Mobile-enabled access to social benefits in Zambia

It was definitely going to be a warm day. And after 2 hrs on the road, the sky was as blue as it can ever get, and the hills were visible for miles on end. We turned off the main tarmac road in Chirundu, a Zambian town, at one of the borders with Zimbabwe. We drove about 20 minutes on a dusty road, and the stately baobab trees became a frequent sight. We got to the village of Kayuni, and drove past a brightly coloured school, through a large open field, and a man on the ground pointed us towards a single building in a compound demarcated by a live fence. This was the community built Kayuni Agricultural Community Resource Centre.

We had travelled with a team from Mezzanine in Zambia, responsible for development and deployment of the Social Cash Transfer (SCT) platform, that is enabling efficient social cash transfer to over 1.56 million vulnerable people across all provinces in Zambia. The SCT provides social and financial support to vulnerable elderly, handicapped and women-led households in Zambia. A difficult task at best, but now benefiting from efficiencies and accountability made possible through mobile technology.

Once we got into the hall, the dynamic field team engaged the men and women in the room in what I consider one of the warmest and most animated group conversations I have seen in a long time. It was evident that the field supervisor was not only engaging and passionate about her work, but that the community considered her a part of them, like a daughter. They listened, they responded, they asked questions, and they laughed and smiled.

One of the biggest challenges with providing social support in Zambia is the sheer breadth of the country and coupled by a relatively small network of roads. The highways are excellent, but to reach far-flung communities, off-roading is not an option. These same conditions hamper existing data collection methods as paper-based data takes time to collect, collate, validate, and transmit to decision makers. It can take up to 6 months to complete an enumeration exercise and have all the complete data from the field available.

In today’s trip, we observe as a community enumerator uses a simple smartphone to collect data about households in Kayuni. With a simplified interface, the SCT application developed by Mezzanine and now deployed in 108 districts, captures household data including head of household, members of household, and category assistance required. This data is held on the phone where network is a challenge, and synchronized once enumerator has a strong network signal, or visits the branch office. We timed the process and each registration cycle takes about 2minutes and 17 seconds to complete, most of which is spent engaging the beneficiary and clarifying the question or response. All together with the SCT platform by Mezzanine, it is now possible to enumerate over  43,000 households or 130,000 beneficiaries in 1 month. In 1 year of using the SCT platform, enumerators registered 520,000 households, compared to 242,000 in 14 years since the SCT began. This is a very evident jump from 17,000 households in a year previously, to 520,000 households in a year. This time saving and extensive data possibilities enabled by mobile data collection translate to quicker access to decision making information, and reaching more beneficiaries in a shorter time, and also a shorter turn-around for receiving support. The SCT and the data collected also provides immense possibilities in the provision of health care and health insurance at to this vulnerable group and at national scale.

As we prepared to leave, we stopped to take a photo of a majestic baobab, set against and azure blue sky almost as if it was a large free-standing sculpture or painting, accompanied by reggae music playing in the lone standing shop in the village. A sight for sore eyes indeed. But I think the contented feeling is largely because we know that a vulnerable community in Kayuni Village in Zambia will access much needed social benefits much faster thanks to efficiencies from the use of mobile technology. It still boggles my mind the depth of impact a handheld device can facilitate.

This project was funded with UK aid from the British people.

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