Can Smartphones Help the Poorest Escape Extreme Poverty?

By Jo Sanson
Director of Monitoring, Evaluation, & Research

Trickle Up is piloting a new project that will put smartphones in the hands of tens of thousands of households facing the direst conditions of extreme poverty in India—women and families who will also participate in Trickle Up’s economic strengthening program. Like all of our participants, they will be given seed capital and training, and connect with other women in savings groups where they share advice and can access loans. The addition of a smartphone, however, means that women will have instant access to information about weather conditions and market prices, along with training materials and other resources, which could prove game-changing.

Working together with Tata Communications, Brightstar, and mobiActivation as part of a commitment with the Clinton Global Initiative, we will provide 25,000 extremely poor women access to mobile technology. While our program has been proven to effectively help women living in extreme poverty build sustainable livelihoods, this project gives us an opportunity to explore ways that technology can play a role in improving and scaling the delivery of our program to more women in remote areas.

How will mobile technology help?

Women have greater access to information

To deliver critical support and information, Trickle Up coaches provide “just in time” training and support to women and their households as they begin new livelihood activities with which they often have little experience (such as rearing livestock, growing crops for sale at market, or other commercial enterprises). One common reason for failure is that participants don’t follow the training they received and miss key steps required to execute a livelihood activity well. 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 agent 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 smartphones and mobile technology have the potential to make coaching more efficient, scalable, and sustainable.

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 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 will 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. 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 when they received their seed funding.

Before we began the project, we worried that women wouldn’t be comfortable with the phones. But, despite having had no prior experience with smartphones, women were soon figuring out how to navigate the prototype apps 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.

We expect to learn, adapt, and refine this project over the coming months, facing challenges from network connectivity to designing optimal content and functionality. 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.