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Woman uses Chomoka while in VSLA

Digitizing Financial Services to Serve Low-Income Women

A financial independence mobile application for women in rural communities

CARE is a long-time global leader in the movement to end poverty. With over 70 years of experience, CARE has helped 80 million people around the world with projects that work to save lives, alleviate poverty, and achieve social justice. Their projects focus on creating and supporting opportunities for empowerment among women and girls, as gender inequality and poverty are closely connected.

In 1991, CARE introduced an effort that revolutionized how low-income women in rural areas achieve financial independence. CARE’s Village Savings and Loans Association (VSLA) initiative provides a simple and secure system for communities without access to formal financial institutions – like banks – to save money, receive loans, and obtain emergency insurance.

Out of CARE’s seven million VSLA members worldwide, 81% are women. Their community-centered saving model empowers members to develop their financial skills, reclaim access to and control over resources, and generate income. For most women in VSLAs, financial independence means paying for health care, buying nutritious food for themselves and their families, going to school, and starting or expanding a business. As more women are financially empowered, they make investments in improving the health and resilience of their families and greater communities.

VSLA members in a meeting with Chomoka

Each VSLA chapter consists of a self-managed group of 20-30 individuals that meet on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Three group members are nominated as key holders, securing the group’s money box. All transactions are recorded in a paper ledger. The ledger is a single document that tracks all of the group’s key information – savings, lendings, and repayments.

For over 25 years, CARE’s VSLA model has created opportunities for women to gain financial independence at a global scale. As groups matured and technology advanced, however, CARE recognized the need to transition the VSLA model from informal financial support to a formal, institutionally recognized financial service. In order to win the support of banks and other formal institutions, CARE needed to update the paper ledger to a mobile app, allowing groups to safely and accurately record each member’s financial activities.

As one of the oldest and largest global humanitarian aid organizations, CARE is incredibly skilled at the work they do on the ground. They recognized, however, that they needed assistance to successfully launch a digital-first project. 18 months after starting efforts to build a VSLA mobile app, “Chomoka,” the product was still non-functional.

CARE initially hired Exygy to audit the existing Chomoka app and make recommendations. Beginning with a technical audit of Chomoka’s system, our team gave a first assessment of the state of Chomoka, followed by outlined recommendations on how to restructure the project team, project plan, and application architecture in order to achieve a successful MVP launch. After giving recommendations for future work to the CARE team, we continued to provide support and expertise – beginning to put those recommendations into practice.

Our team provided CARE with comprehensive project management support. We assisted the development of a plan for the Agile development of Chomoka that included a 20 week product roadmap, consisting of ten sprints and followed by three months of support. We staffed a global team with in-house, San Francisco-based project management and technical architecture. We also added two mobile engineers to the team from our expert partner network in Spain and Kosovo. CARE’s primary Chomoka team leader, based in Tanzania, worked closely alongside our scrum team. Over the course of our work together, CARE hired a Project Manager in Tanzania, and Exygy helped recruit, vet, and train an in-country development team in Tanzania.

Through our collaboration, Exygy significantly increased CARE’s capacity to rapidly and successfully build and improve products and services and to adopt agile and human centered best-practices. We believe that the best way to adopt these frameworks is by working alongside our team – immersed in our culture and daily practices.

To begin meetings, the Chomoka app requires three pin numbers from elected group members – similar to the three keys traditionally used to unlock lockboxes.

Zach Berke, Managing Partner

Unique Challenges

Many of Chomoka’s end-users are VSLA members residing in rural and peri-urban environments without internet access. To address this unique challenge, our engineering team developed a unique protocol based on SMS messaging.

Marking member attendance is one of multiple features that run on this unique SMS system.

We built custom communication protocols, and developed custom server infrastructure to integrate with the SMS system and providers in Tanzania. The system backs up each member’s data, allowing CARE to conduct analytics on the app’s use and communicate that data to banking partners at the request of Chomoka users.

We also helped select a set of region-appropriate Android devices to deploy to CARE’s users, and ensured that testing was focused on these devices.

After spending more than a year trying to launch this project with independent contractors, we launched Chomoka in 20 weeks with Exygy’s support."

– Mark Malhotra, Innovation Team, CARE

For the 1.7 billion adults who don’t have a bank account, digitizing VSLAs has the potential to rapidly build financial inclusivity in some of the worlds most vulnerable populations. Low-income women have historically been denied agency within formal financial institutions. By digitally tracking activities that were previously recorded on paper, Chomoka demonstrates to banks that group members are reliable, dependable, and credit-worthy. With credit scores, group members qualify for the benefits that financial institutions offer – including access to loans.

In the future, Chomoka will expand from a digitized ledger, to playing a larger role in the relationship between financial institutions and low-income women. As a digital product that breaks formal financial barriers, we will empower millions of lives in CARE’s VSLA initiative and beyond. Outside of CARE’s programs, there are 15 million people participating in alternative VSLA groups supported by governments and NGOs. Long term, we hope to support Chomoka’s efforts to replicate its model, extending the ladder of financial inclusion to the billions of adults without a bank account.

Exygy provided the direction and expertise that took our efforts to the next level – ensuring that each Chomoka user will receive a quality, well-built product. Through working closely with Exygy, our team is now prepared to be a digital first organization. Exygy’s work will help us bring financial inclusion to millions of VSLA members world-wide.

- Mark Malhotra, Innovation Team, CARE