Mobile crowdfunding for the unbanked

Last week I was in Khartoum, delivering a training course that was part of SUDIA‘s National Youth Democracy Leadership Program. The training brought together 24 young activists from across Sudan, exposing them to new methods, tools, and ways of thinking. They were an inspiring group, you can get a glimpse of their energy here. Whenever I work with activists in Sudan, I am amazed at their creativity and resilience in the face of a tough, unforgiving environment for civic participation. Of the many stories I heard this past week, there’s one I am particularly intrigued by: it’s the story of how you run a crowdfunding campaign without a credit card.

The Statue of Liberty

Thanks to Rodrigo Davies who first told me about it, I always explain crowdfunding by telling the story of the pedestal of the State of Liberty. This was a great entry point in Sudan too, many of the activists at the training have collected micro-donations for their projects in some way, mostly through membership fees or by organizing a performance / event. From there, it’s easy to understand how the mechanics of crowdfunding build on traditions of community micro-donations, and capitalise on online communications to give rewards and recognition, and to build a community around a project.

So with that basic understanding, I told them about Indiegogo, Kickstarter and other similar platforms. They were interested, but the platforms are of limited use to them. Sudan is subject to economic sanctions from the United States that make it impossible for Sudanese banks to interact with international payment systems. Credit cards don’t work in Sudan. You can only access PayPal via a VPN. Some Sudanese banks issue debit ATM cards, but they are still quite rare and wouldn’t work for online payments anyway. Besides, the vast majority of Sudanese don’t have a bank account at all.

We still talked about how they could use crowdfunding platforms to gather funds from people outside Sudan – diaspora or foreigners with a connection to Sudan – as long as someone could receive funds in a foreign bank account and then bring them to Sudan. I showed them three successful campaigns that have done this (here, here and here). There can be some legal difficulties, but it works. Other than that, I told them, there is no way to run a civic crowdfunding campaign in Sudan.

But there is another way: phone credit.

Sharia AlHawadith

Over the course of several conversations, I learned that Sudanese civic activists regularly use phone credit to gather micro-donations. How they do this, and why it resembles online crowdfunding platforms so much, is best illustrated through a group that is using this process very successfully.

Sharia AlHawadith (Emergency Street) is the popular name for the street in Khartoum outside the Gaafar Ibnauf Children’s Specialised Hospital, the leading referral hospital for children’s health issues in Sudan. Over the past decade, the Sudanese government has been cutting back funding to the public healthcare system. The Ibnauf Hospital is one of many that has been seriously affected by these cuts. Although many consultations are still free, thousands of families with limited income now have to find ways to pay for basic tests and medicine to treat their children. In response to this situation, a group of young people (who call themselves Sharia AlHawadith) began to organize support for families in need.

The basic mechanics of their support for treatment go like this. Sharia AlHawadith volunteers sit on the street outside the hospital. A family comes by and requests a specific treatment they need (proven with the note from the doctor). The volunteers take their details and post them on a dedicated Facebook page, together with a phone number that people can send phone credit to. Once they have enough credit, the volunteers go to a local mobile kiosk and exchange credit for cash at a small fee. They then accompany the family to pay for the needed tests (to make sure the money is spent on the stated purpose). They often post the final outcome (test funded, child receiving treatment) as a comment to the original Facebook post. Contributors will sometimes also post comments of support.

So there you have it: specific ask, limited timeline, public recognition (though no rewards as such), community building – a crowdfunding campaign.

(On top of crowdfunding for treatment, Sharia AlHawadith also post requests for blood donations when there is a shortage following an emergency or accident. If you want to learn more about their remarkable work, AlJazeera has written about them.)

Mobile crowdfunding for the unbanked

Other civic groups in Sudan are also using Facebook pages and phone credit to raise funds, and this is becoming increasingly common. I haven’t done the research to back this up, but I’m going to guess this is not just a Sudan phenomenon. True, Sudan is an extreme case because of sanctions, but there are plenty of other countries where large parts of the population (not just low income, also middle income) do not have access to credit cards. Leveraging phone credit to raise funds makes a lot of sense – and it’s part of the mobile money revolution that is giving access, opportunities and power to people who have been left out of banking systems. (For more on this topic, take a look at GSMA’s blog on mobile solutions for the unbanked.)

So if micro-donations using phone credit are happening already, what’s the point in giving this process a name that originates in a different context? I think what intrigues me is how much the mechanics of the process resemble the structured campaigns of online crowdfunding platforms. It makes me wonder whether a platform for mobile crowdfunding could support the work of activists in places like Sudan. The platform could mirror the components that make up an online crowdfunding platform – pitch, rewards, donation tracking, updates to donors / the community – but with SMS / IM functionality that allow for no-internet or low-bandwidth interactions. Payments would happen via phone credit and would be automatically tracked in the platform.

If anyone has heard about a platform like this that already exists, I’d love to hear about it.

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