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Somalia: Leading in mobile money technology

A Somalian man looking at the camera holding a mobile phone in his right hand.

Mohamed*, a former herder who is now internally displaced due to the drought, uses mobile-money transfers with a voice identification system. All photos: CARE

Mohamed*, a former herder who is now internally displaced due to the drought, uses mobile-money transfers with a voice identification system. All photos: CARE

Somalia has become one of the most dynamic markets for mobile-money transfers in the world.

It’s a country devastated by climatic shocks and political conflicts, with 6.9 million people in dire need of humanitarian assistance. One in five Somalis do not have enough to eat. 1.7 million children face acute malnutrition. More than half of the population is now water insecure. And yet, despite these challenges to basic survival, the country is finding ways to use technology to keep ahead of disaster.

From central Afghanistan to coastal Alabama, humanitarian organizations are trying to figure out the best ways to reach people living in areas that are difficult to access, either because of terrain or political insecurity. CARE Somalia has come up with a unique solution to this “last mile” problem through mobile-money technology, and, in particular, voice recognition technology.

A new way to deliver “cash”

Somalia’s financial ecosystem is dominated by mobile money. 86 percent of people fifteen and older have access to mobile phones, and 73 percent of them use mobile money transfer.

CARE, in collaboration with Global System for Mobile Communications, and Somali telecommunication companies Golis and Telesom, introduced a voice identification (Voice-ID) verification system to disburse cash assistance.

The participants in this program are primarily displaced and those affected by political conflicts and natural calamities, such as droughts and floods.

This initiative enabled CARE to use a Beneficiary Biometric Registration system from registration to verification. The system now allows for more accurate and accountable verification of end-users’ identity than previous methods which did not have Voice-ID verification.

In other words, the new system ensures that the money goes to the right people.

Dial 374. Press 2.

Mobile-money transfers with Voice-ID technology ensure fast and hassle-free cash disbursements to CARE program participants, including internally displaced individuals like Maryam* and her family.

“This new system is quite fast and reduces the risk of money being sent to the wrong person,” says Maryam*, an internally displaced Voice-ID user from Hingalool in northeastern Somalia.

Before, anyone with her phone could access her money, even though CARE teams had a fingerprinting process and other forms of verification.

“Now,” she says, “we receive a voice message from the mobile operator once cash disbursement is done. To receive cash, I dial 374, press 2, and state the phrase that was recorded during the registration, which is my pin.”

Once the system verifies her voice, the money is deposited.

First the cash, now the rain

CARE distributes most of the money as emergency assistance to help people in need to cope with different shocks, displacement, floods and droughts. Once they’re on their feet again, they work to stabilize the rest of their lives.

“We received $60 a month for three months as emergency cash assistance,” says Hali*, an internally displaced person living in a camp. “Now my children can get something to eat three times a day. Thanks to Allah, we have been able to survive with the money. We hope we will get good rain soon so that we can go back home and keep our livestock again.”

“We managed to buy food items such as sugar, flour, rice, cooking oil, drinkable water, and vegetables. Now we can even afford to visit the clinic nearby for medical care,” adds Ibado*, another program participant.

“I was a street vendor in Las Anod before the conflict destroyed our livelihoods,” says Halima*, another program participant. “I lost some of my loved ones and now live in this camp with my three daughters. After registering, I received $75 per month for three months. This helped my family not only access food and water but also buy a door for our small, makeshift home.”

Fazia*, displaced as a result of the floods, uses a voice identification system to receive cash assistance.

Reaching the right people, saving staff time and program costs, through technology

The program staff says the Voice-ID technology saves them 10-12 days of work per distribution cycle, which usually takes place every three months. This includes a full week for registration and another week for payment verification. Live data access and cleaning helps eliminate wrong entries and duplications.

“Before the introduction of the Voice-ID system, CARE used a manual system that involved the physical collection of a signature or thumbprint of program participants after every disbursement,” Abdi Nur Elmi, the Emergency Director for CARE in Somalia, says. “This was an expensive process for CARE, and it also inconvenienced beneficiaries.”

Since its inception in 2020, the Voice ID system has reached more than 440,000 people, providing them with timely and safe access to cash assistance.

“With this one [Voice-ID] only the voice is sufficient,” says Fatuma*, a Voice ID user.

"We used to have cases when the money would be transferred to the wrong person... But now since one must verify with voice before getting the money, such cases have disappeared."

Fatuma, Voice-ID participant

“Voice-ID has enhanced accountability and helped reduce fraud by using identity verification as a trigger for the release of the cash. This technology is cost effective since physical verification after disbursement is not needed and it is also user friendly. We continue to explore other systems that we can use to protect the people we serve and for us to be more efficient,” Abdi Nur Elmi says.

In 2023 alone, climactic shocks and conflict displaced a record 2.9 million people in Somalia. 2024 projects to be just as bad, if not worse. Regular cash support can be a lifeline for the affected people to secure the daily essentials they need for survival. This program is just one way the people of Somalia are showing how innovation and resilience will play a critical role in creating a livable future as the effects of climate change grow worse.

*Names changed.

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