Hey Girls, Get Paid to Save Your Money

A new service aims to educate girls in Africa about personal finance while converting their airtime minutes into digital savings.

(Photo: Courtesy PraekeltFoundation.org)

Mar 14, 2015· 2 MIN READ
TakePart fellow Jessica Dollin studied journalism at the University of Arizona. She has written for the Phoenix New Times and HerCampus.

Girls across Africa will soon have money right at their fingertips—quite literally.

Thanks to the Praekelt Foundation, which uses open-source technology to deliver information and services to developing countries, mobile banking is on its way to empowering young girls to become financially independent.

The foundation is taking its custom-made mobile messaging app, Vumi—currently used in more than 10 African countries—and creating an easy way to turn prepaid cell phone minutes into savings, with which users can deposit, withdraw, and earn airtime minutes in exchange for digital currency. While mobile banking has been making its way to developing countries in recent years, this service is one of the first to work on feature phones—no data connection or smartphone required.

Only 18 percent of the population in the Middle East and Africa have savings accounts, compared with 89 percent of the population in high-income countries. And in developing countries, only 37 percent of women have bank accounts of any kind. The Praekelt Foundation is planning to market the service to girls in an effort to boost gender equality and provide women with financial tools, which can have positive implications for a nation’s education and health outcomes.

“By investing in their economic potential through education and by delaying child marriage and teen pregnancy, issues such as HIV and AIDS can be resolved and the cycle of poverty can be broken,” said Gustav Praekelt, founder of the eponymous foundation.

Vumi has been a popular mobile messaging app since its launch in 2012; it has been used in South Africa to text expectant mothers with health information, and several countries have used it to engage voters during elections with mobile messaging campaigns. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which funds TakePart World) also uses the app to spread awareness about health and education via text.

The Praekelt Foundation will test its new mobile savings pilot program in South Africa by engaging girls who already use Vumi. Setting up a savings account would be an additional feature. Existing users are prompted within the app to create a savings wallet, and the foundation matches their investment. The girls can also earn airtime minutes from the foundation as a reward for reading educational materials and engaging in activities such as texting and sharing finance information through the app.

“Our goal is to create the habit of saving by rewarding girls with conditional cash transfers and helping them set savings goals with engaging and relevant financial education,” said Praekelt. “Over time, she will be able to cash out her savings against goods that have a positive impact on her life.”

Converting airtime minutes into digital currency is then made possible through a partnership with Stellar, a technology that allows users to send and receive money in any currency.

“Financial access is that foundational step to be able to pay for health care, to be able to pay for housing, to pay for education,” said Stellar’s executive director, Joyce Kim. “If we have these huge blocks of the world that are cut off from that system, we are limiting not only their economic potential, but their ability to improve their own lives.”

Women and girls in developing countries don’t typically have bank accounts, for a variety of reasons. They’re often excluded from financial education, and families often don’t see the long-term benefits of saving when they sometimes struggle to put food on the table. The money they do have is typically in the form of assets such as jewelry and livestock, and cash is often simply hidden in homes.

The pilot program will launch in South Africa in the next few months, followed by Kenya and Nigeria. Praekelt is the only organization using Stellar at this time, but others could follow suit for different applications.

“The infrastructure has to be global, but the products have to be local,” Kim said. “This is not about charity; this is about tools that let people make their own lives better, and that’s powerful.”