FinEquity Blog

Listening To Our People - Learnings From User-Centered Social Payments in the Caribbean

Insights from WFP Caribbean
Photo credit: Ingrid Bonilla Rodriguez

Accelerating digital economies in the Caribbean through social protection programs

The pace of digital transformation across the Caribbean has accelerated immensely since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments throughout the region have adopted digital processes to improve citizens’ experiences receiving payments - with a particular emphasis on women. Social protection programs have been at the forefront of this transformation. 

In June 2022, The World Food Programme (WFP) convened a regional learning event for private and public sector stakeholders to discuss the opportunities digitized social protection payments can bring to advance financial inclusion and women’s economic empowerment. With many shared challenges and a collective opportunity and willingness to move toward digital payments, the event was a unique moment to ensure actors in the region work toward a similar goal as digital payments are further explored. 

Putting people at the center of social protection programs whilst increasing their payment options 

User-centered design enables us to step into the shoes of women and men receiving social assistance payments, understand their preferences and challenges and help create solutions that meet their needs. It is an opportunity to listen to people’s experiences as they engage with various stakeholders and services, enabling us to develop user-centered recommendations to improve programs and user experience. 

The Government of Dominica is a strong advocate of user-centered design and is keen to move toward a digital economy. An improvement in the user experience of the women and men enrolled in its social protection programs is the guiding line as the government embarks on a multitude of digitization efforts (including data collection, targeting and reconciliation). 

While the digital financial service ecosystem is still developing, the government is determined to broaden people’s choice in how they wish to receive their money by testing digital payment solutions that would direct money into people’s personal accounts. As Permanent Secretary Sylvanie Burton, Government of Dominica, noted in a workshop held in November 2021, “As we work to continue to provide the assistance that is required to the most vulnerable… one of the things that we want to achieve is to ensure that less money is placed at the Village Councils, more money is placed in peoples’ accounts. One is for safety, two is to ensure that they get their money on time and… we know that when money is in your account you are more likely to save rather than to spend it.”

"As we work to continue to provide the assistance that is required to the most vulnerable… one of the things that we want to achieve is to ensure that less money is placed at the Village Councils, more money is placed in peoples’ accounts."

Permanent Secretary Sylvanie Burton, Government of Dominica

Digital payments on people’s own accounts in Dominica - the potential for mobile money

According to the GSMA, mobile connectivity in the Caribbean is a growth industry with a market penetration of 63.7%, just below the global market penetration rate of 67.1%. Mobile phone penetration1 in the Caribbean is also high; the number of subscriptions in Dominica and Saint Lucia is higher than 100% of the total population. Meaning that some individuals have more than one SIM card or mobile number. Combined with an increased interest in the use of apps on mobile phones, these are good building blocks for mobile money service providers to improve connectivity and develop tools and services tailored to specific population sets. 

In focus group discussions conducted by WFP across Dominica in late 2021, the majority of women and men we spoke with had mobile phones, most of which were smartphones. People expressed interest in learning more about mobile money with a general preference for group learning. As noted by a woman in a fishing community in Portsmouth, “I prefer [to learn] in a group to help each other and get different opinions.” While women expressed an appetite to become more digitally and financially literate, it is important to be mindful of women’s daily responsibilities so that training does not create a further burden on their time. Non-traditional classroom training through mobile apps can allow women to learn at their own pace while also encouraging inter-generational learning within households. 

Discussions also showed that youth have a central role to play in the adoption of future digital solutions, particularly because of their comfort in using technology. Older respondents – especially women – indicated that they relied on younger people such as their children to use technology. A woman we spoke with in Soufrière (name not disclosed) said, "I would love to learn but I am not a technology person; my daughter helps me with all of that."  Making youth central to adult learning by providing incentives such as becoming part of community champion programs2 can help build trust and confidence with parents and grandparents. 

"I would love to learn but I am not a technology person; my daughter helps me with all of that."

Mobile money service improvements in Saint Lucia

In the neighboring island of Saint Lucia, a unique learning opportunity arose when the government piloted digital payments as a new way of providing money to people affected by Hurricane Elsa, with the support of WFP. The Hurricane Elsa pilot, which informed wider scale-up, enabled people to receive their money digitally through the Penny Pinch app, the country’s first licensed mobile wallet. People seemed to be generally enthusiastic about Penny Pinch, “with Penny Pinch you just pay. There is no hassle, and you don’t withdraw extra money” said a female head of household in a focus group discussion. However, there is need for improvement for better end-to-end experiences, such as expanding the network of registered merchants to include supermarkets, drugstores and gas stations and enabling features for the elderly and illiterate, including voice commands to avoid the need for reading or typing. Penny Pinch is also looking into developing a debit card solution.

Keep an eye out for digital payment developments in the Caribbean

Digitization of social protection payments offers governments in the Caribbean the opportunity to quickly scale up assistance to people in times of need in a dignified manner. Focusing on designing digital solutions that put the lived realities of women in all their diversity at the heart of the payment experience is a strong tool for empowering them and building more inclusive payment systems.

While challenges such as the lack of national identification and limited financial literacy in the region are present, one thing is clear: the opportunity and willingness of the government to test digital payments is there and will be capitalized upon in the coming years!