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Archives for Afghanistan

The Future of Mobile Money in Afghanistan

Steve Rynecki serves as Mobile Money Adviser at USAID. Below is a follow-up to his June 2012 blog.

Afghanistan is a fascinating place to introduce new technology. The country is leap frogging in the mobile technology space and capturing the world’s imagination with its success with mobile money. Where there were no mobile phones in Afghanistan in 2000, there are now 18 million and growing. Competition in the voice market is fierce in Afghanistan, as it is in much of the world today. In fact, anyone arriving at Kabul International Airport is immediately struck by the numerous advertisements for mobile services. It’s truly an amazing development in the market and has people taking notice.

Afghans are finding new ways of using this technology for public benefit. They’re sharing health advice and commodity price information. They’re creating security and traffic alerts and innovating in ways unimaginable even 5 years ago. When I was here in 2008, Roshan just began the use and promotion of the M-PAISA mobile money service. Over these past five years, I’ve seen remarkable progress in the mobile money space here and globally. Back then, Roshan was the only mobile provider in Afghanistan and optimism for the benefits of mobile money was high. Fast forward to 2013 and we see the picture has changed significantly. Roshan is now competing with three, and soon to be four, other mobile operators, each offering their own mobile money product (Etisalat, MTN, AWCC and AfTel).

Afghanistan is leap frogging with mobile technology. Photo credit: USAID

These products include mobile wallet technology, where customers can store their money digitally as opposed to using cash. They can exchange the digital value for in-store purchases and in transferring funds anywhere a corresponding agent is located. Mobile money can be used to pay utility bills, top up mobile phone minutes and pay school fees. It’s also a great way to distribute salaries and social service benefits like pensions and public assistance. Under the right conditions, it could even be used for cross border Customs duty payments. The possibilities are limited only by our imagination.

To truly understand the mechanics of this technology, I tried it myself. In about 10 minutes I had an M-PAISA account set-up with a local agent in Kabul. I loaded my mobile wallet with the Afghan equivalent of $700.00. Since I can’t live in Afghanistan without buying carpets, I used M-PAISA to pay a carpet dealer in Herat and a friend in Mazar-i-Sharif who lent me cash to purchase another carpet. I was able to pay them both with mobile money in less than 5 minutes. There I was, standing in Kabul, sending money to two different people in two different cities. Each person received a text message from M-PAISA telling them how much I sent. The carpet dealer and my friend simply went to their local Roshan shop and cashed-out. It worked for me. The transfer fee for $700.00 came out to $3.00. But if you add the $6.00 I paid to withdraw $700.00 from the Afghanistan International Bank ATM, we’re looking at closer to $10.00 to transfer the funds. Still, it was worth for me.

So why isn’t everyone using mobile money in Afghanistan? What’s keeping this great service from taking off? As mobile money continues to evolve here, USAID and our partners have identified the following opportunities to help scale the uptake and use of mobile money by:

  • Pricing that allows for rural inclusion
  • Providing interoperability between banks, mobile operators and merchants
  • Exploring new branchless banking laws to help mobile money flourish
  • Better understand consumer preferences for informal money transfers (Hawala)
  • Strategies to ensure rural market liquidity (enough cash in the till for payouts)
  • Business models for mobile operators and agents to ensure their sustainability, as well as challenges on agent recruitment and management
  • Increasing caps on mobile money transactions for Customs duty payments and government salaries

The challenging conditions facing the mobile money industry here are not insurmountable, but they do hinder the uptake of mobile money and need to be carefully taken into consideration. With some 70% of Afghan adults using mobile phones, many local technology and business experts believe there’s a case for operators to offer mobile money. And, I would surmise, the lack of convenient bank branches would be reason enough for Afghans to seek out mobile transfers for their funds.

Consumer behavior is challenging in a country where cash is often salted away in tin cans hidden in walls, etc. And, where assets are often converted into precious metals like gold, savings accounts are rare. Rural Afghans often barter goods and cash is seen as an inconvenience, or even irrelevant when basic needs are met by subsistence farming. Given this environment, USAID and our Afghan partners are working in the following areas to help scale the use of mobile money. Here are a few of the activities we’ve completed or are currently underway for 2013-14:

  • Assisted Afghanistan in becoming a member of the Better Than Cash Alliance
  • Helped establish the Afghan Association of Mobile Money Operators (AMMOA)
  • Working with regional leaders of bank-led branchless banking practices to share knowledge with Afghan counterparts
  • Funding monitoring and evaluation on the utility and teacher salary payment pilots
  • Exploring interim and long-term interoperability solutions to link banks, mobile operators and merchants with international payment systems
  • Working closely with the Afghan government in scaling mobile money pilots for salary and utility payments
  • Designing public-private consumer awareness campaigns
  • Exploring possible regulatory reforms that encourage formal financial transactions

I’ve seen firsthand, for several years now, that mobile technology continues to scale. We’re getting a better understanding of market forces and figuring out how to bring interoperability into this burgeoning market. Who would have believed that in this once shattered country millions of ordinary people would be communicating almost daily on mobile phones. The future is indeed bright and the opportunities are limited only by our imagination.

 

Kazakhstan: Preserving Asia’s Bread Basket

During Earth Week, we’re exploring the connections between climate change and the environment we depend on to sustain us. We start in Kazakhstan, the breadbasket of Central Asia and Afghanistan.

“Ас атасы – нан” – Bread is the head of all foods, Kazakh Proverb

Bread is the lifeblood of the Central Asian diet, so changes in the price and availability of wheat can have significant impacts on food security in the five Central Asian Republics and Afghanistan. In Tajikistan, for example, more than 50% of daily caloric intake comes from bread. While all the countries grow at least a little wheat, it is Kazakhstan—the world’s 7th largest wheat exporter—that occupies the central role in providing this critical staple crop to the entire region.

Bread is the centerpiece of the Central Asian diet. Photo credit: USAID

Yet, climate change is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts in the wheat growing regions, increase extreme temperature events, and change seasonal precipitation patterns. These changes could significantly threaten Kazakhstan’s ability to serve as the region’s breadbasket. Climate change is expected to exacerbate challenges to food security by reducing water availability – critical for agriculture – and increasing natural disasters like droughts and floods. Harvests during drought years in Kazakhstan can be as much as six times smaller than harvests during normal years!

Despite these known trends, there is very little local awareness or concern about climate change in the region. While the Government of Kazakhstan has taken a progressive stance reducing the emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, adaptation to climate change is still a relatively new concept.

USAID is partnering with UNDP and a host of international experts and organizations to improve the climate resiliency of Kazakhstan wheat and Central Asian food security. The goal of our project is to catalyze the process of adaptation in Kazakhstan’s wheat sector, while also opening a regional dialogue around the challenges of climate change to Central Asian food security.

Flour has been a staple of food assistance to Kyrgyzstan, where over 700,000 people have been provided with humanitarian assistance from USAID since 2006. Photo credit: USAID

As the weather becomes more unpredictable and extreme in Kazakhstan’s wheat regions, climate information services that enable farmers, processors, and policymakers to take proactive measures are essential to lessening the harm of this increasing variability. USAID’s program is focusing on improving the understanding of expected climate impacts on wheat in Kazakhstan and developing the capability to provide critical information to key audiences. Our program is also working with the government, the private sector and the research community to mainstream resilience to climate change into their decision making processes, so the growth of the wheat sector in Kazakhstan happens in a way that withstands the changes climate change will bring.

The other Central Asian Republics and Afghanistan – the primary importers of Kazakh wheat – must also be prepared to respond to the impacts of climate change outside their own borders. We’re bringing these countries and Kazakhstan together to discuss risk mitigation strategies that can be taken at a national and regional level to buffer the region against the impacts of climate change on wheat production and food security.

Together with our partners inside and outside the region, USAID is working to ensure that the people of Central Asia and Afghanistan will have a stable, affordable supply of wheat far into the future. The respect accorded to bread and the role it plays in food security is too important to ignore.

Educate Girls, Develop Nations

This blog is part of a series focused on USAID’s innovative approach to reaching Millennium Development Goal #2: Achieve universal primary education. The theme “Room to Learn” highlights programs and priority countries where access to education is now a reality.

As President Obama said, if a country is educating its girls, if women have equal rights, that country is going to move forward. Education is a silver bullet for empowering women and girls worldwide. When girls are educated, their families are healthier, they have fewer children, they wed later, and they have more opportunities to generate income. One extra year of primary school boosts a girl’s future wage 10 to 20 percent and an extra year of secondary school increases that earning potential by 15 to 25 percent. Education also helps moms take better care of their kids.  According to the World Bank (PDF), each additional year of female education reduces child mortality by 18 per thousand births.

A young female student in Alma Village, southern Ethiopia. Photo credit: Susan Liebold

These are amazing statistics but I’ve also been fortunate enough to see for myself the high returns to investing in education. While in Kabul I met with an incredible group of young women who were educated entirely in post-Taliban Afghanistan. They reminded me how critically important education is to peace, prosperity and empowerment. Those young women represent the future for a country that had virtually no girls in school less than fifteen years ago. Today, Afghan girls are more than a third of the students. I am proud that USAID is supporting community-based schools in Afghanistan and that our literacy effort is playing an instrumental role in ensuring these girls get an education; it is an investment that will pay dividends for generations to come.

Globally, enormous progress has been made in closing the gender gap in primary education over the last twenty years. In most of the world today, a similar percentage of girls and boys attend primary schools. Yet disparities endure—there are 3.6 million more girls out of school compared to boys around the world. Women still comprise the majority (two-thirds) of the illiterate. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, obtaining an education remains particularly tough for women and girls. The World Bank estimates that half of the out-of-school girls in the world live in Sub-Saharan Africa and one quarter of them live in South Asia.

But it’s not just about access. Compounding the problem is a lack of quality education. For example, in Malawi robust primary school enrollment and matriculation rates are reported. However, a closer inspection of the educational system reveals that many students finish their schooling without being able to read. Therefore, a focus on both the quality of education and enrollment rates is needed.

We know that educating women and girls has tremendous multiplying effects for families, communities, and societies.  That is why USAID launched five leadership partnerships involving universities in the U.S. and in Armenia, Paraguay, Rwanda and South Sudan to promote gender equality and women’s leadership. These programs will promote and develop curricula and opportunities for women in business, agriculture, and education in order to increase women’s access to higher education and advanced degrees, strengthen institutional capacity in research and education on women’s leadership, and promote women’s leadership through higher education extension and outreach to underserved communities.

We are very excited to be collaborating with academic institutions in the United States and abroad to advance women’s leadership. These partnerships offer a meaningful and important opportunity to ensure women are empowered, ultimately advancing economies and societies globally.

A New Investment Model for Afghanistan

Alex Thier serves as assistant to the administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan

This originally featured on the Huffington Post.

When I imagine the holy grail of sustainable development in a rural Afghan province, it is a cycle of inclusive economic growth and investment which, in turn, finances social development efforts with a high level of community engagement. This dream took a significant step closer to reality this week.

I’m proud to announce that the United States government has signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a new and innovative public-private partnership in Afghanistan with the Aga Khan Foundation. This MOU establishes the framework for USAID’s work with AKDN to create a ground-breaking private sector-led model for development in Afghanistan – a model that focuses on economic growth and sustainably.

Both USAID and AKDN firmly believe that Afghanistan’s development will depend heavily on the Afghan private sector and economic growth. With the support of the Department of State, USAID and AKDN will seek to foster such growth by focusing on private financing of social development. With investments in the Afghan private sector, USAID will turn profits into social development funds, using private sector financing to help solidify the health, education, economic and governance gains made in Afghanistan over the past ten years.

Over a five year period, USAID and AKDN will each commit to investing $30 million to leverage private sector investments into social development projects as well as provide direct social development assistance. Proceeds from USAID’s investments will be invested exclusively inside Afghanistan. Our support will center on economic activities that promote cross border trade and regional integration, especially in agribusiness, governance and civil society, market development, health, energy, extractives and manufacturing.

Our shared goal is to leverage the private sector to advance social development. Creating jobs and business through this project should lead to a “virtuous cycle” where economic development is self-enabling and self-sustaining as these for-profit incubators serve as future funding mechanisms for development efforts.

Alex Thier serves as assistant to the administrator for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Better Than Cash: Project Update

Through foreign aid, the United States helps to lift millions out of poverty, creating a path to prosperity through education and training, and supporting American interests here at home. But because half of the world operates without a formal banking system, assistance often reaches farmers, employees, and families as cash-in-hand. Cash is messy. It puts people at risk of theft, enables graft, and takes time (and additional money) to transport. We can do better.

We need to find ways to help the 2.5 billion adults who manage their money primarily as cash to leapfrog into a cashless marketplace.

Afghan men listen as a representative from M-Paisa, or mobile money, describes how mobile bill pay works. Photo credit: FAIDA

To accelerate the replacement of cash with inclusive electronic payments, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) created the Better Than Cash Alliance, a group of countries and private companies all over the world committed to solving the “messy cash” problem. In keeping with this effort to accelerate the replacement of cash with inclusive electronic payments, our White House-supported Presidential Innovation Fellow (PIF) decided to focus on Afghanistan; a country dominated by a cash economy.  In Afghanistan, the cost of building out a traditional banking structure is prohibitive in the largely rural, often insecure country. But almost all Afghans now have cell phones. The near-ubiquity of mobile phone coverage offers a tantalizing opportunity to connect millions of Afghans to the economy and move both public and private sector payments into efficient, transparent “cash” channels.

However, expansion of mobile money was running into two problems. One was getting critical mass adoption. Think about the early days when few had cell phones and there was no one to call. And the second problem was interoperability. Mobile money would catch on like wildfire, if only you could send or receive cash electronically no matter which mobile operator you subscribed to.

Mobile payment services were first introduced to the Afghan market in 2009 by the largest mobile network operator, Roshan, who launched a product that essentially tried to replicate Safaricom’s phenomenally successful M-Pesa mobile money transfer service in Kenya.  Though operationally successful and a proven tool for reducing corruption (as demonstrated by a pilot program to pay police by mobile instead of cash that netted a 30% increase in received salary for the officers), getting more government ministries to pay their employees was proving too slow.

USAID, through an innovation fund of public-private partnerships, addressed the adoption problem; we decided to simultaneously take on the interoperability problem. Today, phone companies in Afghanistan don’t typically function cooperatively—they don’t provide “roaming” services, for example— and aren’t equipped to share user minutes across networks. The same problem will hinder the growth of the broader mobile money sector if each phone company’s mobile money service develops in a silo, and customers are unable to transact with peers and businesses using other networks. We also know that a mobile-money ecosystem can only grow if managers on the ground can effectively track and evaluate cash-flow to employees. In the United States, Federal employees are paid electronically every month, in full, and on time. We want to work with our Afghan government partners to ensure that Afghan public employees receive the same—and this will require tools to better evaluate and manage information.

Today, 100,000 Afghan teachers still receive their salaries in cash, a cumbersome process that often results in delayed and incomplete payments. That’s why we created a text-message survey tool which ministries and program officers can use to ask employees whether they have been paid correctly, and begin building a database of phone numbers as employees transition to mobile paychecks. We’ve also worked on solutions to drive broad adoption of mobile phone-based financial services. Getting paid by mobile phone is great, but if basic life necessities can only be bought with cash—then a cashless marketplace will not flourish. USAID’s on-the-ground mission in Afghanistan enables Afghans to sign up to pay their electric bills via mobile phone, vastly improving convenience for customers and beginning to improve revenue collection, a critical requirement for maintain and expanding access to the electrical grid. So far, more than 100,000 individuals have joined the program.

Many countries around the world could benefit from an enhanced mobile-money marketplace.  In fact, Tanzania and Indonesia (PDF) are already working to build their own electronic payment ecosystems. There is much more work to be done. As we continue to lay a framework and accelerate progress in Afghanistan, we plan to share lessons learned with other countries and work toward a more efficient foreign aid system that is, in many ways, better than cash.

Karl Mehta is a Presidential Innovation Fellow working on Better Than Cash at USAID.

Seth Wainer is a Program Analyst at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Learn more about or apply for the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. 

Photo of the Week: Farming Grapes in Afghanistan

Two farmers in Afghanistan. Photo Credit: USAID/Afghanistan

Over 22 varieties of grapes were planted on the Afghan’s Ministry of Agriculture’s research farm to establish a grape foundation nursery. USAID-funded projects introduced trellising, a practice that increases the quality of grapes and overall yields.

FrontLines Year in Review: Apps for Afghanistan

This is part of our FrontLines Year in Review series. This originally appeared in FrontLines September/October 2012 issue.

With a recent explosion in mobile phones, USAID engages Afghanistan’s best and brightest to grow mobile money.

Just a decade ago, Afghans had to travel to Pakistan to make international calls. The landline phone infrastructure had completely fallen into disarray during the civil war, and there were no mobile phone operators. The first American diplomats and U.N. workers to return to Kabul after the fall of the Taliban carried backpacks full of costly satellite phones for the new Afghan emergency government.

But smart, early regulatory decisions by Afghan lawmakers, based on technical assistance from USAID and other donors, engendered the rapid growth of a profitable and competitive sector, pushing down airtime prices well within reach of normal Afghans. Today, Afghanistan is awash in mobile phones, with more than 18 million active subscriptions in a country of 28 million.

This explosion of mobile users has created a network that bridges the country’s formidable urban-rural divide while transcending gaps in physical infrastructure, low literacy rates and pervasive insecurity.

An Afghan youth uses his mobile phone to take pictures in Musa Qala. Photo credit: Dmitry Kostyukov, AFP

The near-ubiquity of mobile phone coverage has allowed Afghanistan to join the vanguard of countries experimenting with innovative new uses for the mobile channel, using the networks to extend services and information cheaply to populations lacking access through other means. Among the most promising is mobile money—the ability to safely store and transfer “e-money” via SMS, avoiding the expense and danger associated with moving cash, while extending the reach of basic financial services from the 5 percent of the population with accounts in brick-and-mortar banks to the 65 percent of Afghans who use mobile phones.

Already, m-money trials facilitated by the U.S. Government, such as paying government salaries by mobile instead of cash, are demonstrating startling benefits: In Wardak province, police deployed in unbanked communities report “raises” of 30 percent when paid via mobile; cash payments of salaries in Afghanistan are exceedingly vulnerable to corruption. Equally promising applications to extend and repay micro loans and pay household electricity bills are beginning to roll out, delivering dramatic increases in efficiency.

As the mobile network operators increasingly focus on scaling their mobile money products and agent networks, USAID is working in partnership with the private sector to aggregate demand and provide consumer education to Afghans, most of whom are unfamiliar with or mistrustful of the formal banking system. In one novel approach, the Agency is working with the Association of Mobile Money Operators of Afghanistan to harness the creativity and energy of Afghanistan’s best and brightest to develop mobile money applications to address pressing problems faced daily by Afghans.

An Afghan Avalanche of Ideas

The overwhelming response to an app design competition this year among Afghan university students illustrated just how compelling up-and-coming young Afghans find mobile money—more than 5,000 students across the country submitted ideas, many of which focused on how mobile money on how mobile money could improve the Afghan Government’s ability to provide basic services transparently and efficiently.

Others put forward ways in which mobile money could help empower individuals by giving them tools to manage their own finances, a particular boon for women, who often rely on male relatives to conduct financial transactions on their behalf.

Such competitions can trigger a network effect, drawing students into the design process and drawing in new mobile money users—and expanding the mobile technology sector.

Afghan officials say the enthusiasm generated by the contest and subsequent avalanche of ideas bodes well for future uptake of mobile money in Afghanistan given the country’s demographics. With two-thirds of Afghans age 25 years or younger, Afghanistan is truly a land of potential early adopters…[continued]

Read the rest of the article in FrontLines.

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Remembering USAID’s Ragaei Abdelfattah

Alex Thier is Assistant to the Administrator and Director of the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Photo Credit: USAID.

On Friday, USAID honored a fallen colleague and friend, Ragaei Abdelfattah, who lost his life in Afghanistan. A plaque bearing his name was adjoined to a memorial remembering all USAID staff who have died while carrying out USAID’s mission around the world.

Trained in architecture and urban planning, Ragaei used his knowledge and skills to help others.  From working for the United Nations Development Program in Egypt to the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission in the Washington, DC area, he shaped the physical world, and was pursuing a PhD in planning, governance and globalization at Virginia Tech to expand his impact. In 2011, he chose to serve his country by joining USAID and working in eastern Afghanistan to help local communities improve governance and advance development.

He believed in the importance of Afghans having opportunities to better their lives – from Afghan girls having access to school to poor farmers having the ability to register the land their families have owned for generations.

One of the projects Ragaei was working on was helping the Afghan government further develop an industrial park in Nangarhar province. They hoped this park would bring electricity, employment, and lasting economic progress to the Afghans living there.  Supporting Afghans as their rebuild their country —  the virtuous cycle has begun where international investments are spurring private sector investments and increased economic growth.  Regaei’s work is having a lasting impact.

In the months since his passing I have learned a lot about his spirit and dedication.  Stories from colleagues, friends and family paint a picture of a hardworking, generous man with a sense of humor.  A man admired by the Afghans and Americans with whom he worked, he pushed for sustainable, Afghan-led solutions to development challenges.  He leaves behind a wife and two teenage sons. And the legacy of his work goes on, carried forward by the many Americans and Afghans he inspired with his good nature, his inexhaustible commitment, and his friendly smile.

A plaque bearing his name was adjoined to a memorial remembering fallen USAID staff. Photo Credit: USAID

Thanks to the work of Ragaei and his colleagues incredible development gains have been achieved in Afghanistan over the last 11 years.  From increasing the number of children in school to eight million, to increasing the life expectancy by 15 to 20 years, to a 20 percent increase in government revenues, to a five-fold increase in GDP, there has been undeniable progress.

On August 8, 2012 as Ragaei headed to a meeting at a provincial governor’s compound, he was killed with three coalition soldiers and an Afghan by an explosion.

Secretary Clinton said of his tragic death,“Ragaei’s work over the last year was critical to our efforts to support Afghanistan’s political, economic, and security transitions and was an example of the highest standards of service.” Ragaei showed the deep commitment and sacrifice of the many dedicated USAID staff who serve in conflict countries like Afghanistan around the world.

USAID will continue Ragaei’s important work supporting the Afghan people to create a stable and secure Afghanistan for themselves.

Follow Assistant Administrator Alex Thier on Twitter at @Thieristan

Pounds of Prevention – Focus on Afghanistan

USAID is helping farmers in Ghor Province, Afghanistan, improve how they identify potato seeds (A), sort and store them (B), plant them (C), and harvest them (D), reducing the risk of crop loss at every step. Photo Credit: Catholic Relief Services

In this installment of USAID’s Pounds of Prevention series, we take a look at how USAID—through its partnership with Catholic Relief Services— is helping vulnerable farmers reduce post-harvest losses as a result of poor storage conditions. We focus on western Afghanistan, where the potato plays a key role in nourishing families through the harsh winter months. In the traditional-style potato storage pit, farmers lost up to half of their potato seeds to rot due to poor ventilation. Read on to learn how, with just a few modifications to the pit design, losses have decreased from 50 percent to just 5 percent.

Working Together to Save Moms & Kids in Afghanistan

A decade ago, Afghanistan’s health system collapsed, leaving crumbling and neglected infrastructure, widespread prevalence of malnutrition, infectious disease, and some of the highest maternal mortality rates the world had ever seen. Over the last decade, the Ministry of Public Health, in a strong partnership with the international community, has made major progress in improving the health of Afghan mothers and children. National programs to improve the quality of, and increase access to, basic health services and essential hospital services, along with programs to increase the number of trained female providers including midwives, and improved community-based healthcare, contributed to these significant achievements.

In Afghanistan, USAID is working with the Government to build capacity in its Ministry of Health, among midwives, and in local hospitals, and have helped to increase health coverage from eight percent to over 60 percent of the people over ten years.  This progress has helped the country realize an incredible drop in infant, child and maternal mortality rates, and the global community move the dial on Millennium Development Goals 4 and 5.

Watch Dr. Suraya Dalil, Minister of Public Health in Afghanistan, talk about this incredible milestone.

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