Before COVID-19, Nemia Madrigal ran a small convenience store in Manila, Philippines. Earnings from her store, along with her husband’s income as a tricycle driver, were modest but enough to provide for her family. Then came COVID-19.
As the Philippines went into strict lockdown due to Covid-19, Nemia’s husband lost his job. Sales at her store plummeted. Like many families I know in the Philippines and all over the world, Nemia found herself struggling to feed herself and provide for her family.
In June 2020, the Grameen Foundation, a global nonprofit whose mission is to enable the poor to create a world without poverty and hunger, launched a project to help women micro entrepreneurs like Nemia provide for their families with an emergency cash relief program.
Working with local microfinance institutions, Grameen identified 3,500 women in Manila and Cebu to receive immediate relief support by providing digital access to grocery and medical packages and vouchers for their household needs and business sustainability. However, delivering aid in an expeditious and safe manner was difficult given the strict mobility restrictions in the cities and the danger of COVID infection. And Grameen wanted to take a long term approach.
This presented a challenge and opportunity for Valora, a mobile payments app built on the Celo Platform.
Could Celo be used to deliver COVID-19 humanitarian aid in a safe, efficient, and transparent way?
A July 2019 pilot showed that the Philippines is ripe for innovative technology like Valora, but the issues of technological literacy, internet connectivity and trust building would be front and center. Over half of beneficiaries had previously never downloaded an application, used mobile money, nor shopped online.
With these learnings in mind the program was designed with beneficiary’s needs and context. Through user research, iteration, and close partnership with Grameen Foundation, along with several other Celo Alliance for Prosperity members including Beam and Go, Anchorage, Altonomy, and Keyko, we invested in a process that brought the benefits of cryptocurrency and Valora to this vulnerable population in an effective and efficient manner.
Grameen started by identifying a list of recipients together with their microfinance partners based on an eligibility criteria including poverty level and family size. We then set up a dedicated call center to contact each beneficiary and determine their cellphone units, consequently assisting smartphone users in downloading the Valora app.
The call center agents provided step-by-step guidance in Filipino or Cebuano to make sure that the users understood and trusted the app. Those that successfully downloaded Valora received the full peso equivalent of Celo Dollars (“cUSD”) from Grameen directly to their digital Valora wallets. Through Beam and Go, a Celo Alliance for Prosperity member, beneficiaries used their grant in a custom microsite that offered multiple options for grocery vouchers and delivery items.
What was possible with Valora
Valora offered a safe and easy platform to receive and use the aid. Moreover, a custom-built dashboard further enabled the Grameen Foundation to simultaneously disburse the grants to hundreds of beneficiaries and monitor any unusual behavior.
Key learnings from the project
It worked — 98% of beneficiaries successfully onboarded onto Valora.
The project allowed us to pilot and iterate on a remote onboarding process, since the door-to-door and group options were impossible because of the risk of COVID. The call center model helped us achieve efficiency and scale. Within 1.5 months, we assisted 733 new downloads across 5 cities and registered a 98% onboarding success rate. The average handling time per beneficiary to complete the process stood at 19 minutes. Internet connectivity or very low-end devices accounted for the unsuccessful downloads.
The disbursement also involved a transfer from Grameen’s account in the US to the Valora wallets of beneficiaries in the Philippines. This was completed in only minutes, and each transaction only cost <$.01. This represents a 99.5% reduction in costs, in sharp contrast to 2–3% cost of the average Philippine remittance.
Blockchain technology can provide a transparent delivery mechanism at scale. cLabs developed a disbursement dashboard for the project to assist a non-technical organization like Grameen to quickly transfer cUSD to hundreds of wallets at once. The largest transaction on record amounted to $52,000, which was distributed to 505 beneficiaries within minutes.
The blockchain-powered dashboard also served as a simple tool for tracking, monitoring, and reporting on transfers and balances, which facilitated transparency in the program. This helped project managers identify beneficiaries experiencing difficulties or trace any irregular behavior. This also helped the call centers of Valora and Beam&Go provide efficient technical support and issue resolution. On top of cost-effectiveness, the transparency of the blockchain is a compelling value-add of Celo as a technology.
Valora has areas for improvement in terms of usability for this target demographic.
The program is not without hiccups. One of the most common complaints was that the account key, Valora’s security feature, was too long. The words were also in English which became another pain point for some beneficiaries. We decided to double down on user education and likewise sought the help of Grameen’s microfinance partners in reiterating the importance of the account key. Still, self-custody proved to be risky as 1.5% of users eventually lost access to their funds. For this project, the Celo Foundation made whole those who lost access to funds. We recognize the need to simplify the backup key process without compromising on security and are exploring several options for future projects.
Beneficiaries affirm the high potential of blockchain technology to enhance their livelihoods and upgrade their standard of living
Through our interviews, many of our women entrepreneurs showed interest in using Valora as their digital wallet of choice. They wish to send small amounts to their family members or friends, or even use Valora in their own businesses. Surveys also showed that security and ease of use are top priorities for users. Beneficiaries enjoyed the convenience and safety of cashless transactions, but digital money is new and can be a little intimidating. For them to trust the technology more, it needs to be as close as possible to the ease-of-use and credibility of cash.
Other beneficiaries also suggested using Valora to save and borrow money from their microfinance institutions. To encourage broader adoption, we need new features that correspond to users’ daily needs such as mobile top up, bills payments and cash in/out options.
Developing a robust ecosystem is likewise key to this endeavor. Beam and Go enabled us to deliver the program successfully by integrating cUSD into their existing systems, which also laid down the foundation for wider merchant activation. As more businesses accept Celo, it can offer more choices and integrate more consumers to the digital world. Beneficiaries even look forward to using Valora in their neighborhood stores.
COVID-19 has presented an opportunity for NGOs like Grameen to reimagine their operating models. This is just the beginning.
Through the Grameen COVID-19 project, we obtained deeper insights about the Philippine market and also developed a strong case study for blockchain-powered aid delivery. We made progress in gaining trust and improving the usability of Valora, but need to work with the Celo community to continue to build a robust local ecosystem for cUSD and the Celo Platform. We look forward to future use cases on Celo that enhance financial inclusion and build resilient, prosperous communities.
Celo is a mobile-first, open-source ecosystem of technologies, organizations and individuals that all share a common mission of building a financial system that creates the conditions for prosperity for everyone. The Celo ecosystem includes a decentralized, proof-of-stake blockchain technology stack (Celo Platform), a native asset (CELO), a stablecoin (cUSD) and the Celo Alliance for Prosperity, with over 100 organizations around the world, including Andreesen Horowitz, Anchorage, Coinbase, GSMA, Mercy Corps, Grameen Foundation, Prosegur, Abra, and cLabs, a service organization dedicated to growing and developing the Celo ecosystem. For more information on Celo, please visit celo.org.
About Grameen Foundation
Grameen Foundation is a global nonprofit whose mission is to enable the poor, especially women, to create a world without poverty and hunger. In collaboration with our partners, we harness the power of digital data to create tech-forward tools for self-sufficiency and deliver them through local Community Agent networks. The Grameen Foundation Model is transformative regardless of Internet access, smartphone ownership or the ability to read. (www.grameenfoundation.org)