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Peers + Phones

A hybrid of finite peer-enabled training and ongoing phone-enabled engagement.

Photo of An Old Friend
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Who does this idea benefit, who are the main players and what's in it for them?

Youth in rural communities are the main players: the trainers as well as the beneficiaries. Enhanced employment opportunities, personal financial stability, elevated status and information-driven social networking are the main drivers for their participation.

How is your idea specifically using the power of communities to improve financial opportunities and resources?

The peer-to-peer component relies on the tight-knit, highly familiar structure of rural communities in which it is possible for an initial handful of trained instructors to spread teachings through their existing network by simple word of mouth. The phone-to-phone component enlarges the scope of the pre-existing physical community and, by giving everyone an equal voice on the mobile platform, introduces a new sort of power in the form of democratized expression.

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

Alas, my current home in Hong Kong doesn't resemble the rural context I have in mind, but the idea was inspired by observations from the tech accelerator and co-working space I launched in January ( I'm intrigued by how in-person collaboration - whether it be to use the espresso machine or prepare an investor deck - continues and evolves on Whatsapp, Instagram, Facebook etc so I could consider initiating a semi-comparable experiment around finance in this community.

What skills, input or guidance might you be seeking from the OpenIDEO community to help you build out or refine your idea further?

It would be great to hear from people who have implemented a peer-to-peer learning scheme. I recognize the risk of romanticizing a hypothetical community in which altruistic members dedicate time to their betterment and that of others. I'd also appreciate insight into the psychology of rural youth in developing economies on the topic of financial literacy - is it something they identify as a valuable skill? How much convincing is required when first knocking on their door?

This idea emerged from:

  • An individual

This idea focuses on rural communities because modern financial products generally target urban-based consumers and because the concentration of people and resources within cities offers more potential avenues to financial empowerment. I propose using a combination of peer-to-peer training and phone-enabled tools in sequence so that a series of in-person workshops prepares – and qualifies – recipients to join a mobile platform.

I interpret the term “financial empowerment” as having two core definitions: 1) concrete pieces of information such as compound interest, tax structures, awareness of risk, insurance schemes, preparing a budget, managing a credit card, saving for retirement – education that can be communicated in distinct modules with the goal of building a skillset deemed financial literacy; and 2) experience – an understanding of how to navigate financial matters acquired through firsthand exposure. The distinction between these two components – “education” and “experience” – is helpful to explain how the two elements of peers and phones work in tandem to achieve the goal of empowerment.

When considering who needs financial empowerment the most within rural communities, I prioritize young people aged 15 to 30 because access to this assistance can drastically alter the life of an adolescent/young adult by facilitating, for example, a university education, a move to the city, or a specialized profession. Let’s imagine the end user as a farmer or factory worker making an average monthly wage of around $100.

With this target population in mind, we start with a peer-to-peer training structure. Through a series of workshops in small groups, an instructor outlines the main principles of a financial education (such as those mentioned above). As a way of simultaneously introducing a complementary lesson in the experience of financial empowerment, we could market the workshops as free of charge but require a deposit that is reimbursed upon successful completion of the whole curriculum. In other words, a refundable down payment to guarantee commitment – a means of articulating the contract that the recipient enters with him/herself by enrolling.   

Who is the instructor? Initially, an NGO or other external party. This is necessary as a first step to lay a foundation of quality content and consistent teaching methods; however, as quickly as possible, the reins should be handed over to the recipients – to those being trained. After graduating, recipients who demonstrate mastery of the concepts are invited to train others in the community. This way, empowerment works on two levels: the recipient is empowered with education, and the recipient-turned-trainer is doubly empowered with status as an authority on financial literacy. These local trainers could call upon the NGO when needed, but the aim is to create a self-sustaining model.

For people aged 15 to 30 who may never have had a formal education previously, the recognition that comes with a trainer position can be highly inspiring. It becomes part of his/her identity and is a source of credibility that can result in significant behavioral change. This is where the power of rural communities plays a central role. Word travels fast when a growing group of people – friends, neighbors, co-workers – are in newfound possession of a valuable competency; moreover, the workshops could be held in public venues to enhance visibility. Ideally, peer-to-peer training would ultimately reach the majority of young people in the community.

What happens next? Phones. Human interaction is a vital and irreplaceable first stage, but it has its limits. Both the trainers and recipients would be participating in the workshops on top of their daily routines; realistically, we can only expect the in-person component to occupy a contained, concentrated period of time in their lives. A mobile platform serves as the subsequent phase to reinforce the education and create a dynamic marketplace of personal contributions – of experience sharing.

The means through which graduates enter the phone phase is key: access should be an earned privilege that comes with completing the workshops. The face-to-face training can be understood as the prerequisite for membership in the mobile network. Each graduate receives a unique login to join the mobile community; they are also presented with an affordable way to obtain a phone, if necessary, such as a staggered payment cycle that allows the cost to be spread across several months.

With this transition from peer-enabled instruction to phone-enabled exchange, empowerment shifts from a top-down linear approach to an organic, user-generated network.

What does the mobile platform contain? Any number of tools and resources, all made social. To name a few: an archive of workshop principles; headlines from local/regional financial news; a simple application for managing expenses; a Q&A forum; a transactional portal for small loans and transfers. Given that all participants would have graduated from the same foundational training courses, they enter this handheld sphere with a shared language to communicate – to communicate with people from their own community and also graduates in other geographies.

While smart phones of course allow for more meaningful engagement, this idea could still work with a basic feature phone. (The success of M-Pesa is testament to the creative potential of traditional phones thoughtfully integrated into a local context.) These days, smart phone hardware can be incredibly cheap; it’s the data plan that normally makes connectivity prohibitive for rural populations. This is where the likes of Facebook’s initiative could serve as an appropriate partner to bring internet access to remote villages.

The nature of empowerment that comes with a voice on the mobile platform is distinct from the empowerment made possible through peer-to-peer training. There is an equalizing force that accompanies the move from in-person interaction to virtual interaction. The digital sphere in large part removes social barriers – of gender, religion, class – just as it removes physical barriers, liberating expression and democratizing access for groups that may feel marginalized in the flesh. With this form of phone-to-phone contact, it is interesting and helpful content that matters most; the particulars of one’s profile become secondary or altogether irrelevant.

This hybrid model of peers and phones seeks to improve the capacity of rural youth to obtain practical financial education and experience. It plays out in neighborhoods and on screens. From our perspective as planners, it offers opportunities both to observe behavior for qualitative insights and to measure data for quantitative ones.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Rollston

I've posed a similar question to another thread that is looking to harness the power of smart phones and a tech base, how do you think this could work for communities that do not have access to this tech or simply can't afford it. I'm from Australia and dependant on carriers there is just not enough coverage in our networks for this idea to have coverage to those that need it most, When I think about the challenge I imagine people from developing/3rd world nations, where I'll assume has even less coverage. Could you see this idea being able to be converted to a physical/paper based application of the idea?

Photo of Rohaina Hassan

I think Rollston makes a great point in terms of accessibility. I also understand that while Rollston is talking about other communities outside of the USA, I think it can also apply to the US' rural communities. I came across a study via Pew Research which has some information that I think after consideration, could help strengthen this idea even more.

Overall, however, I think financial literacy program outreach through mobile means is a great idea!

Photo of An Old Friend

Thank you, Rollston and Rohaina, for addressing the challenge of accessibility. I appreciate your contribution! This issue is central to the concept's effectiveness; my thinking is that a program like this wouldn't wait passively for phones/connectivity to reach the target communities, but rather serve as an engine in that process driving progress. It was inspiring to read an article in The Wall Street Journal two days ago that spotlights the story of a woman whose life was changed by the outreach effort of a startup spreading mobile devices (and know-how) to poor areas:

"Ms. Sumarni’s journey to the Internet took three years of hand-holding and financial support from Ruma, a Jakarta-based startup company that tries to pull people out of poverty through the use of mobile devices.

Ruma showed Ms. Sumarni how to run a business from her basic phone by selling airtime, lent her money to upgrade to her first smartphone and provided lessons on how to use it. Before then, she never aspired to be connected. She didn’t see the point." (Full article here:

To answer your question, Rollston, about a paper-based alternative, I would prefer to focus on accelerating the popularization of the necessary technology - the time period may be longer but the impact far greater. In terms of affordability, this is where I see the likes of paving the way by uniting partners - governments, telecoms, tech companies - around the need for enabling wider access.

Rohaina, that Pew Research study shows encouraging signs! If 64% of Americans owned a smartphone in October 2014, it's not unlikely that 90% will be reached by 2016. This trend in America seems indicative of the global situation. A next step would be to gather more research on relevant rural communities (in the US or abroad) and zoom in on possible pilot areas.

Thanks again, both!

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