Can Smartphones Help the Poorest Escape Extreme Poverty?

Trickle Up is piloting a new project integrating smartphones with both custom-built and pre-existing apps into our Graduation programs in India serving ultrapoor women. Like all of our participants, they will be given seed capital, skills training and coaching, and will be connected with other women in savings groups where they share advice and access loans. The addition of a smartphone, however, means that the 1,000 women in the pilot will have instant access to information, training materials, and other resources.

As part of a Clinton Global Initiative commitment to provide 25,000 extremely poor women with access to mobile technology, we are working on this pilot in partnership with Tata Communications, mobiActivation, and Brightstar. Graduation is a tested, effective approach for helping people living in extreme poverty build sustainable livelihoods, by providing a sequenced, time bound set of inputs to support planning and investment in income-generating activities and access to financial services. This project gives us an opportunity to explore the potential role of technology in improving and scaling the delivery of the Graduation approach to more women in remote areas.


Woman uses a phone while standing with her goats, India Woman uses a phone while standing with her goats, India

Photo Credit: Vikash Kumar, 2014 CGAP Photo Contest

How will mobile technology help?

Women have greater access to information. To deliver critical support and information, Trickle Up coaches provide “real-time” training to women and their households as they begin new livelihood activities with which they often have little experience. One common reason for failure is that participants don’t follow the training and miss key steps required to execute a livelihood activity well (e.g. vaccinating goats on time, appropriately fertilizing crops, treating ponds where fish are raised). With a smartphone, women should have access to detailed graphics and pictures that provide explanations, all linked to automated calendars, checklists, and short videos and voice messages for more complicated procedures. In addition, the phones should help them troubleshoot, from automatically diagnosing common problems to requesting help if a response isn’t known.

Even just by having a phone, participants will be able to contact their assigned field agents if individualized support is needed in between scheduled visits. We don’t believe the phones are a substitute for hands-on training and coaching. Coaching provides motivation and support beyond simply answering questions, and we believe coaching is key to empowering participants, personally and socially. But we do believe that mobile technology has the potential to make coaching more efficient, scalable, and sustainable. In particular, we are interested to see if the technology can fulfill some basic monitoring functions so the field agents can spend more time coaching – so that they are able to do more targeted coaching.

Project managers can check in remotely. Another related challenge to scaling is the management of enormous numbers of field workers. Managers need to be able to determine quickly which field agents and community resource people need more support. They also need to learn in real-time about livelihood performance, access to government programs, and financial inclusion in order to nimbly adapt program design.

Women become field reporters. The smartphones feature an easy-to-use platform that doesn’t rely on literacy where participants can enter simple metrics on their progress and access basic analytics to help them monitor their own progress. We also aim to increase accountability to participants by providing an anonymous way for them to give feedback about whether they were visited by staff, the quality of those visits, and their receipt of entitlements.


Network Connectivity: We work in remote locations where network connectivity is a challenge, as this is where the poorest and most vulnerable tend to be concentrated. We are exploring with our partners how to provide the 3G connection that will periodically be required to upload and download information, and designing applications to enable sufficient offline functionality to be useful for participants even when a connection isn’t available.

Iteration: We expect that we won’t get all the content and functionality of the applications right at first. We are designing the pilots to enable rapid adaptation of the applications and content by experimenting based on participants’ usage. For example, what is the best way to depict participants’ savings against goals in a way that is motivational?

Usability: Before we began developing the project, we worried that women wouldn’t be comfortable with the phones. But, despite having had no prior experience with smartphones, women who tested prototype apps were soon figuring out how to navigate them and were brimming with ideas about how they could put the phones to use. One participant asked, “Can we use this to learn English?” Another wanted to know if she could look up recipes to improve the menu at her small shop. (Indeed, we are exploring what additional information and apps we can include on the phones that would be useful to participants, including health and banking apps.)

We still face unknowns beyond the content and functionality of these applications. Can smartphones in the hands of participants bring enough advantages and efficiency to be cost-effective? To determine this, we will need to compare results to participants who don’t receive phones, in an experimental evaluation which we expect to begin next year. Based on results we will expand this initiative in India, and to other countries. Meanwhile, we are excited to be part of the CGI collaboration to extend Graduation programs’ promotion of economic, financial, and social inclusion of extremely poor women to also include their digital inclusion.

For more information on this project, please contact Jo Sanson: jsanson [at]

This post was updated on 4 October 2016.

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