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Mobile money El-Nino response programme comes handy: Experiences from a district coordinator

Monday, February 13, 2017 - 14:28

The El-Niño induced drought experienced in the 2015-2016 agricultural season in Zimbabwe was devastating. There was reduced agriculture productivity and hence high food insecurity with over 4.1 million people who were in need of food aid.

As part of the response to the drought in Zimbabwe, ActionAid is implementing a mobile money transfer programme entitled Cash Transfers in partnership with the World Food Programme which is funding the exercise. The cash transfers initiative is reaching out 525 000 people from 105 000 food insecure households in Manicaland Province, east of Zimbabwe. This comprises 64 427 and 42 105 households from Makoni and Nyanga districts respectively. The programme is running for six months, stretching from October 2016 to March 2017.

 I am the ActionAid Cash Transfers Programme or Lean Season Assistance Programme Makoni District Coordinator. I am going to write about my experiences with the mobile money transfer programme being implemented by ActionAid in Zimbabwe.

 This drought created a crisis with reports of malnutrition affecting mostly children and the chronically ill. Children were fainting during lessons and dropping out of school. A school head from a primary school in Makoni said in October 2016: “The drought situation is driving pupils out of school. At my school, we had 34 dropouts in September and October 2016. Their parents cannot afford paying school fess nor can they buy enough food at home.”

 Women who have the burden of care and responsible for making sure their families have food on the table at household level have sleepless nights and restless daylights looking for food. The drought in Zimbabwe has forced households to reduce the size and number of meals a day.  At the peak of the starvation era in 2016, communities were eating wild fruits to ease hunger pains.  There were cases of begging and stealing food reported.  Community members were selling their livestock at very low prices. One man who runs butchery in Makoni said that cattle were sold at a price as low as US$180 per head compared to an average of US$460 and goats were sold for US$14 each from US$30. Cases of prostitution were reported as communities try to irk a living while gender based violence skyrocketed.

In October 2016, I met Mary Nyoka, from Ward 26 in Makoni who said: I am a widow of four children. My husband died three years ago and I was left exposed, fending for my family alone. I am struggling to buy enough food for my children and fund their education. I feel pity for my malnourished children. I used to wake up at 5am to pick wild fruits only to find donkeys, goats, baboons and monkeys already there for the same food. I am struggling but I still have hope.

Mary is lucky to be one of the beneficiaries of the cash transfers programme. In this programme community members are receiving electronic money through phones to buy food and other basics. A household with one member receives US$10 a month and for households with two or more members, each member is entitled to US$7 a month which is strictly for the purchase of food and other non-food items which are basics accessed preferably at local rural business centres.

On 3 October 2016, the ActionAid Makoni team kick-started registrations for the programme in consultation with local stakeholders such as the District Drought Relief Committees.  Despite the challenges of registering many beneficiaries during a short space of time, long distances to registration points and rugged terrains, the registrations were completed on 4 November 2016.

An emergency market mapping and analysis for 2015-2016 conducted by the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee revealed that food was available on local markets in Makoni and Nyanga.  What was only lacking was cash to buy the food. Hence stakeholders opted for the mobile cash transfer methodology in the face of a cash crisis in Zimbabwe. But for this intervention to go on smoothly, beneficiaries were registered, and captured to create an electronic database that is used by the selected mobile service provider for the disbursement of cash. It was also clear that without the electronic database no cash distributions would occur. An electronic database is therefore a prerequisite for the mobile cash transfer programme.

But before the disbursement of the electronic cash, the mobile phone lines were validated to make sure that the lines were active and that cash goes to the right beneficiaries. Waiting for the completion of the data capturing and cleaning, distribution and registration of new phone lines and their validation was an excruciating experience for the hungry beneficiaries.  Hence there was increased anxiety and doubt of the genuineness of the intervention. Finally, on 12 December 2016 the first cash disbursement for the 64 427 Makoni beneficiaries was effected bringing hope, joy and happiness to the vulnerable households as they received messages confirming  that cash had been transferred to their phones.

One beneficiary Sarah Mupfumbi from Rukweza Village, Ward 27, Makoni, who received her electronic cash had to say this: “For sure, food for peace has come, what a Christmas gift from the concerned ActionAid stewards sent by God.”

As the Makoni programme team made spot checks soon after the first cash disbursement during the week 19 -23 December 2016, they met beneficiaries shopping at their nearest shops. They were beaming with enthusiasm and joy as illustrated by their cheerful greetings, singing, and in some cases ululation and their expression of confidence in ActionAid as a genuine organisation.

Ward 30, Makoni Councillor, Mr. Mukoyi had to say this: ActionAid has made history in Makoni as it is the first organisation to give beneficiaries the right to choose what they want to buy and eat. What an empowerment for women as most recipients are women. In my ward, women can now comfortably use mobile technology and speak the language of current information and communication technology. I never knew that mobile money can be used for the benefit of the people living poverty too.

Even some members of the Apostolic Sect who used to shun development programmes are beneficiaries of the cash transfer programme too.  One woman from the sect confessed how desperate her large family of 10 was in the face of hunger:

I am a married woman in a polygamous family and have 8 children. ActionAid allowed the other three wives and me from the polygamous marriage to register as independent households without the capping of our household. Prior to the ActionAid programme, two of my children fainted at school and I was called to attend them.  They had to miss learning for quite some time. Now that ActionAid is giving us cash for food, at least God has heard our prayers.

It was also all good news for traders in the 19 rural Wards of Makoni where the cash transfers programme is running. The traders who are the mobile subscriber agents reported a hive of activity as beneficiaries of the cash transfer programme jostled to collect their money and buy food. November 2016 was a month for big business as there was a huge demand for food stuffs by the cash transfers beneficiaries. Most of the shops were adequately stocked except for a few that failed to cope up with the demand.

The cash transfers programme has a multiplier effect as local transporters also enjoyed the co-benefits as they were transporting beneficiary goods to and from their local business centres and Rusape Town in Makoni.  I caught up with one transporter Michael who said:

 This is a pleasant surprise for me. I woke up today going to Rusape Town only to find many passengers going to Chitenderano Business Centre to buy food with mobile money. This was unusual. I had to change my destination to enjoy one or two full loads as I distributed the goods for the beneficiaries of the cash transfer programme. I had heard about the ActionAid cash transfer programme but to me it sounded a mere joke but now it is a dream come true.

The capital injection analysis for Makoni confirmed a boost of the local economy as a result the cash transfer intervention according to information supplied by the Makoni District Administrator’s Office. Makoni received a capital injection of US$452 165 per month in November and December 2016 largely attributed to the cash transfer programme.  With the programme duration of six months, this implies that by its end in March 2017, the rural economy would have received about US$ 2 712 990.00 (US$2.7 million), according to the Makoni District Administrator’s office.