Economic Development

Antipoverty Apps

mPowering has created an app that awards goods and services to individuals facing extreme poverty when they make beneficial choices, such as attending school or seeking prenatal care.

Children at Citta middle School in Orissa, India, use cell phones to access mPowering's incentive and rewards program. (Photo by Gabriel Gastelum, Courtesy of mPowering) 

In a rural village in Orissa, the poorest state in India, children often wake up in mud huts with hunger gnawing at their bellies. Until recently, they faced only two choices: Go to school and improve their long-term prospects through education, or skip school and work for a pittance so they can buy a little food. A new organization called mPowering is using technology to deliver a third option: Go to school and earn credits that can be redeemed for food, medicine, and other incentives.

The mPowering model leverages rewards to improve the lives of “the poorest of the poor,” says Kamael Ann Sugrim, co-founder and president of mPowering. “The ultra poor spend 80 percent of their income on food but still fail to meet their daily nutritional needs,” she explains. “That leads to people making short-term decisions because they’re hungry. We want to help them make long-term decisions that will lead them out of poverty.”

Thanks to mPowering, now there’s an app for that. The organization doesn’t provide direct services. Instead, mPowering connects with nonprofit partners such as Citta, which provides education, health care, and other services in high-poverty areas. When Sugrim visits project sites like Orissa or Bhaktapur, Nepal, she finds high concentrations of extreme poverty—as well as cell phone coverage that rivals what she has back home in Silicon Valley.

Through its partners, mPowering distributes smartphones loaded with mobile apps to monitor desired behaviors, such as kids attending school or expectant mothers accessing prenatal care. Participants can cash in their earned credits for “food, medicine, books, or even extras they’d never be able to afford, like bicycles,” Sugrim says.

To implement the program, mPowering has created new job opportunities for adults who serve as local project liaisons. “They tend to be young leaders who want to help their community,” she explains. They’re also handy with mobile devices, which they use to record attendance or take photos to document positive moments.

With another mPowering app, data collected at the project sites is channeled back to donors in real time. For instance, a donor might get a Facebook photo showing a sponsored child celebrating perfect school attendance or eating a nutritious lunch. These real-time updates will help keep donors engaged, Sugrim predicts, “especially the 17-year-olds who are on Facebook and Twitter but also are looking for ways they can make a difference. We think this can unlock this interesting group of young donors and hold their attention.”

Sugrim says the idea for mPowering began to take shape after she spent five years in the corporate world, most recently at Co-founder Jeff Martin spent a decade at Apple Computer before starting Tribal Brands, which combines entertainment marketing with mobile technology. Their shared goal is to take advantage of ubiquitous technology, “and reach the bottom bottom of the pyramid,” Sugrim says.

One of their first challenges was to develop picture-based mobile applications to get around literacy and translation issues. The picture-based apps run on smartphones, not the simpler cell phones that are more common in the developing world.

MobileActive, which focuses on mobile technologies for social change, has documented the use of phones to promote health care, microfinance, literacy, and other efforts. “Fairly simple apps are accomplishing a lot of interesting things,” says Katrin Verclas, co-founder of MobileActive. But the human dimension typically proves harder than app development. For mobile projects to succeed at the bottom of the pyramid, “you really have to understand your users.”

That’s a message mPowering is taking to heart. “We’re challenging ourselves to take into consideration the behaviors and needs of the ultra poor,” says Sugrim. “What gets them motivated? What are the barriers they’re facing? The technology is cool,” she says, “but we don’t want to forget the issues they are dealing with every day.”

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  • BY T.J. Cook

    ON August 4, 2011 01:59 PM

    Very exciting approach. SMS is so limiting in what it can actually track in terms of the broad measurement and evaluation category of great-cause work.

    However, my question for this initiative is what percentage of rural areas indeed do have the bandwidth required to support data connections that the apps demand? I’m just thinking in terms of sustainability and scalability of the model.

    Awesome write up.

  • tarun jain's avatar

    BY tarun jain

    ON August 4, 2011 06:43 PM

    I am also sceptic about the scalability of the model. however, a strong govt support can help.

    Do let me know for any help. i am based in New Delhi

    All the best!

    .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

  • Susie Mehta's avatar

    BY Susie Mehta

    ON August 6, 2011 06:04 AM

    Its a great program to raise awareness, perhaps, but not quite effective for behavior change. I worry that “donors” and others see mobile apps as magic bullets to end poverty without the evidence and then redirect funds from other programs to fund the new flavor of the month!!!

  • BY Danny Fafard projetBrique

    ON August 6, 2011 08:44 AM

    We have a semilar program in Quebec schools ( English or French) open school around the world. the students have to accumulate bricks (according to the teachers desirer behavior) to build a house (reward). The school as to purchase a lisence and the school parent comittee has to solicitate the community. The bricks can be exchange toward one big price draw.

  • BY David Ray

    ON August 8, 2011 10:28 AM

    An interesting and very creative way to help people do what they already want to do but experience pressures that drive them not to.  It seems that the kind of behavioral economics Karlan and Appel discuss in More Than Good Intentions could be relevant here.

    My larger concern is that the model could reinforce the flawed idea that extreme poverty is primarily the fault of the poor themselves rather than of the larger systems in which they live —if they only made better decisions they wouldn’t be poor.  this is an intriguing program but needs to be partnered with larger efforts to change the systemic issues that limit poor people’s options in the first place.

  • BY Darren Bunton

    ON August 10, 2011 12:57 PM

    A wonderful program for a worthy cause. I think the mPowering model is ideal for replication in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, if not already being implemented. The sentiment I gather in my conversations with other practitioners and friends in the region, is that programs as such are both welcomed and appreciated by those whom are aware of the macrocosmic influences of their present conditions. In the same sense that app developers must know the users, app users should know the facilitators of the program. Programs incorporating SMS/MMS into social activism, citizen media, and behavior modification are technologically hip. What culture doesn’t want to be current, no matter what cohort.

    The 15 and 17-year old participants who are the social medialites, are also actors in disseminating information via their social media sites and smartphone devices. Reinforcement through rewards and recognition comes in the form of practitioners being able to use their phones for other uses; such as social network interaction and entertainment. I love it, youth being rewarded become indirect active change agents. Meeting the needs of the ultra poor, yet needing to cover unavoidable expenses for technology, will continue to come from creative seeding, although indications suggest that impact investing continues to increase.  As for progress in the broad measurement and evaluation categories, advances are currently being developed to improve empirical categorization. I could be a little bit off point, but this program has me rather excited about its potential.

  • Lorena  Valencia's avatar

    BY Lorena Valencia

    ON November 10, 2011 10:45 PM

    I’m new to this field, thus I wanted to ask you a bit more about the future of mobile technology used for social causes. Should we focus our energies into developing text/voice based programs (for the typical cellphone low income populations have and ca afford) or do we try to actually create a low cost smartphone with interactive apps?
    Taking in consideration what TJ Cook mentioned in the first post about access to sufficient bandwidth, is it better to stick to the simple text message? My concern with this is that I feel we are limiting ourselves.

  • BY Suzanne Jamison

    ON November 15, 2011 10:22 AM

    There is a third way that does not require children to make a choice between school or working for food.  Performing Life teaches street children skills that they can use to make more money in a shorter amount of time and thereby purchase their own time to attend school. Children who work on the streets are like independent contractors: they control their own time and make their own money, although they frequently give most of it to their parents or family members.  By earning more in a shorter time, they can both go to school and eat.  For the children who attend our circus arts classes and go to school regularly, Performing Life offers other opportunities for earning money and starting savings accounts.  So far, several sibling groups have purchased land and built family homes by using the savings as equity. Others have started microenterprises, and still others have helped with medical expenses and continued their higher education.  Some of the older youth who have been with the program for several years are now employed teaching classes.  Performing Life is a youth-led and -managed nonprofit that was founded in 2005 by John Connell when he was 18 years old.  The first classes were held in March 2006 with six children in a central plaza in Cochabamba, Bolivia.  To date, the program has worked with hundreds of youth and benefited several thousand family members, helping them build a self-determined future through the arts.

  • Satish Krishnan's avatar

    BY Satish Krishnan

    ON December 31, 2011 08:14 PM

    Its really appreciated that children “Go to school and earn credits that can be redeemed for food, medicine, and other incentives.” This programme is intended to the children who were going to school and have a mobile in their hands! What about those children who lost one of their parents at a very early age and are not going to school, do not have a mobile in their hands, and are working to feed their family. This most encouraging and appreciated programme must be extended to those mis-fortunate or less privileged children who were not attending school and who must be given the opportunity to study in schools such as evening schools or schools on wheels( mobile schools).

  • James's avatar

    BY James

    ON May 17, 2015 10:18 PM

    They used a great way to engage poor children in education. mPowering app development firm is using technology for third option. I think this excellent method to do this activity.

  • James Martin's avatar

    BY James Martin

    ON May 31, 2015 09:49 PM

    mPowering organization is doing a great work with the use of technology. They are using best event iphone app for poor children.

  • mPowering organization doing a wonderful job for empowering the poor children who seeks for better education. I do support this cause.

    Vinity Soft Inc.

  • Borlat's avatar

    BY Borlat

    ON July 9, 2016 01:46 AM

    Thanks to mPowering, now there’s an app for that. The organization doesn’t provide direct services. Instead, mPowering connects with nonprofit partners such as Citta, which provides education, health care, and other services in high-poverty areas.


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