disbursements using mobile money.

As we approach our first destination, tension builds. Aneno has been in extensive conversation with MTN Mobipay, the mobile company assisting us with this process. Mobipay is a technology solutions company that provides customizable bulk payment systems. They were able to develop a custom system tailored to our financial reporting and operational needs in less than three weeks. The system is easy to use, low cost, and can be further developed and customized to accommodate our systems as needed (e.g. work with Taroworks and new accounting software,  NetSuite). The biggest concern we have with this new process is whether or not our business owners will be able to access cell service. The first group we meet moved a few kilometers from their usual meeting point in order to connect to a strong network. Without that network, the business owners will not be able to receive their grant money through our mobile payment.

How do mobile money disbursements work?

All business groups have to register a new line to ensure group ownership. Lines are registered in the names of one business owner (who has a national ID) and all members need to know the pins. SIM cards are left in the savings box and checked out when needed. When confirming registration with mobile carriers, Village Enterprise uses in-country partners (Safaricom and Mobipay in Kenya and Uganda respectively) and confirms that the list of new phone lines are registered to the correct names and have enrolled in mobile money. Any inconsistencies are addressed. When sending money to approved lines on the day of disbursements, the list of lines is approved again and then the money is disbursed (two-level approval process in line with the approval matrix). Any groups unprepared to receive their money are removed from the list for disbursement at a later date. Once business owners receive an SMS confirming the money has been deposited in their accounts, they sign the hard copy receipts. At disbursements, business owners can withdraw their cash through a mobile money agent, who is present with cash. Groups can withdraw what they need to start the business at the disbursement location.

The first group is gathered under the shade of a large, protective tree. Aneno, Zita, and business mentor Otim Norbert stand in front of our business owners. Aneno begins explaining the process of our mobile money grant disbursements. We soon learn that there are some problems. Some of the business owner’s pins aren’t working, which means they won’t be able to receive the money. We scramble to fix the issue. We’re on the phone with our team in the Gulu office. Someone’s contacting MTN. Another is manually resetting pin numbers. We need this experiment to work.

After two hours, we are ready and we tell Cissy, our Finance and Administration associate in the Gulu office, to initiate the disbursements. We are all waiting in great anticipation. Cissy logs into her account and selects the business owners she needs to grant money to, and then submits the request. A few moments later, we hear the welcome sound of phones ringing. We all begin cheering and singing and dancing. It worked!

This moment was monumental for Village Enterprise. With this new process, we will be able to disburse grant money in a safer, more efficient fashion. We are excited to see how this process will continue to develop and scale in the coming months.

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