Ana demoing the LISTA app with a workshop group in Colombia. Courtesy of Ana Pantelic.

Editor’s note: In episode 2 of our Tech Matters podcast, Dr. Ana Pantelic expresses the vital importance of fieldwork, empathy, and stakeholder involvement to drive the design of tech-based social programs. In this accompanying article, we share further insights from our extended conversation with Ana about what it takes to design for scale.

Written by Gabriele Carotti-Sha 

Dr. Ana Pantelic has spent much of her career leading social programs designed to help lift people out of poverty. Here, we focus on Ana’s past work at Fundación Capital, a Skoll Award-winning social enterprise for economic development. While at Fundación Capital, Ana founded and led the LISTA initiative, which was born in 2012 from a collaboration with the government of Colombia. The centerpiece of the initiative was a tablet-based app designed to teach useful financial concepts to women living in low-income, rural areas, typically with limited access to formal financial tools such as bank loans or savings accounts. Initially aimed at 600 people, by 2020 the project expanded to more than 500,000 individuals in multiple countries!

This is interesting to us at Tech Matters because we spend a lot of time talking nonprofits out of building apps. How did Ana’s team pull this off?

One of the big lessons from LISTA is the importance of thinking at a systems level. As Ana told us, “to get to scale, you have to start with scale.” One needs to think holistically about the ecosystem both locally and at the macro level, from individual psychology, to household dynamics, to community obligations, to the impact of government and private actors.

In practice, this requires:

  • Working within the local context through fieldwork and research;
  • Working across multiple contexts, knowing that when a program expands beyond the local context, it will come up against different cultures, values, constraints, and needs;
  • Always keeping interdependencies in mind within the ecosystem and leveraging institutional players.

 Let’s take a quick look at how the team behind LISTA was able to do this.

The local context

Any social good project needs to ground itself on an understanding of its beneficiaries’ and participants’ actual needs. LISTA is designed for women in rural areas, as well as indigenous people, youth, and refugees. It was initially limited to Colombia, where the government was intent on finding digital solutions for its conditional cash transfer programs (CCT). The government’s problem was that the distribution of physical cash led to plenty of leakage (such as the distribution of cash to people who are already above the poverty line) and security risks. Providing people with digital accounts meant limiting those risks and reducing the costs of program delivery.

Now, if you’re someone who’s used to having access to a digital bank account, it’s easy think the scope of the problem stops here. But Fundación Capital was keenly aware that one can’t simply create digital accounts and expect people to use them. Much more research was needed, involving direct conversations and observation of living conditions. By talking to families in rural areas, Ana and her team learned about some of the more immediate problems than the abstract “need” to tap into a banking system. One challenge was simply knowing how to use an ATM. Other problems were high bank fees, and a real risk of being defrauded when relying on financial intermediaries. For the CCT program to work, the LISTA team realized it needed to give people tools to learn about financial instruments so that, on one hand, they wouldn’t be at the mercy of third parties and, on the other, financial institutions themselves would be able to work more easily with them as clients. It also became clear that program beneficiaries did not have spare time and money to go to in-person classes. Learning had to be self-paced, at home, and often offline.

Fundacion Capital Working Group

Workshop group in Colombia. Courtesy of Ana Pantelic.

The LISTA app

These observations eventually led Ana’s team to develop an edutainment (educational entertainment) app that provided broadly accessible financial lessons via tablet devices. Ana’s team produced the educational content, which included games, simulators, and instructional videos on practical topics such as insurance, avoiding debt, how to use ATMs, and consumer protection. In creating these lessons, Claudia Vergara, the designer for the project, brought together pedagogy and human-centered design, “building out storyboards and translating the content that was traditionally done in a classroom and moving it to the tech platform [in the form of] storytelling.”

Tablets seemed like the best option for self-paced learning, but it wasn’t clear how to actually deliver those devices to people. Ana’s mighty team was initially made of just three members—they simply had no capacity to hand out the devices themselves. The only way to accomplish this was by delegating. The team decided to pre-install the LISTA app on each tablet and hand out the devices to specific community members, mostly women, who took on the responsibility of managing those devices for their respective communities. Ana called this a “decentralized model built on trust in the community” (listen to the podcast for more on this). This kind of system effectively scaled the program far beyond the nonprofit’s capacity limitations.

LISTA app

Screenshot of the LISTA app, showing how to use credit cards in different settings. Courtesy of Ana Pantelic.

Moving from one country to many

That’s all well and good when working within a single cultural context. But how do you bring the same service to a completely different one—like another country? Scaling up rarely means replicating the exact same product. For example, when Ana’s team started working with communities outside of Colombia, they realized that lessons produced by Spanish-speakers in one country were often incomprehensible to people in another Spanish-speaking country. Language localization was not optional—it was a requirement if the program was to scale outside of a single country or region. The team therefore had to re-record voiceovers with language people could understand in each new cultural context.

Other aspects had to be adjusted as well, such as currencies (Colombian pesos vs. Ugandan shillings), and “[also] the dress, the color of people’s skin, the environment that they’re in. And, even demonstrating that diversity [is challenging]” given that there is no universal look and feel to an entire country. LISTA’s approach was to keep developing all kinds of scenarios and storyboards that really responded to that diversity, “so that everyone can identify themselves a little bit.” To move beyond a single context, Ana’s team established methods for applying human-centered design to tackle each new environment since that’s what was required to meet needs that no design team could know beforehand.

Working with(in) an ecosystem

Collaboration was critical to the ability of Ana’s team to scale their impact. LISTA was able to operate in countries like Colombia because there was an open desire to bring technical innovation to respond to dire needs. Where a government partner wasn’t willing to provide funding, it would make the introduction to partners who would. The government affiliation also gave the team a chance to present itself as a trusted group in the communities it served.

To sustain its operation, LISTA had to try different models. It “started with [donors] for experimentation purposes” as well as government funding. Along with financial resources, the project received free in-kind support thanks to the government connection—both critical from the outset. That said, working with government is far from simple. For example, “if you’re digitizing data, you can’t necessarily do that with government [reporting]—you also have to have hardcopy covers for audit purposes and hold on to those paper products for a long time.” Still, the tradeoff was worthwhile.

Another set of partners came from the private sector. The LISTA team worked with banks, whose interest in the project was to obtain more and better equipped clients. The financial inclusion initiatives associated with LISTA also provided ways “for them to cross-sell different products […] We looked at white-labeling and licensing models, we really experimented with a lot of different things.”

Finally, LISTA was able to advocate for its own work by becoming involved with key social entrepreneurship networks: “If we work with international NGOs, and they can see the power of technology for the very poorest of the poor, then they’ll see that as an opportunity for investment.” After winning awards from the World Economic Forum, the Skoll Foundation and Ashoka, LISTA and more generally Fundación Capital were able to leverage their success to obtain even more recognition and support than before.

Being based in the Global South

The ability to operate at all these levels—working with women leaders within each community to design something that would actually be useful; taking what worked and adapting it to new environments; and leveraging institutional networks for program expansion—made LISTA a success story. But this success was sometimes difficult to communicate abroad. Ana pointed out that “in the countries where we were working, we didn’t need [data-based] research to convince our partners that it was working. They could see it because they were along their journey every step of the way, designing with us and seeing how things were going.”

Fundación Capital also faced difficulties as a nonprofit based in the Global South: “[We] did not necessarily have these long-term relationships or a founder who is well-established in certain circles. We really had to work twice as hard to demonstrate that what we say is true. And, you know, this happens with women as well, we feel this imposter syndrome where we’re trying to prove our worth and our value, we end up working twice as hard. And I won’t speak for people of color, because I’m not, but we know that this is the case there as well, that you really have to go above and beyond.”

Conclusion

Ana Pantelic and her team were able to adapt to the challenges they encountered along their journey. Even after figuring out how to operate with government and devising an effective distribution strategy, they ran into new issues while scaling up to new countries. Finally, being based in the Global South made it more difficult to make the case that they had a highly successful approach. Fortunately, these challenges did not prevent LISTA from doing what they set out to do, which was helping families learn how to engage with the formal financial system on their own terms. The team impacted hundreds of thousands of people—a story that deserves to be shared with others hoping to do the same.

Glossary

  • Global South: A term used to refer to countries with low or middle income (by World Bank standards), generally outside of Europe or North America. It is also used to mean underdevelopment more generally, or to differentiate regions that have been and are currently exploited by globalized/colonial/post-colonial practices. We use it in the most general sense, though all these aspects are in play.
  • Conditional cash transfer program: A welfare program in which a public entity or NGO gives money to participants in exchange for certain commitments from them. Commitments could be ensuring your children go to school, or undergo vaccination, or receive preventative health checks.
  • Edutainment: Content (text, video, music) and delivery platforms that are designed to be entertaining while also having educational value.
  • Human-centered design: A design method that gathers information from real users at the onset and makes their needs the central consideration when prototyping, testing and designing products.
  • World Economic Forum (WEF): An international NGO that brings together leading business, political, economic, and cultural figures to discuss and share ideas around global policy and industry. Best known for the annual conference of world leaders in Davos, Switzerland.
  • Skoll Foundation, Ashoka: Some of the leading fellowships of successful and innovative social entrepreneurs.
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