A COVID cash transfer programme in Togo that gives more money to women

The Innovation Dividend explores how innovation in society and government are paying off. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring how ‘policy frontliners’ are innovating in real time in the COVID-19 pandemic and asking which of these changes and “raw learnings” might become part of our new normal. You can see the backstory by Kal Joffres here, Podcast EP 1, Podcast EP2, Podcast EP3, Podcast EP4, Podcast EP5, Podcast EP6, Podcast EP7, and Podcast EP8

Togo built a fully digital cash transfer programme serving over 12% of the population from scratch in just 10 days in response to COVID-19. The programme pays out more to women than to men and it has successfully reached out to vulnerable populations by doing some very non-digital things. We speak with Cina Lawson, Minister of Postal Affairs and Digital Economy in the Togo Government and Shegun Bakari, the senior adviser to the Togo President about Novissi, a fully digital cash transfer scheme aimed at workers in the informal sector.

Lawson has held her post since 2013. She was featured twice in Forbes’ top 20 “Youngest power women in Africa”. She received the Harvard Kennedy School Alumni Public Service Award last year and she is the first African woman political figure to receive the award. This interview was recorded on June 9, 2020.

[00:00:00] Cina Lawson: Prior to that, for every, any social project, people within the administration would resist the use of digital means saying, oh, poor people don’t have food. They don’t, they may not know how to register because they don’t know how to read and write, et cetera, et cetera. So what everybody found out what we as the Digital Ministry we were already very convinced of was that when you offer people something that makes sense to them, they know how to use it. And they were very fond of mobile payments as well.

[00:00:38] Millie Begovic: Hi, my name is Millie Begovic.

[00:00:40] Kal Joffres: And I’m Kal Joffres.

[00:00:41] Millie Begovic: Welcome to The Innovation Dividend. The podcast that explores how innovation in society and governments is unleashing new solutions and approaches to stubborn development problems.

[00:00:51] Kal Joffres: Today we speak with Cina Lawson, Minister of Postal Affairs and Digital Economy in the Togo government, and Shegun Bakari, the Senior Advisor to the Togo President about Novissi, a fully digital cash transfer scheme aimed at workers in the informal sector.

[00:01:06] Millie Begovic: We hear about how they built a program serving over 12% of the population from scratch in just 10 days in response to COVID-19 that they built it to pay out more to women than men and how they successfully reached the vulnerable populations by doing some very non-digital things.

[00:01:24] Kal Joffres: Minister Cina Lawson has held her posts since 2013. She was featured twice in Forbes, Top 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa, and she received the Harvard Kennedy School Alumni Public Service Award last year. She was the first African woman political figure to receive that award.

[00:01:41] Millie Begovic: Minister Cina Lawson, Mr. Shegun Bakari, thank you for your time, and thank you for joining us at The Innovation Dividend podcast.

[00:01:50] Cina Lawson: Thank you for having us here.

[00:01:52] Millie Begovic: Could you tell us a little bit how the digitally enabled cash transfer scheme for workers in the informal sector started?

[00:02:00] Cina Lawson: The rest of the world where we were hit by the COVID crisis. And, our government decided to implement, social distancing measures, including curfews and also, the, we had to close certain cities, the capital city.

Before applying these rules, the president of Togo, told us, asked us to find a system by which we would put together, to, to create a platform, to enable a cash transfer for the people who would be the most impacted by social distancing measures. So the Novissi program is really, was built and designed in order to help those people who are the most vulnerable population and the most impacted by the anti-COVID measures. And we’re talking about the informal sector. We’re talking about people who are street vendors. We’re talking about hair hairdressers. We’re talking about motorcycle, taxi drivers who could no longer work because of these measures.

[00:03:22] Kal Joffres: How did you reach out to these different groups who typically might not have a great deal of contact with government or maybe show up in government registries?

[00:03:30] Cina Lawson: They actually do show up in registries. You know, these people, we, we decided that we were going to register them, but in a whole digital manner, we needed to make sure that we could identify them, but we couldn’t afford to have them come to any administration to get registered. So the idea we, we implemented was to use the national the voters ID, because we recently had an election.

So we had access to up-to-date voters database. And it’s important because the, in this database, there are 3.6 million inhabitants, and which is pretty much half of Togolese population. And as you know, Togo, like many other African countries have, has a half of its population who are, below, below 18.

[00:04:25] Kal Joffres: When it comes to the system that was put in place to provide these transfers. what was built as part of the response to the COVID crisis and what was already there when you started responding to the crisis?

[00:04:36] Cina Lawson: We were very well aware that the majority of the people we would target would not have a smartphone. So we wanted to register them using a short code. It’s actually *855# just to make sure that, they would be able to register.

[00:04:53] So the platform did not exist. It took us maybe 10 days. It was a night-and-day type of work. The team really worked very hard to pull this up and, it took us 10 days to build the platform. The decision was that we needed to build an end-to-end solution to manage the registration process, to try disbursements to be able to see in real time, who was getting the funding, where these people were located, et cetera. So we build pretty much the platform in 10 days.

[00:05:27] In terms of what existed prior to that, it was the first, the first time we were doing this. So not much existed. We had some projects where we needed to have a USSD platform, but nothing compared to that, I mean, we did in 2017, I think a project with the ministry of agriculture, where, where we designed a platform to give subsidies to vegetable farmers.

[00:05:55] So we did have projects like this, where we’re targeting a group of population and try to help them but pretty much it was subsidies. So it was not the same type of approach.

[00:06:07] Kal Joffres: Have you previously built platforms in 10 days or is this something that’s new?

[00:06:11] Cina Lawson: This was new. I mean, it, it was new. I mean, but super motivated because we’re telling them that imagine we’re going to help all these people who need it, and the guys worked really hard and because they believed in it. And because for us all, it was sure that this was going to be such a transparent project and we wanted this.

[00:06:37] We wanted to set new a new rule for the future. Every time we were saying, we need to succeed because if we succeed from now on every time we’re going to spend money to help the poorest of all citizens, it’s going to be traceable. We are going to be able to have a dashboard in real time. So everybody was really excited. Shegun?

[00:07:00] Shegun Bakari: Yeah, I think transparency was, I think, the was one of the foundation of this program because when we started this program, we think we will, we will send lots of money to the people. And we need to be sure that everybody at any time can have, can get the exact data on how many, how many people, are the beneficiaries, how much money we send.

[00:07:30] Millie Begovic: There is a very interesting feature of the program where a decision is deliberately made that women receive more funding than men. Now, we have seen in the past that in post-disasters or post-crisis contexts, many development and humanitarian organizations use grants used the conditionality that women can apply.

[00:07:50] They have the land registered and they use this to sort of try to tilt the power balance in the, in the, in the society. However, you’re doing this on-the-go, in the middle of the crisis in the emergency context. Could you tell us a little bit about what has driven this decision in the, in the scheme?

[00:08:09] Cina Lawson: The Novissi was designed to support households. And so if you want to support a household, we want to support a family. Women are in general, they nurture the households more than more than male. That’s what we’ve seen in, in, in Togo and, and in West Africa. So that was something we were thinking.

[00:08:32] Let’s, let’s make sure that the money that we spend goes to the family, goes to the kids, and who else then the mother of the family to make that happen. So, so that was number one, and they were over, over consideration such as the, the, the number of women we, that are in the informal sector. The majority of the informal sector is really composed of, women, you know, who are resellers, dressmakers, hairdressers.

[00:09:04] So again, it was, it was a way to make sure that we were targeting the right people.

[00:09:09] Millie Begovic: What has been the response of the public to this decision?

[00:09:14] Cina Lawson: The fact that the president decided that women would get more than men also was appreciated.

[00:09:21] They were, it was appreciated by women, of course, but by a lot of people, because the rationale was very clear, we’re helping families. We’re going through women to help families, and I think that was a message that was very easy to understand. And also, a lot of women felt recognized, their role was recognized and their ability to manage funds was also recognized.

[00:09:49] Kal Joffres: This is a 100% digitally enabled process. I’m wondering if this is something that is common for other governmental services, or is it peculiar to the Novissi program and what are some of the new discoveries that came out of pursuing a hundred percent digitally enabled process as you were doing this?

[00:10:06] Cina Lawson: It’s the first Togo. So that’s, that’s the first in Togo. There’s another thing is that prior to that, for every, any social project, people within the administration would resist the use of digital means saying, oh, poor people don’t have food. They don’t, they may not know how to register because they don’t know how to read and write, et cetera, et cetera. So what everybody found out what, we as the digital ministry we were already very convinced of, was that when you offer people something that makes sense to them, they know how to use it.

And they were very fond of mobile payments as well. So that was something that, because when you’re a Digital Minister and you’re saying, oh, we should use mobile payments. It’s just like you saying that, you’re the Digital Minister, but when you have such a widespread adoption of something, and you’ve been saying for years, we should use this means of payment, then it’s a showcase, it’s a proof of concept. And that was very important.

[00:11:17] Millie Begovic: I think this really points out to a very unorthodox way of, of doing work inside the public sector. Usually we would see the government develop a policy, implement the policy, design a program, and deliver it. And you have had to collapse the policy and delivery in one — you you’ve had a platform done in in 10 days, and in day one in the country of 7.7 million, 4 million were signing onto the platform.

[00:11:45] Could you tell us about the challenges that you encountered day-to-day? And how did you work to address them in order to remove some of those barriers? You mentioned, for example, people tuning into the radio to say, I didn’t receive my Novissi.

[00:12:01] Cina Lawson: One issue, on the first day, the congestion of the USSD platform, the platform was not built to have 4.4 million attempts. So when it crashed, telecom operators had to upgrade their platforms to make sure that it could, it was strong enough to, to support these registration attempts.

[00:12:21] We had to follow social distancing measures, so a lot of people tried to cash out and we wanted to avoid to have groups of people in the streets, queuing to be able to get to the agency or to get wherever to cash out.

[00:12:37] So we were, sending out messages to encourage people to transact without having to cash out while making sure that telecom operators, agencies, and distributors were putting in place all the social distancing within the, within the stores. We, we would go and visit some of the stores. We would have people taking pictures to send us pictures to tell us that, oh, you know, there is a group of people in a particular place. Is it related to Novissi, we said we would go check to make sure that we weren’t creating a situation where people would gather while we were trying to promote social distances. So these were the things that we had to look into to make sure we also, we also worked, we, we, we hired a call center to make sure that there was a toll-free number that people could call, every time they faced any difficulty.

[00:13:43] So they would interact with a human being saying, this is, this is me. This is my, my ID, and this is the problem I’m facing. So there was a lot of work that we set up in the backend to make sure that the service was delivered.

[00:13:59] Kal Joffres: What are some of the possibilities that are enabled by this platform that you might use in the future? Because you’ve built a fully digital process. Presumably you can get analytics, you can target specific groups of people, maybe build in more sophisticated workflows. So what are some of the possibilities from your perspective?

[00:14:16] Cina Lawson: We have secured $72 million from the World Bank to implement comprehensive ID system, and we’re going to launch the project later this year, like I mentioned, and this project will have other components such as the creation of a single social registry.

[00:14:35] So, all the social safety net schemes of, in Togo will be, based on registering Togolese so this Novissi project is a project that serves as the methodology of uniquely identifying beneficiaries, having a database where you can segment between male, female, their locations, their occupation, this type of methodology from now on will be useful for all social safety net projects in, in, in Togo, including every project that has to do with financial inclusion and sponsored by the state. So from now on, projects that are designed to support people, categories of people will be using mobile payments.

[00:15:27] Millie Begovic: Novissi scheme is designed as a response for the pandemic and as such, I would assume it has an expiration date. What are some of the aspects of the scheme that you think would be valuable to keep after the pandemic?

[00:15:41] Shegun Bakari: One of the big lesson from Novissi, Novissi product, or the fact that there is a big demand from the population, from the ground, or some kind of, a universal basic income. You know, we need to create, some kind of community and the people, can know that, governments and states will be there if they are facing a very difficult, a very difficult.

[00:16:09] I think that’s why, we will walk through our program to, to, to develop these social registry. But in my perspective, maybe, the future, we’ll think about how we can, institute on the long-term, these, these type on universal basic income, maybe these could be, in a sense a different, different, different thing.

[00:16:35] Kal Joffres: Minister Lawson, is your ministry supporting other parts of the government on the COVID-19 response?

[00:16:41] Cina Lawson: Yes, we are supporting the Ministry of Health. They now using a digital, a tablet to register, COVID cases. We, so in terms of the, we supporting the ministry of health, we’re supporting the general public also because the ministry was, helping, the, the, the national coordination in charge of fighting the COVID along with the Ministry of Health to communicate using digital means.

[00:17:11] We’re also working with the Ministry of Agriculture. The Ministry of Agriculture we’re going to launch within the next few days, a new digital platform for farmers where, where we give them, vouchers to acquire pesticides, fertilizers, to rent tractors, so that they can start producing during these trying times.

[00:17:40] Like the president said, we want to make sure that if people don’t die of COVID, they don’t die of hunger. So, both, in any project that ends at helping people, making sure that production continues during this period of time is really also crucial, to, to ensure that we post-COVID or even if not post-COVID, we need to ensure that we, the next few months, we’re not going to have a major economic crisis.

[00:18:10] Kal Joffres: We’ve spoken a fair bit about the technology components of all this. I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the human side of technology here. So how does the ministry think about questions like usability or helping people make use of technology?

[00:18:26] Cina Lawson: There are a few things. The first is that with technology, it enables accountability. So everything we do, we can show, the beneficiaries, the general population, what we do and the impact of what we do. And I think it’s very important in terms of helping people to use the technology again, when we use a USSD platform that was easy because it’s a, it’s a short code of three letters.

[00:18:50] What we also know is that there’s a lot of education that is going on using the radio system, using voice communications, so that people understand the, the, the benefits of using digitals. And also we help them with telling them how to do so. We have lots of, tutorials, the tutorials that are conceived as a radio ads.

[00:19:17] So it’s, it’s quite easy, but again, I have to tell you that people didn’t need a lot of help because they really, very quickly understood the value of what we were doing and how to use the platform, and how to spend the money they received, et cetera. So I have to tell you that the people are, know a lot more, than what we think they know when it comes to benefitting for their lives.

[00:19:47] Kal Joffres: I was really interested to hear about the radio. I’m curious, what is the least digital thing that you have done to promote digital?

[00:19:55] Cina Lawson: We worked with the post office. You know, the post office, you have post offices in the, in everywhere, in, in Togo and the post office was deployed. They have some distributors, you know, when you, you, you send mobile cash, mobile payments to people some of the people want to convert this electronic forms of payments into liquidity. And the post office and the post office network of distributors were deployed in a markets to make sure that they would provide those people who wanted to cash out. They would provide them with cash.

[00:20:40] So they would wear a type of vest where you would have on the one hand, the logo of the post and the logo of Novissi on the other hand. So the post really contributed to helping us and because it was people deployed in, in, in market in some places, it’s maybe the least digital means that we use.

[00:21:04] Kal Joffres: This data on literacy is a little old, but in 2015, Togo had at 64% rate of literacy. How did you deliver these cash transfers to people who are not literate?

[00:21:14] Shegun Bakari: In every family, in every household, here there is at least one person literate. So sometime when the people, they are not really stressed, every time there is one person who can help us. and I think that’s also one of the, one of the reasons from Novissi is the fact that literacy is not the main barrier of today to promote digital in the Africa continent.

Millie Begovic: [00:21:48] Minister Lawson, something that you said really stuck with me, in terms of having a program that has been delayed and delayed, and now the crisis hit, and things just get unlocked. I’m curious, having design and launch of the Novissi program in 10 days. What other projects might you have in a pipeline that you wish to accelerate now moving forward?

[00:22:09] Cina Lawson: So, so many, so many projects. (laughs) You have no idea. So there is this mobile wallet and loans to farmers. We also have in the pipeline, the biometric ID for all the older Togolese which comes with a challenge because it’s difficult to deploy people on the ground because of the COVID crisis. So we have to find creative ways to do so.

[00:22:39] But we also have other projects in terms of helping SMEs. I think that these are two projects that we could have on the, on the pipeline. There is also, you know, right now the airports are closed and, we will reopen them soon. So we, and we want to implement a strategy by which we test people on arrival and departure.

[00:23:04] Out of the airports of Lome. So we want to make sure that we have a platform so that people don’t get delayed too much. And so it’s going to be using digital, we’re working on it like crazy these days to make sure that the platform is ready, you know, before that. And it’s still the case until that time is up and running, that when you would arrive to, in Togo, you would have to fill a paper-based form.

[00:23:32] And now we’re all digitizing all the formalities when you come within Togo. So what we know is that a lot of the processes that we have today are going to be changed from one day to another, just because we need to be, you know, up to speed in solving this crisis. And I’m sure that if it was not for the COVID crisis, it would have taken months to get, you know, the airport to want to change and to include whomever and whomever.

[00:24:09] And right now, every time we have an issue, it’s all hands on deck and we have to make it happen quick. And everybody works because there is no time to argue. So that’s very good.

[00:24:21] Kal Joffres: Minister Cina Lawson, Shegun Bakari, I really appreciate the time that you’ve spent with us. It’s been fantastic having you as part of the podcast.

[00:24:29] Shegun Bakari: Thank you very much.

[00:24:31] Cina Lawson: Thank you very much. We’re very proud that something that is homegrown could be interesting for people worldwide. I think it’s a great honor for us. Thank you very much.

[00:24:45] Kal Joffres: That was Cina Lawson, Minister of Postal Affairs and Digital Economy in the Togo government, and Shegun Bakari the senior advisor to the Togo President speaking about Novissi, a fully digital cash transfer scheme aimed at workers in the informal sector.

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