“What happened to the network? Is everything okay? Is there anything we can do to help?”
Akisofeli, Rogers and Yusuf rode the nine miles from Kapchorwa to Bulambuli to find out what had happened to the MTN mobile network. Their connection had disappeared that morning and the community was worried, worried that maybe it was no more, worried that they hadn’t paid for it and it was being shut down, worried that this newfound joy of having a mobile network for the first time in Kapchorwa was just a test from the operators and they had failed the test somehow. Akisofeli, Rogers and Yusuf were chosen to find out how their connection could be restored.
This is the story of Kapchorwa, Uganda and the Mobile Money for the Poor (MM4P) project with the Kyagalanyi Coffee cooperative. This project supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation got a new turn when the Foundation invested to de-risk infrastructure for mobile coverage in rural Kapchorwa and brought “light and life” to the whole community.
No news story or case study can ever fully capture the depth of impact that the newly erected base transceiver station (BTS) has brought to the scenic slopes of Mount Elgon. In the words of Amani M’Bale, country technical specialist for the MM4P programme, “This project brought light where there was darkness. People now have the ability to communicate, within their social and business networks, which is the greatest impact the project has had thus far.”
Uganda’s financial landscape dramatically changed with the introduction of mobile money in 2009; the rapid proliferation and penetration of the mobile phone truly expanded the possibilities for the financially excluded. According to The Global Findex Database 2014, Uganda is one of five countries in the world where more adults have a mobile money account than an account at a financial institution.
Uganda’s economy is still dominated by the agricultural sector, which employs an estimated 80 percent of the country’s labour force. In 2014, MM4P received funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to build a more inclusive digital financial services ecosystem that reaches rural and low-income households in Uganda. MM4P applies an agriculture value chain approach to reach these financially excluded households. But this is no simple task; digitizing a value chain requires an entire ecosystem be built from the ground up. There must be agents to handle cash-in and cash-out, merchants to accept digital payments, financial institutions to act as rebalancing points for the agents and, above all, a network—the backbone of any digital ecosystem.
No Network = No Agents, No Merchants, No Digital Channels, No Mobile Phones, No Access to Digital Financial Services, No Financial Inclusion
So how do people get connected? How do communities get a network? How is a for-profit mobile network operator convinced to deploy very expensive masts and BTSs to serve rural and difficult-to-reach communities?
In order for MM4P to help Kyagalanyi Coffee Limited digitize payments to over 12,000 farmers on the slopes of Mount Elgon, it had to put together a team of partners and service providers, most of whom are for-profit organizations:
- MTN Uganda provided network coverage, supported phone penetration, strengthened agency and offered promotions for mobile money usage.
- Yo Uganda Limited built the software technology that interfaces between Kyagalanyi’s accounts department and the farmers’ phones to enable digital payments.
- Fenix International provided phone loans and solar charging solutions.
For a for-profit organization like MTN Uganda to deploy the infrastructure that provides network connectivity to a region, the business case must be positive, it must be financially viable and together that requires numbers: numbers of GSM calls, numbers of transactions and numbers of people transacting. Yet, all of these seemed bleak for sleepy yet scenic Kapchorwa. Financially speaking, MTN could not justify the deployment of a mast or a BTS to Kapchorwa.
That’s why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation took the last-mile measure of de-risking MTN Uganda’s investment and providing a guarantee fund of US$100,000 should MTN incur any losses as a result of deploying the BTS to rural Kapchorwa.
The measure brought prompt results; not a month passed before BTS site performance recorded transaction levels at maximum capacity and healthy revenue generation.
The numbers revealed success beyond any chief financial officer’s or chief technology officer’s expectations. The numbers showed that people may be rural but they are financially active. The numbers spoke and so did the people:
- In a bid to supplement the income of his widowed daughter Sarah, Vincent set up an airtime business for her a year ago but she was never able to break even due to low volume of sales. Sarah’s airtime business has more than tripled since the BTS station was deployed. In Vincent’s own words, “She no longer borrows money from me, her business is good [and] profit is now there.”
- Fina, a coffee farmer for over eight years, says she can now call the washing station to find out the price and decide if she should deliver that day or hold off a bit longer. “Now we don’t need to rely on the radio only for important information, such as sale prices. Now people can call us and we can call them. That saves us a lot of money in transport. We are now connected! I thank Kyagalanyi and I thank those who made it possible for us to be connected.”
Vincent, Fina and all the people MM4P staff met on the slopes of Mount Elgon couldn’t stop expressing their gratitude for the network. And, happily, a few days after Akisofeli, Rogers and Yusuf’s trip to Bulambuli, the community was back online and back to business.
Kyagalanyi staff reported benefits too. Their work became much easier when they could communicate the price and sell at the rightful price for the day, without having to wait for a representative to travel two hours from district headquarters in Mbale, and when farmers could simply call and inform them when their coffee was ready to be collected. “Please send the truck, they would say.”
MM4P heard story after story and received thank you after thank you for benefits beyond what the profits and the business case could show. “Wan yala naabi ku lerra network!” (Thank you very much for bringing the mobile network! in Lugisu, the local dialect in Kapchorwa).