mobile assistance
During the hungry season, the period of low crop production from October to March, over 2 million people in Zimbabwe need food assistance. But this year, the U.N. World Food Programme and USAID took a new approach to the seasonal food relief.

The aid organizations utilized mobile assistance on top of direct food aid to help individuals maintain food security. WFP and USAID offered cash transfers in villages where the food supply was high enough to meet consumer needs.

This was a pilot run of the country’s first mobile money assistance program.

Drought and poor harvests in certain regions in the nation critically threaten food security. With low production, food becomes more and more expensive and many to go hungry. Many in Zimbabwe need assistance during these tough times to make it until the more fruitful harvesting season.

The way the program worked was that about a week prior to food distribution, recipients of the mobile cash received a text message that said the $4 for each person in their family was now available in their e-wallet. The individuals could then go directly to the closest EcoNet agent to receive the hard cash.

To make the money accessible, the international organizations worked with EcoNet, the biggest cell phone provider in Zimbabwe, and its partner Steward Bank. With cell phone coverage in over 92 percent of the country, providing direct cash to help families from going hungry proved efficient and reliable.

With the food supply a critical factor in Zimbabwe’s economic state, a new program could only be implemented in regions where food production was high. If the mobile money was to be used in areas where food was scarce, the cash supply would be greater than the food stock.

Instead, the agencies maintained their normal food distribution programs for these regions.

Many receipts greatly appreciated the advantages that came with this new system. Mobile money allowed people in Zimbabwe to directly manage their own funds as needed and gave them the control over what their families consumed, instead of simply taking whatever food was being handed out during distributions.

The combination of mobile money and food assistance also helped to better stimulate local economies. The program grew businesses because it increased cash flow in both local markets and EcoNet businesses. With more Zimbabweans spending money and buying products, the regions hopefully will be able to become more self-sufficient and less reliant on direct food assistance.

From the experience and lessons learned from the first trial run, USAID, WFP and EcoNet plan to use and expand the approach for the next hungry season. Improvements include better verification of recipients and their associated phone numbers and more readily available cash for EcoNet agents.

Though still in its testing stages, the mobile cash program offers a new way to manage aid in Zimbabwe and provides a model to be used in other countries. With the program’s ability to make fewer people reliant on direct food handouts, the goal of the WFP and USAID is to assist Zimbabweans in maintaining food security.

Kathleen Egan

Sources: USAID, WFP, UN
Photo: MercyCorps