Strong Connections: Stories of Resilience from the Far Reaches of the Mobile Phone Revolution by Rosa Wang

Strong Connections: Stories of Resilience from the Far Reaches of the Mobile Phone Revolution

Rosa Wang

243 pages, River Grove Books, 2022

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Advancements in digital and mobile technologies have paved the way for significant changes in the way social problems can be tackled. When coupled with social innovations developed on the ground from organizations like Opportunity International, these can combine in powerful ways to create and accelerate social impact.  

In Strong Connections: Stories of Resilience from the Far Reaches of the Mobile Phone Revolution, I explore insights gathered from experienced frontline staff at Opportunity. The excerpt below from Kerala, India, shows how astute observations of field workers, combined with a high-tech biometric solution (iris scans), addressed the challenge of worn hands and absence of fingerprints that farm and day laborers often experience. With biometric access to financial accounts, persons of low literacy were able to benefit from services without needing to navigate a complex menu, a challenge disproportionately faced by women.

Using powerful stories to convey the realities and challenges of persons living in poverty, Strong Connections chronicles the effort to expand financial, information, and education services by combining bottom-up ideas generated by Opportunity and local partner organizations through a range of widely available technologies. Beyond Kerala, the book explores the work elsewhere in rural India, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Malawi. The book also explores the digital gender divide, the disproportionate number of women without access to mobile and digital services, and grassroots techniques that improve outreach to women.—Rosa Wang

* * *

With the principal filming finished, Sarya and I leave Bhavna and her workers to fulfill an urgent sales order, and we go to visit a microfinance group, similar to the group Bhavna joined about a decade ago (and is still a part of). Before we depart, Bhavna shows me the area we are traveling to using the map app on her phone. She knows it well, as it is an area where many buyers of her brooms live. We are going to see the latest mobile and digital implementations that the group ESAF, the local financial services partner, has put in place. 

On the way, I check my emails on my phone. I have received a message indicating that a money transfer that I had attempted the night before failed. Away from the field work, my husband and I are in the process of purchasing an apartment in Oxford. The process of arranging funds from our US-based accounts to be moved to our accounts in the UK for the deposit seems to be caught in a vortex of antiquated banking laws and international bureaucracy. As a fraud-prevention mechanism, many financial institutions have implemented a feature known as two-factor authentication, an additional form of verification that proves you are who you say you are. Most of the two-factor authentication features assume you are a resident in the same place as your account and have a local number to receive texts. 

I think of the irony of the expedited services that are available here in India, services built in recent years that aren’t layered on antiquated banking practices accumulated over the decades. For me, having to deal with the systems embedded in the “developed” world means that a crucial transfer of funds will have to wait for a few days. 

* * *

Our car rolls up to a grassy stretch where I can spot a wooden house up a steep hill, the site of an ESAF client-group meeting. Founded in 1992 by Paul Thomas of Thrissur, Kerala, ESAF started as a small NGO aimed at helping the poor and marginalized populations. ESAF works to reach people who do not yet have formal banking services, and it continues to dynamically upgrade its technology offerings. Inspired by the success of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, ESAF’s primary offering is small-scale loans to women organized into trust circles at the village level, like the circle I visited in Bhopal, where each woman co-guarantees the loans of all the women in their group. With a high growth rate and very few non-performing loans, ESAF grew rapidly and expanded their offerings to include financial literacy training and a range of community services. 

In 2017, in recognition for its work on inclusion, the organization was granted a license by the Reserve Bank of India to become a small finance bank, a type of bank in India that is licensed to provide basic banking services such as deposits and lending. Having official banking status has allowed ESAF to expand its range of financial services and to offer these nationally. (Within two years of becoming a small finance bank, ESAF grew to 3.3 million customers with a focus on the underserved and previously unbanked.) 

When we arrive at the client meeting, we encounter a group of 16 women, including women like Bhavna and her peers, and one loan officer, Esther from ESAF. I notice the women are all smiling and animatedly chatting among themselves. They are seated in an informal fashion, waiting for their turn to make a payment on their loans. 

“Why did you take out a loan?” I ask the women who are waiting. 

“To buy a motorbike for my business,” says one woman in red. 

“To pay for school fees” is the most common reply. 

These women are like the many others that I have met in microfinance trust groups across several countries—ambitious, hardworking, always repaying their loans—but the way in which they each repay is different. Although the women are using cash (not electronic funds), there is no use of paper and pen, no paper receipts. Esther uses an Android-based smartphone to collect the information. I saw the smartphone-and-paperless operations on my previous visit, and the data and money collections processes are progressing at a rapid clip. But today I am here to observe something else. To access their account, group members do not have to show a passbook, a credit card, or even a thumbprint. ESAF has made their accounts biometrically accessible via iris scan. 

I recall a conversation that I had with George John (“Bobby”), ESAF’s head of microfinance, just two years ago when he thought about using an iris scan to access accounts. At the time I thought this might be fascination with the latest technologies. But after talking further with Bobby, I found that many farmers and other manual workers had worn away their fingerprints, and thus fingerprint access could be problematic. In some districts, an estimated 40 percent of clients of ESAF may have fingerprint issues. 

Now, armed with a simple Android phone with a specific plugin, all Esther has to do is hold her smartphone near a woman’s face as she looks forward. The plugin sends the iris scan information to the national ID server and matches the iris with the records. This method seems to work efficiently, and within a short time all the women in the group are able to quickly authenticate their accounts and make their repayments. 

The Rarest Amphibian 

Seeing this system at work reminds me of two things that seem to hold true in all of the areas of my work. First, when technology applications are thought of from the standpoint of the user, they are often more successful. The second thing that runs through my head as I watch the iris-scanning process is to continue to remind myself that this isn’t a movie set or a high-end physics laboratory. CERN (European Council for Nuclear Research), the particle physics laboratory outside of Geneva, Switzerland, home to the Large Hadron Collider, uses iris scan as a security feature to restrict access to high-energy laboratory sections. A few years after obtaining a banking license, ESAF has 1,000 times more people using iris scan biometric access for its services than CERN. 

Sarya and I have traveled a long way, some of it on dirt roads, to access this semi-rural group of low-income women, and they are using state-of-the-art technologies that most research laboratories have not yet upgraded too. Most of the women in this group are not yet as successful as Bhavna. They are still running their businesses as the sole proprietor or at most have only one or two hired people to help. Most have their own phone, but except for one other smartphone, a basic or feature phone handset is most common. 

The relative affordability of smartphone handsets allows ESAF to equip every loan officer and field officer like Esther with their own device to perform the iris scanning and gather information while on their daily rounds. This affordability could only come with the standardization of the handset and mass production of millions of units by the manufacturer. In addition, the standardization of software inside means that applications like the iris scanner are compatible with most handsets. 

What I am witnessing in Thrissur, Kerala, is a rare example known in international development as the leapfrog: skipping generations of earlier-stage technology development and going directly to the more advanced. Often the term is misused to simply point out that an organization or country is progressing with their technology, but in this case, that rare amphibian, the true leapfrog, seems to be the appropriate terminology to use. Women with loans went from having a manual system entirely of pen and paper and physical passbooks to using a method that is entirely electronic and biometric, bypassing problems that made fingerprint access difficult. They have leapfrogged directly to the paperless, iris-scan-based future.

Steve Liem

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