The LISTA app, a self-teaching mobile phone application, guides thousands of low-income cash transfer recipients in Latin America and the Caribbean understand their rights and obligations. Photo by: Fundación Capital

If you pause for a moment to consider the challenges of addressing the needs of the more than 1 billion people living in poverty every day, it’s hard not to become overwhelmed by the complexity of alleviating poverty on a global scale. Whether you focus on sanitation issues (2.5 billion without access), the prevention of child mortality (6 million deaths every year) or work to achieve financial inclusion (2.5 billion unbanked worldwide), the challenges of scale can be daunting.  

Like many of you, I struggle with that challenge every day.

I work with an organization called Fundación Capital, and our specialty is linking conditional cash transfer programs with financial inclusion and asset-building initiatives as a strategy for poverty alleviation at scale. In 2012, we recognized the need for a cost-effective and scalable solution for providing financial education and training to the 27 million CCT recipient families in Latin America and the Caribbean, where we work with 15 countries. Our solution was the LISTA tablet-based app, which to date has been used by more than 3,000 low-income individuals in three countries in the region, and will reach 100,000 more by the end of this year.

LISTA challenged many preconceived notions about bringing high technology into low-income communities and exacted creativity from our team in designing the pedagogical approach and the implementation methodology required to bring this solution to scale. While there have been previous experiences with digital solutions for poverty alleviation and training, many require the presence of outside facilitators or focus on children and youth.

Our app was designed primarily as a self-teaching tool for low-income female recipients of government transfers of any age and with varying levels of literacy living in rural areas. The learning outcomes were specific to a long-term financial inclusion objective, but we hope to integrate a wider range of content in the future.

Here are some of the challenges we came across and the solutions we implemented to overcome them:

Designing technology for the base of the pyramid

Research: Designed under the notion of “freeing financial education,” we wanted the LISTA app to be accessible to the community (self-teaching) and not require support from a trained facilitator. We spent time in the field to get to know our clients, their needs and their routines, and even brought developers and designers along with us. This improved content and helped us design distribution and usage methodologies.

Relevance: The app provides tips and rules of thumb relevant to low-income families. It also refers to real and available products and services, and includes a module on the rights and obligations of CCT program participants in order to dispel myths in the field.

Involvement: To help users practice, improve their learning experience and avoid ATM fees — a factor in Colombia — we integrated games, practice exercises, and mobile money and ATM simulators. We also tested integrating incentives with automatic cellphone top-ups and congratulatory messages but found that they did not increase uptake, as the app turned out to be incentive enough.

Implementation, especially in rural areas

Sustainability: To facilitate targeting, provide credibility in the field and increase likelihood of future scale-up, we work in partnership with national governments and financial institutions which have begun adopting LISTA into their own strategies. This also helps reach economies of scale and decrease costs per person trained.

Distribution: To ensure that one tablet reaches many individuals, we devised a methodology for bringing the tablet into the homes of users through a system of circulating the tablets within the community by local leaders (Colombia), by trained youth facilitators (Brazil) and through savings groups (Dominican Republic).

Personalization: The tablets are used in homes with positive spillover effects of involving the whole family. Users can study when they want, at the pace that is most convenient, and focus on contents relevant to their needs and interests.

Measurement, monitoring and evaluation

Integration: To cut down on monitoring and evaluation costs, LISTA incorporates an integrated monitoring and evaluation solution. Following an introductory video, users register basic personal information and complete a special image and audio-based survey, which is repeated when they finish the training.

Access: The app works offline but stores usage data in the tablet. Facilitators can collect this data during periodic visits or it can be automatically uploaded onto a central server if there is a strong Internet connection. This provides real-time usage information and allows for a pre-post analysis using self-reported data.

Impact: We are conducting a rigorous impact evaluation of LISTA in partnership with Innovations for Poverty Action and will supplement this tablet-generated data with traditional surveys and administrative data analysis.

We found that digital solutions for development support user engagement, allow for the personalization of tools, help scale, streamline and generate big data information, and are cost-effective. Our results confirmed the intuition that there is a strong demand for digital solutions both in the field and at the policy level. As we scale up, we will continue to encounter constraints and challenges, but designing alongside our end users and working in partnership will increase the likelihood of success.

Technology has revolutionized our society and changed the way we do business, learn and interact with friends and loved ones. It is time to see how those benefits can change lives and livelihoods at base of the pyramid.

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