It is a hot mid-afternoon in the outskirts of Dar es Salaam. You wouldn’t know it looking at the young women gathered in the two-room block house in Temeke. Seated on blue plastic chairs, the women are radiant in their brightly colored wraps and dresses.
They are members of Pact’s micro-banking program, known as WORTH. Members make small savings deposits at weekly meetings, and when groups’ funds grow large enough, members can begin taking loans, which they use to start small businesses. Unlike micro-lending and many other development programs, WORTH provides no capital or seed money. Women also learn vital literacy, numeracy and business skills like how to create a business plan.
The program is a game-changer for many women.
“Historically, young women in Tanzania are disadvantaged,” explains Thomas Kipingili, senior technical advisor for structural interventions at Pact. “They don’t have equal access to resources compared to men. Some of them have limited access to education and, in a normal setting, they are not allowed to own property.”
With social, economic and structural constraints working against them, young women often turn to risky activities to make money, such as sex work. This increases their risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
The WORTH program is one piece of the USAID Sauti program. Sauti, led by international NGO Jhpiego, is a comprehensive program that aims to bring community-based HIV and reproductive health services closer to key and vulnerable populations like adolescent girls and young women from 15 to 24 years old.
Young women like Martha Asenga.
Before WORTH helped her start her own business, Asenga worked for a madam for 4,000 shillings per day, about $1.75. But most days, she only got 1,000 shillings—less than $0.50.
With no economic power, it was difficult for the young mother to provide for her two-year-old son Ivan. If he got sick, she didn’t have enough money to take Ivan to a doctor or pay for medicine.
“Being in WORTH makes a big difference,” explains Asenga. “Before I was in the group, I just stayed home and had to depend on men for money.”
While WORTH is helping women like Asenga lift herself out of poverty and reduce her vulnerability to HIV, Pact is upping the ante with technology.
In 2016, Pact was one of four winners of Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Living Progress Challenge, which invited the global community to submit ideas that address social issues through digitally enabled solutions to improve people’s lives. Winners worked with HPE to bring their ideas to life, leveraging HPE’s vast technological expertise.
Over the next year, Pact and HPE experts co-designed and co-created the app, MyWORTH, that digitizes WORTH’s accounting system.
Innocent Mfinanga, a local digital specialist helping with rollout of the app, sees the power of MyWORTH and its value-add to the program.
“Technology came late to Africa, but, today, Tanzania is second in mobile technology to South Africa,” says Mfinanga. “We’re growing fast. People have really embraced technology. The app can open doors to a lot of development.”
MyWORTH collects digital records into a single dataset, so group-level recordkeeping can be made accessible for analysis and support future improvements to the application. It also reduces calculation errors and decreases transaction time, leading to increased group productivity, improved management audits and faster turnover of the groups’ loan capital.
Members are already seeing the benefits of going digital.
“The app saves time during our meetings,” says Leyla Hussein, a 21-year-old mother of one. “It is easier than paper. It also makes meetings less stressful for the group’s officers. People aren’t calling you for loans.”
During typical WORTH group meetings, the group’s elected officers call on each member to make the mandatory minimum savings set by the group. Members also vote on requested loans. With the app, members can contribute savings at any time. They can also request a loan directly from the app, and members can approve the loans in real-time instead of waiting for weekly group meetings.
While MyWORTH is transforming the way WORTH groups function, the smartphones, provided through a partnership with NetHope, are revolutionizing how the women think about and run their businesses.
Hussein used to go door to door in her neighborhood looking for new customers for her makeup and traditional tattoo business. Today, she uses the smartphone’s camera to take pictures of her tattoo designs and uploads them to Facebook or shares them via WhatsApp.
“There is a freedom in communications,” says Asenga who runs a food vending business. Before she had a smartphone, she had to move around her neighborhood looking for the best spot to set up her food stall. Now, she communicates directly with her customers, polling them on the type of food they want.
Knowing their customers is increasing their profits.
For Asenga, she has more customers on Mondays and Wednesdays and knows the food she has prepared is exactly what they want, reducing waste. By eliminating the need for door-to-door marketing, Hussein has seen her prices increase because her business is less relational, and she doesn’t feel compelled to negotiate with people.
MyWORTH is already helping address some of the disadvantages Kipingili sees these young women face in Tanzania. He also sees potential to further empower them.
“Ultimately, we want to link the women to other financial institutions.” With nearly one in every three women in the world—or 1.1. billion—excluded from the formal financial system, MyWORTH’s group and individual credit histories will be critical for financial inclusion.
For the young women, they are already taking ownership of their futures.
“I’m more independent,” says Asenga. “If I run into any problems, I can manage them on my own. It is empowering.”
The Sauti project is funded by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) through USAID. It is implemented by Jhpiego, an affiliate of Johns Hopkins University, in partnership with Pact, EngenderHealth, and the National Institute for Medical Research Mwanza.