Social Innovation Lab

Africa Americas Affiliate Offices Wireless Currency, Endless Possibility: Seven promising mobile money projects to emerge from BRAC's challenge

 A Next Billion article by Tasmia Rahman and Paroma Afsara Husain

Throughout our journey from being a small post-war rehabilitation operation to becoming the world’s largest development NGO serving 135 million people in 11 countries, BRAC has always championed innovation with an ambitious vision of scaling up to have a big impact. One aspect that has often been attributed to BRAC’s success in its various programs – including microfinance, education, healthcare, agriculture, and community empowerment – is its practice of a simple mantra: “pilot, perfect, scale up”. (Full disclosure: The authors are employed at BRAC).

BRAC’s work with bKash, the largest mobile money provider in Bangladesh, began with a similar small microfinance pilot. It eventually transitioned 100 percent of the enterprise loan installment collection in a few locations from cash to cashless payments. Back in 2011, mobile money was still an unfamiliar concept in Bangladesh. bKash had just started its operations and the few incumbent mobile financial service providers in the market were still testing the waters to understand how it could be used. Clients had difficulty grasping how money can be transferred to any location through mobile phones in a matter of seconds.

Fast forward to 2014. In less than three years, the mobile money landscape in Bangladesh has drastically transformed. With nearly 14 million registered users, Bangladesh now boasts the fastest growing mobile money market in the world. In urban and rural locations alike, mobile money has a near-ubiquitous presence, with agents numbering close to 200,000. Given the developments in the mobile money market, BRAC saw a tremendous opportunity to utilize this technology in improving its product and service delivery, as well as operations. In addition to the earlier loan installment collection and savings pilots, Education Programme also recently started disbursing its student scholarships via bKash. We started to ask ourselves: Is there more that we can do?

With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, BRAC’s Social Innovation Lab launched the Innovation fund for mobile money in March to explore new possibilities and create the necessary space for innovations using mobile money within BRAC in Bangladesh. Recognizing that successful innovations often require risk and experimentation, the fund intends to support projects that work with mobile money. To scope out the best ideas for BRAC to consider and implement, an online idea challenge was introduced where anyone could submit an idea, comment or vote on ideas. The goal was to spark conversations within the BRAC community around how mobile money can be used by BRAC to innovate, improve service delivery, and gain efficiency. Through promotional activities that ranged from engaging mobile money experts from around the world to performing the first ever flash mob at BRAC to making mobile money a major theme at the second annual Frugal Innovation Forum, the challenge drew an enthusiastic response from people, receiving 100 wide-ranging ideas in just five weeks. Following a rigorous selection process, seven ideas (see below) that showed the most potential were chosen for implementation.

(Photo credit: BRAC/Shehzad Noorani).
Selected Projects
(nearly) Cashless branch: This pilot undertaken by the Integrated Development Programme is a move towards creating cashless branches in the remote char areas (riverine islands created and destroyed by floods and erosion). Given the transportation challenges and limited access to financial services in these areas, mobile money will make it easier for both BRAC clients and staff.

Mobile micro-insurance:
Most of BRAC’s clients lack access to traditional forms of insurance. Through a joint collaboration, the Microfinance Programme and outsider partners will offer micro-insurance with low, flexible premiums using mobile technology for poor households. It will offer protection for incidents like accidents and illnesses.   

Flexible school fee payments for secondary schools: Paying school fees can be a challenge for low-income parents. To address this, the BRAC University Institute of Educational Development will introduce a flexible payment scheme using bKash at the SSCOPE low-cost secondary schools. Parents can pay without needing to come to the school premises each time.

Adolescent savings:
To encourage savings behaviour among adolescent girls and provide easy access to safe savings, the Education Programme will work with their adolescent clubs to encourage the habit of mobile savings among its youth club members. Adoption of technology is higher among youth, so this can drive adoption and create a lifetime savings habit.

Mobile payments for community health workers: This initiative by Health, Nutrition and Population Programme will look to improve operational efficiency, transparency and security by integrating mobile money instead of cash to disburse honorariums and incentives to thousands of workers.

Mobile disaster relief funds: For disasters like evictions, garment factory fires, and floods it is difficult to mobilize funds quickly, even though many would like to donate. The Disaster Environment and Climate Change programme will set up a simple donation platform that enables them to send money via their mobile phones. This idea originated from a university student in Chittagong.

We hope that these projects will inform and encourage similar initiatives in the future, both within and outside of BRAC, and mark the beginning of a digital revolution for the organization.

This article was originally posted here:

So We’ve Scaled Up, Now What?

By Asif Saleh & Maria A. May | Apr. 11, 2013


Panel on organizing communities. From left: Arbind Singh (Nidan), Shandana Khan (Rural Support Programmes Network), Syed Hashemi (BRAC Development Institute), Gum Sha Aung (Metta Myanmar), and Kishore Singh (Urban Partnership for Poverty Reduction).

Late last month, a group of South Asian leaders gathered in Dhaka for the first Frugal Innovation Forum: Scaling Simple Solutions. Nowhere is the importance of innovation more apparent than in quickly-changing contexts such as Bangladesh: Many villagers are migrating to cities and abroad; women are increasingly entering the workforce; there is a youth bulge; and with increases in life expectancy, the fastest growing demographic is senior citizens. Given the complexity and interrelatedness of these challenges, tackling them requires more than just new strategies; it requires new paradigms of understanding, holistic thinking, and above all, flexible models that can evolve. The event was powerful, and laid out some important issues.

South Asians, perhaps due to the unique environmental factors of the region, seem to have an innate predisposition to what we might call the jugaad, or “frugal innovation,” mentality. This was one of the core beliefs that led us to organize the forum in the first place: A unique type of innovation was springing up across South Asia that would lend itself to further scale and adaption around the region. Jaideep Prabhu, co-author of Jugaad Innovation, spoke about the importance of this in his opening remarks at the forum. Perhaps another unique trait of South Asian innovation is that scale is such an assumed part of design. Where the rest of the world talks in the thousands or tens of thousands, South Asians speak of lakhs (hundreds of thousands) or crores (tens of millions). BRAC’s mantra, “small is beautiful, but big is a necessity” is nothing new to practitioners in Pakistan (population 176 million) and India (population 1.2 billion!). People in this region casually talk about magnitude of coverage and reach in a way that many countries’ presidents would—justifiably—have trouble fathoming.

Mahabub Hossain (BRAC) and Jaideep Prabhu (Judge School of Business, University of Cambridge).

It’s easy to pay lip service to the need to learn from one other, but we don’t entirely understand actually how to do it. Rarely can we simply drop a ready-made model into a new place. Even the process of creation is hugely important in developing a sophisticated understanding—not just what works, but why it works. “Everyone needs to reinvent the wheel,” wrote Madhav Chavan, founder of Pratham, an incredible Indian organization transforming education nationally. “It’s important because all of us need our own kind of wheel.”

Jothimani Sennimalai (Political activitist from India) and Sir Fazle Hasan Abed (BRAC).

We kicked off the event with three key questions: Do we need more social innovation, or is the big challenge these days just to scale up what we know? Is scale always a good thing? And, is frugal always the best way? We started by looking at these themes across these broad sectors: developing human capital, mobilizing communities, and fostering civic engagement. The growing divides within countries—urban to rural, connected to offline, young and old, arose as issues with which many are wrestling. There’s a huge need for platforms to connect people—either in old fashioned, U-shaped meetings, or on flashy websites such as I Paid a Bribe—but it’s crucial to find the hook. For vocational schools, that means successfully reading the market demand to essentially guarantee job placement to its students for groups of street vendors, it’s knowing to let go and let them lead, even if it means excluding “others,” such as waste pickers, and supporting them to create a society that represents their distinct needs. For many, technology is still a nice idea. However, despite the fast-growing numbers of cell phones, they are still out of reach for many, particularly rural women. Finding ways to build the urgently needed infrastructure and create pressure on the government is important, regardless of the ultimate goal. Shandana Khan of Pakistan’s Rural Support Programmes Network spoke about mobilizing communities to persuade the government to support community groups. Once the organization created the political commitment for resources, they were able to scale massively, from just 5 million members to more than 30 million. We see that the reshaping of the rules of the game has huge benefits and creates a strong foundation for growth.

Arbind Singh of Nidan, who spoke at the Frugal Innovation Forum and was recognized as a Skoll Entrepreneur in 2012, is bringing some of our discussions to the Skoll World Forum this week. A few worth noting are:

Process innovations are often underappreciated but critical. The biggest and most successful organizations rarely owe their success to a product, but rather to their activities and capabilities.

“Big impact” mentality is a must. In his closing remarks, BRAC’s founder and chairperson Sir Fazle Abed told participants: “Many organizations are happy with results on a small scale. We need to be more ambitious.” There are plenty of challenges on the path to scale—don’t let your mindset be one of them!

To go fast (and burn out quickly), go alone. To go far, go with others, and forge a better path. The days of operating in a green field with no regulation or government engagement are gone. Increasingly, the challenge in development is building capacity for effective, independent action—of communities, of organizations, and of policy-markets. Nurturing inclusive ecosystems that embrace innovation and value development is the only way to sustainably tackle poverty.

Asif Saleh is the senior director of BRAC Strategy, Communications, and Capacity.


Maria A. May is the programme manager of BRAC’s Social Innovation Lab.


The Hidden Dimensions of Scale

When assessing pilots, people often talk about a program or organization’s potential to scale. Certainly there are factors that make some models easier to scale than others. At BRAC, the world’s largest nonprofit organization, there is a relentless focus on making models that are not only effective, but also efficient and scalable. But our current research initiative, called the Doing While Learning: Collaborative Models for Scaling Innovation project, is revealing the importance of factors beyond the model, such as organizational capabilities and social capital in the pilot’s environment. To achieve scale, organizations must do more than just replicate; they need to figure out how to survive both financially and politically. Even if the goal of the organization isn’t to scale a specific program, but to scale through leveraging champions and building partnerships, it must take action early on.

Recently we researched four programs that scaled up in South Asia to gain a deeper understanding of what successful support strategies might include. All of the programs shared a vision of large-scale and sustained change; worked with and through a variety of stakeholders; and, interestingly, were motivated by feeling as if they were part of something “bigger than themselves.” Linking local efforts to a broader national or global goal was inspiring and attracted more attention from policymakers and donors. We developed a case study for each program to capture the organization’s experience and insight from its leadership.

One case study examines BRAC’s Educational Support Program. Instead of focusing on BRAC’s own schools, which have graduated more than 5 million poor children in Bangladesh, we looked at how, via external partnerships, BRAC enables other local partners to implement its effective, non-formal school model in 4,700 schools. Independent organizations that otherwise might lack the know-how or resources for management capacity, monitoring, training, and other types of support benefit from BRAC’s infrastructure, and gain inspiration and visibility from association with a well-known, respected organization.

Another describes how BRAC’s Targeting the Ultra Poor model, proven to “graduate” people out of extreme poverty, was replicated in 10 new locations, via a learning consortium. The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) and the Ford Foundation connected participating organizations with donors and prestigious researchers such as Esther Duflo. With many organizations sharing a common mission, it was easier to attract the attention of policymakers, media, and academics.

The third case study describes Pakistan’s Rural Support Program Network (RSPN), formed to address the need for centralized functions, such as government relations.  RSPN was created by geographically dispersed organizations known as Rural Support Programs (RSPs) implementing the same rural social mobilization model, as no one organization had the time or access to mobilize resources to scale.

Urban Partnership for Poverty Reduction Program (UPPRP), a UN initiative focused on helping slum dwellers in Bangladesh organize for better living conditions, is the focus of our fourth case study. Reeling from the devastation of communities in slums during evictions, UPPRP reformulated its approach with intensive work on national urban policy development and deeper relationships with local governments.

Emerging themes

Certain elements of program or organization design can facilitate potential for scale—for example, maintaining low costs or adopting a network approach. However, our research detected a clear set of “implementation plus” or intermediation activities in these scaling success stories—enacted by a third party or by the implementers themselves.

While we saw diversity in strategy, we noticed that a few recurring types of activities were not directly related to implementation (see the types of intermediation activities chart below).

Capacity, access, and organization benefits occurred in every case, while visibility and sponsorship occurred only in some. Some of the best benefits that intermediaries imparted were not intentional. The value of each benefit clearly depends on context—capacity and organization are more focused on changing the groups that are implementing activities, whereas the other three benefits focus more on the dynamics between the ecosystem and the implementers.

While useful, there are clear limitations to historical analyses of scale-up experiences. To explore these themes more deeply, we are currently working with six South Asian organizations, including BRAC, to follow individual projects through a year of scale-up efforts. Through this project, we hope to develop frameworks and tools to inform and guide future development efforts.

This post was written by Maria A. May and Amanda J. Misiti, on behalf of BRAC’s Doing while learning project team.


 Maria A. May (@mariamayhem523) is the program manager for BRAC’s Social Innovation Lab and its Microfinance Research & Development Unit, both based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She is a co-author of Making Tuberculosis History: Community-based Solutions for Millions and several teaching cases on global health delivery published by Harvard Business Publishing.

 Amanda J. Misiti (@ajoymisiti) is a Knowledge Management and Communications Officer with BRAC’s Social Innovation Lab in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She previously worked with the Beacon Communities, an initiative of the US Department of Health and Human Services, and served as a health education specialist with the US Peace Corps in Mali, West Africa.