Devin Olmack, class of 2020, spent her summer in Nairobi, Kenya, where she worked with the Georgetown University Initiative on Innovation, Development, and Evaluation (gui2de) as a Digital Financial Inclusion Research Assistant.
Here is a short list of the financial transactions I make in one day in Nairobi. In the morning, I buy a coffee around the corner from the office. Then I hop on a boda (motorcycle taxi) to another office 30 minutes away. A coworker and I go to lunch at a small street corner restaurant and eat some mukimo (potatoes), ugali (cornmeal), sukuma (collard greens), nyama choma (BBQ), and sugar cane juice. A friend calls and needs to borrow some cash urgently. I hop on a boda back to the main office where I finish up some work. After work, I go to a local restaurant with live music for a dawa (“medicine”—ginger and lemon tea) with coworkers. At this moment, you most likely think this is a pointless description of my day, but in fact, it proves the reality of digital financial inclusion in Nairobi. Every activity I listed requires a financial transaction, and I do them all through my phone. Let me repeat: all of these financial transactions are completed on my phone.
This is all made possible thanks to M-Pesa (pesa means “money” in Swahili). M-Pesa is a mobile money transfer service that has revolutionized the digital financial inclusion landscape in Keyna. M-Pesa allows you to transfer money and pay for goods and services on any mobile platform. Kenya is one of the world’s leaders in mobile money services, a milestone attributed to M-Pesa, which was pioneered by Safaricom around 12 years ago. In 2006, only 14 percent of the Kenyan population had formal or informal bank accounts. By 2017, 81.6 percent of adults had a formal account, allowing them to save, send, and receive money. A study done by Tavneet Suri and William Jack found that in areas where M-Pesa has expanded, the number of households living in poverty has dropped. This statistic is driven primarily by female-headed households, and most of these drops in poverty were complemented by a shift in women’s occupations from farming to business and retail occupations. Digital financial inclusion promotes growth, economic development, and financial deepening.
This summer I worked with the Georgetown University Initiative on Innovation, Development, and Evaluation (gui2de) in Nairobi as a Digital Financial Inclusion Research Assistant. My responsibilities centered on two of gui2de’s projects that work to evaluate the expansion of digital financial services in partnership with Kenyan banks. The first project is a stock financing application for small and medium enterprises, where I primarily worked with a data collection team to record quality data for the evaluation. The second project was an auto-savings application for tea farmers in Murang’a County. For this project, I worked on research design and product development. These two projects ensure the most vulnerable populations can borrow in times of need or save for the future—essential stepping stones on the path to economic development.
I wrote this blog post on the last day of my summer internship at gui2de and, coincidentally, the same day that the auto-savings application for tea farmers passed quality assurance testing and completed the product development stage—a feat I never thought I would see. While this is a giant success, I can’t help but reflect on if the auto-savings application will do everything it promises to balance the spending and saving of tea farmers. This question is the exact reason I value impact evaluation and why this summer internship experience has been so rewarding. I spent a majority of my summer internship working on the development of a product I am not even sure will work, and that is okay. Why would I want a product to be used on a large scale, intended for some of the most vulnerable populations, if it reaps no benefit? What if there is a better auto-savings product or intervention? I was able to use much of what I learned in one of the Global Human Development (GHD) program’s core courses, Evaluation for Development, among other courses, to think critically about these questions and the implications of this research. To be afforded the opportunity to research and evaluate different development interventions while simultaneously learning in the classroom is invaluable and provides a unique perspective on academic and real-world approaches to development.