How Mobile Phones Can Reduce Hunger

04/08/2017 11:25 BST | Updated 04/08/2017 11:25 BST


Severe drought - like the one faced by Zimbabwe in 2015 - can cause hunger and misery for thousands of people. The response effort has to be quick, flexible and get to those most affected to alleviate the crisis. In recent years, one of the best ways to do this has been by distributing small amounts of cash people can use to buy food and other basic needs. But conventional wisdom has said that for emergency cash response programmes to work the situation has to be straightforward. The idea of doing cash programming when a country has run out of cash would be unheard of, right? Wrong! CARE's recent programme in Zimbabwe showed that with new advances in mobile money and strong partnerships they can do just that.

In Zimbabwe we have helped communities facing drought, poverty and hunger by giving families small amounts of money through their mobile phones. The scheme was carried out between 2015 and 2017, during a severe drought caused by El Nino, and in the midst of Zimbabwe's ongoing cash crisis - factors that left many communities struggling to feed their families. It is the first time mobile money has been given out on this scale in the country. We reached over 400,000 people with one million payments in total.

Funded by UK Aid, the programme was delivered through partnership between NGOs CARE International and World Vision, and telecoms companies Econet and NetOne. The mobile companies transferred money to registered beneficiaries on the EcoCash (Econet) and One Wallet (NetOne) mobile money platforms.

Each beneficiary was given a SIM card at a reduced price, and their line was registered on the mobile cash wallet platform. They received a monthly payment of $5 per household member, rising to $7 in August 2017, which they could cash, or spend electronically at a shop registered with the system. Each household received on average $554 in total, through 18 payments.

A study of the scheme, by Oxford Policy Management, and our own internal evaluation, found that cash transfers significantly improved access to food. Families were able to eat more, and to choose a healthier, more varied diet. The programme reduced hunger by increasing the number of meals children had per day (from 2 meals a day to 3 a day), and reduced severe food deprivation by 23% across the targeted provinces. At the start of the programme, in October 2015, 12% of families were suffering severe hunger, and 51% moderate hunger. By June 2016, none were suffering severe hunger, and only 10% moderate hunger.

In addition by targeting the family cash payment to women and supporting them to make decisions, women's roles in financial decision-making increased. Using this modality also introduced mobile banking to a large number of new users. We would like to continue to support them becoming better served by banking systems.

Lessons learned

At our learning event on Tuesday 25th July 2017, we had a chance to reflect on the lessons from our project. Our work showed that cash is an effective and efficient way of helping people. It lets beneficiaries choose the things they need, rather than the things aid agencies think they need. Most of the money was spent on food, but some was spent on school fees. Some people spent it on items which would help support them in the future like a goat or seeds. Cash programmes remove the cost of transporting food and other items - making it much better value for money. It also means that local businesses benefit because people buy from local shops. So the scheme supports the local economy rather than undermining it.

Doing cash better

The question amongst development professionals has turned from "should we do cash transfer programmes?" to "how best we should we do them?" One suggestion is that we give larger amounts of money less frequently, enabling families to buy food at a cheaper bulk price. We gave more in October 2016 because we know that it was an expensive time of year - because seeds needed to be planted and school fees needed to be paid. The flexible nature of mobile money means that we are better able to respond to local situations like this.

Zimbabwe might be a place where you would think distributing cash wouldn't work - because there is so little hard cash available as the country was in the midst of a cash crisis. We got around the liquidity crisis by using e-money - so people could buy what they needed without ever turning it into cash. I strongly believe that if we can successfully help people through distributing cash in Zimbabwe, it can be used in other places where it might be considered too difficult. That is why CARE will be introducing large cash programmes to help people in Yemen and Syria next.