Podcast Episode 2 — Ana Pantelic: Designing tech for low-income families in the Global South

by | May 6, 2021 | Interviews, Tech for Good, Tech Matters Podcast

Photo by Zoran Ilić for Original Magazin.

Dr. Ana Pantelic is the acting Chief of Social Policy at UNICEF Uganda, working to help people in low-income areas become more economically empowered! In this episode, she tells us about her previous work at Fundación Capital where she founded the LISTA initiative: improving financial health in low-income communities using digital solutions. Some key lessons: the value of human-centered design; designing for scale from the get-go; leading a social enterprise in the Global South; learning from and working with women leaders in local communities.

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Jim Fruchterman [00:00]

Welcome to the Tech Matters Podcast, an audio series about digital technology and social entrepreneurship! I’m your host, Jim Fruchterman. Over the course of this series, I’ll be talking to some amazing social change leaders about how they are using tech to help tackle the wicked problems of the world. We’ll also learn from them about what it means to be a tech social entrepreneur, how to build a good tech team, exit strategies, ethical use of data, finding money, and making sure that when you’re designing software, you’re putting people first.

In today’s episode, I’ll be chatting with Dr. Ana Pantelic, who is currently [Acting] Chief of Social Policy at UNICEF, Uganda. Prior to this, Ana worked at the nonprofit social enterprise Fundación Capital, where she and her team formed the LISTA initiative, partnering with governments across Latin America and the Caribbean to provide tablet-based digital experiences that helped families in poverty learn how to engage with the formal financial system.

Welcome, Ana!

Ana Pantelic [01:01]

Thanks, Jim. I’m really happy to be here.

Jim Fruchterman [01:03]

Well, I’m excited to be talking to you. After all these years going to Skoll social entrepreneur events, it’s great to sit down and actually hear your story. Could you share some of your journey, which led you to go into social impact work and, especially, tech for good?

Ana Pantelic [01:20]

Sure. I actually grew up in the Balkans, I’m from Serbia, and I grew up in Yugoslavia during the war. And we were, you know, living fine, normal lives, when war broke out and suddenly everything changed for us. We experienced insecurity, but also had a lot of things happening around hyperinflation that, for the first time, really got me interested in understanding how our societies work, how one thing can shift from one day to the other. And also understanding poverty through the lens of finance.

One thing that we talk about a lot when we think about decolonizing development is really understanding that poverty is not a “fixed forever” situation; it can and should be a temporary experience that people go through. So, in my work, I’ve really been keen to understand poverty through that lens of finance and economics, because it also leads to other things—buying, paying for health services, or education, those kinds of things.

And I guess, my journey in tech… You know, it’s funny, when I reflect back on it, growing up, I didn’t really have a strong affinity towards it. I mean, there also wasn’t that much technology. But my dad, who was a surgeon, was a really big tech fanatic. And he would spend all of his free time with a really good friend of his and they’d be tinkering around, and we were being taught how to use computers and taking typing lessons as children, which was really daunting. Now it sounds silly for digital natives, but that’s kind of how things were when I was growing up. And I remember him being so stressed about all the cables around the house, or “When is wireless going to happen? When are we going to have a wireless everywhere?” And I remember saying, “What are you gonna do, take your computer with you to the bathroom? Are you kidding me?” And, I mean… what do people do nowadays? No comment.

But it’s really interesting that even back then he was thinking about these kinds of things. And maybe it’s no surprise that Nikola Tesla, who actually came up with wireless and talked about wireless transmission of energy was actually from Serbia. So there is a connection there.

But for me, tech came as a solution to my problems, whether I was in college and in grad school and using technology to connect with my family back home or, later, when I started developing technology for development myself, it was really to respond to a problem and not because I was necessarily so excited about the next new app or technology that was out there. It was really to solve problems.

Jim Fruchterman [03:57]

Well, and speaking of problems that you went off to solve, could you tell a little bit more of the story behind LISTA and the mission of the social enterprise that it was part of—Fundación Capital?

Ana Pantelic [04:09]

Sure. As I mentioned, my interest really was more on the technical side of: “How do we address poverty through the lens of finance?”, and Fundacón Capital is an international social enterprise that was founded in 2009 and spent a lot of time working with governments throughout Latin America to capitalize on cash transfer programs—these social welfare systems that provided cash to millions of people, predominantly women. And that’s for a good reason, because evidence shows that when you give cash to women, they actually put it to really good use.

What was interesting during this time is that a lot of countries were of trying to find ways to decrease costs, to increase security, and decrease leakages. And they started moving towards digitizing these cash transfer payments and making them through the banking system and not, you know, cash in envelopes. But, also, we started thinking about what else can we layer on? Can we support people to open up savings accounts? We had seen the power of owning a bank account and what that did to a woman’s self-esteem and empowerment. There are still countries around the world where you need your husband’s or your father’s approval to access a bank account or to get a credit card. We’ve come a long way in terms of financial inclusion, but these were still the early days where we were proving the model, and we have shown that you are able to link up savings with these cash transfer programs.

We had also seen the power of financial education: what happens when you explain to people what this product is, what it does, what some of those hidden costs might be that they’re not aware of, and get them to be more familiar and confident in using the financial system. Financial education, for us, wasn’t about learning the definition of an interest rate or knowing how to calculate it. It was about explaining to somebody who for the first time is going up to a bank teller to know to ask the question, “What is this going to cost me? If I take out a loan, you tell me, how much will I be paying in interest rates?” So it’s really about that kind of pragmatic and practical knowledge transfer that we were looking to transmit through education and training.

We had been working with the government of Colombia, and they wanted to find a way to really scale up training and financial education. And we had proposed a really small intervention, and we said, “We think we can digitize this”. Now, of course, we had no idea how we were going to do it [chuckles] But we said we would. So, we started tinkering and testing and figuring out what it what it takes. I had kind of landed in the country, again, not a huge tech aficionado, and was tasked with figuring out the solution. And I think coming in with this beginner’s mindset was really critical.

So, with LISTA, to explain what it is: It started off as a financial education initiative that morphed and grew over time. Essentially, it’s a system that we use to provide training at scale. And it started from this initial proposal 600 people in Colombia—in that first pilot intervention we found double the users, there was a lot of excitement around it—and ultimately ended up growing and expanding and reaching more than half a million people around the world, across more than a dozen countries. So, it had impact, which was really phenomenal! But it’s really, you know, it was sort of the start of this journey, and understanding how technology can serve to solve problems. But also, you know, thinking about what else can you do with it.

From there, we ended up with a lot of different spin-offs, and digital solutions morphed and became the backbone of the organization over time.

Jim Fruchterman [08:07]

Wow. So you’re aiming at poor women who are getting a cash benefit from the government. And with financial education, you believe that you have the data that shows that this is good, but you can’t take it to scale if it relies on in-person training. So it came down from on high that it’s going to be a tech solution, and you show up. And, did it go swimmingly from the start?

Ana Pantelic [08:37]

[laughs] No, of course not. You know, being the academic that I am, I came in and started doing all the research and seeing, okay, who’s done this before? Lo and behold… nobody. So it was kind of like, okay, let’s see what’s possible. One of the things that we had proposed, for example, was that we would have a publicly accessible tablet computer with this app loaded. And we assumed that everybody would want to come and that these women would learn from the experience and would use the tablet and it would be great. And it was a way of figuring out the distribution: Is it a fixed location? Is it moving around the communities? Is it being checked out from a library? And we found that, you know, if a woman is touching technology for the first time, and she’s uncomfortable with it, she’s so embarrassed that she might make a mistake and get laughed at that she won’t even try. So there’s this question around comfort and the use of technology, the space that you’re going to use it, those kinds of things that we really spent a long time figuring out.

The other thing I would say is that we were really ambitious in terms of prototyping and testing. A few years down the line, I finally got to reading all of the books around Human Centered Design and lean startup and prototyping—all the things that I learned naturally, because I had to, that became part of the process (again, this beginner’s mindset). But things that I’ve now learned are actually standardized and written about in all kinds of designer books. I mean, they’re also a bit of common sense, right? Especially if you go in and you say, “Hi, you know, I’m starting from scratch, where do I go?”.

People were very skeptical of this initiative. And so, my belief was that maybe people need an incentive to use it. So, we said, okay, let’s try different incentive systems. Let’s try building in an incentive where people get stars, and they get a little congratulatory message that shows up on the screen. And then, also, they get one on their phone. So, they can take this with them as kind of a sense of achievement of “Hey, Jim, you just completed the first module, good for you! Keep on going!”. Just a little nudge message. And then the second one was: Let’s try and see if they maybe they need another little incentive, what if we give them a little top-up of 25 cents, or 50 cents, of a phone credit on their phones—because we don’t have monthly payment plans, you get phone credits and airtime on your phone. And so we tried that.

But lo and behold, when you’re testing out these products in remote rural areas where there is no connectivity, these messages don’t make it to people’s cellphones. And so when we would go and synchronize the tablets and collect all the data, because of course, we were checking on the backend and seeing where were they spending time, what did they like, where were their glitches—and we kept fixing all the tech glitches, as we were implementing during the pilot—all of a sudden, people would start getting all these pop-up messages on their phones at maybe two o’clock in the morning when their phones synchronized. And people would start wondering, you know, “Who’s sending me these messages?”.

So there’s all kinds of these little stories. But, you know, you live and you learn, and ultimately even we did research afterwards, of course, and we found that people really appreciated that kind of an incentive, and, of course, people appreciate when you send them a little bit of airtime or recognize them for the time they’re spending. But it didn’t actually affect usage. So, if we had just gone by what the researchers had gone in and asked, and collected data around, we would have said, “Yes, it’s worth the investment”. But what technology allows us to do in terms of understanding the data is that we also were able to see on the backend whether we had increased uptake rates, and whether people were more likely to complete the app if they had received these or not.

Now, of course, it’s not a perfect situation because in some places, yes, there was connectivity, but in others there wasn’t. So, you can’t quite compare the two. But even in places where there was connectivity, and they were receiving them, it didn’t make that significant of a difference. So, it also helped us make decisions later on scaling and understanding what is that minimum product that’s needed. And of course, there were other things, like content, adding more gamification along the way, making it more user friendly. We developed motivational videos, which were kind of games where you can put things into practice, and more exercises throughout. So, it was a work in progress and a continuous learning that we have all the time. I think you’re never done; you never have a perfect product. When you’re in this space, you are always looking to improve.

Jim Fruchterman [13:26]

Well, I think you’ve hit some really important points that I think resonate with many social entrepreneurs. And one is, “I learned along the way what worked and didn’t work. And then later on, I found out that there was a theory that matched up with those things”. And the other thing is that people often think of technology as something you build once, like you’re building a bridge, and when it’s built it exists. And what you’ve just described is, when you’ve given someone some software, you will get the data back and you find the 10 next things that you should do better.

One of the ideas I’ve gotten is that you talk about LISTA as an initiative, and not just an app. How do you see that distinction? And how big a proportion was the app as opposed to the other things?

Ana Pantelic [14:17]

Yeah, I mean, an app can sit on the App Store and never be downloaded [laugh]. Thinking about how to get this into people’s hands, as an app… all it was is a digital professor, someone that comes into your home and shares stories with you, and leads you through different exercises. But how do you get it into people’s homes? And how do you know what to share with them?

These were the kinds of the questions we were thinking of. It’s not just this one product: Could we provide a whole suite of products? Could there be training on better agriculture systems? Could there be apps that help adults learn how to read, or learn how to do basic mathematics? I still see a lot of potential in this idea, in this vision, that if you have technology that’s readily available and you have the right products out there, you can make a big difference. And if we think about the delivery systems and the mechanisms, it’s a much bigger picture than this one product. And so that’s why it’s kind of morphed into digital solutions to problems, rather than focusing just on one niche product.

Jim Fruchterman [15:45]

Yeah, and I mean, you highlighted a lot of the extra things that tech solutions need. One of the things that people often neglect is the idea of outreach; that, if you build it, they don’t generally come. You know, I’m generally skeptical of apps, I joke that when people come to me with an app idea, that’s the app that no one will download. But, about 5% of the time, apps actually seem to work well. So why do you think LISTA was one of that 5% that actually worked, as opposed to the 95% that nobody ever downloaded?

Ana Pantelic [16:18]

No, I agree. And I mean, look, I think we also had a bit of help there, because they didn’t have to download it—it was already downloaded onto a device. And that’s because people don’t have tablet devices in their homes. We thought a lot about the tech delivery system, and what do people have access to? They have access to basic phones. So you know, LISTA won’t work on that, they need a smartphone. Does their smartphone have the right capabilities? And how much space will it take to have an app that has so much video and audio content? And is capturing people’s data about the use of the app and then sharing it with others… that’s not really something you can easily do on a smartphone with somebody who’s downloading an app off of the App Store. And even when we were placing it on the App Store, there were all these questions around, “Can it be publicly available or not?”, because of how much data we wanted to collect. So, if you think over time, when more people have smartphones, and different maybe levels of income, where people might be more likely to own smartphones, then you can think about redesigning the user experience. But for us, we knew our users wouldn’t have this at home.

Just as an example, to explain the distribution model, when we did a scale up in Colombia with the government—and we’re aiming to reach 100,000 users—we had 1000 tablets circulating in the communities. And the way that it worked is that a community leader would be given a tablet computer, she would hold on to it for a month or two months, depending on how many women in her community she identified as being interested in going through the training, and she would facilitate access to the tablet. So, imagine it like a roaming librarian that has this book that she lends to people. But even there, think about this, in Honduras, when we were implementing in really, really insecure places, women were still moving around these communities with an expensive piece of technology because they knew where to go, who they could trust, how to move, what was relevant. And that is not something that you or I would ever know. When you’re not from that community, you cannot know that.

Leave it up to people to make the decisions for themselves. Provide that margin and flexibility for them to design for themselves. If you have a product that brings value to them, they are happy to distribute it. But they need the time and they need to make the decisions for themselves for how to do that. And what’s critical there—and I think this goes to highlighting these paradigm shifts in our thinking—is that less than 1% of those tablet computers were lost or stolen or damaged or resold. Less than 1%. Now how many phones have you dropped? And how many times has your phone been stolen? I mean, it really goes to show that people can be trusted with expensive technology. But women in particular who are from a community, and see value in in distributing this product, they’re really thinking critically that, “This is something that I can do for my community. I feel excited by this—to be trusted with this product”. And that’s really important.

There have been other interventions where we do use people’s own devices. But what I think is really critical in this story is what it tells you about rethinking poverty, and stopping this mindset of people in poverty being just passive recipients of aid, “beneficiaries”, but really active participants, decision-makers, in deciding for themselves their own futures.

Jim Fruchterman [20:20]

Yeah, and you’ve identified, what you think are the magical ingredients of doing tech for good, which are “tech, touch, and trust”. Can you restate your vision of why those are so important?

Ana Pantelic [20:36]

Sure. So let me break that down a little bit. So that first T of tech, that’s really the backbone of digital innovation. So think about, you know, designers or social entrepreneurs, they have to make these hardware decisions. Are they choosing a high tech or low tech device? Are they looking at a tablet or a basic phone? Are they designing around user owned devices, like a basic phone, or are they distributing tech, like what we were doing? And if so, is this technology, for example, built to withstand local conditions? Like, you know, is there connectivity? What about humidity? How do they function in heat? These are all critical questions. But software is another part of it. Because you often actually need bespoke software that’s designed for specific users. So people with low literacy, low familiarity with technology… if the tech is not designed well, or it doesn’t actually solve a problem for the end user, then you’ve just likely wasted 1000s of dollars.

 Adopting innovations or changing behavior, it requires trust. You can generate this using known brands; if you’re working with government—that’s how we started, we had backing of governments who vouched and said these people know what they’re doing and they’re not here to swindle you or anything. Another thing is working with a known brand, like Coca Cola, or the United Nations, whatever it takes, you know. When you’re introducing something new, people wonder who this outsider is. And if you use a trusted human interface, like community leaders, that is also critical and helps make it more locally acceptable. And this is what was really effective in the case of LISTA because, by using these local community leaders, end users were more likely to trust the information and the intentions behind it, and know that the information that they were being provided about financial products was not there to sell them something or was not there to trick them, or about the government products. It was really for them to know and understand. And it also led to really important conversations in the community. Because the experience was often happening inside of people’s homes, the technology was being brought into their homes. So, it wasn’t just the women, it was their husbands; it was their children; it was the nuclear family; the neighbors coming in. And this would lead to other conversations around the family’s finances, and “How could we start a business”, those kinds of things.

So, you’re tapping into these trust networks, and that’s what’s so critical—that you have to understand when you’re working in different contexts, how the community may or may not be receptive to technology. And understanding how those issues around trust really work.

Jim Fruchterman [26:01]

You’ve just been talking about the importance of context for designing for the extreme poor—we’re talking about the home, the community, the situation, the power or lack thereof, or of electrical power in this case. Let’s go more macro scale. You’re rolling this out across a bunch of different countries. Yes, you’re designing for the users. But how much did the social, economic, and political context of these different countries affect the LISTA initiative?

Ana Pantelic [26:32]

I think, with all kinds of technology for good, you have to consider the macro context. I mean, even being able to operate in a country or making sure that you’re following all the rules and regulations is something that you need to know. Understanding language and nuance and language [too]: You would think that scaling across Latin America should be easy, because so many countries speak Spanish. Well, I can tell you, and for anyone that speaks Spanish, certain words mean very different things in different countries. And even accents vary significantly. You have to think about all of those little contextual pieces.

But, also, what are the main challenges that countries have? Are there high rates of credit card presence and credit card fraud? That means you need to teach people about that. Is there maybe a well-known character or person or anecdote that you could incorporate into the story? How do you deal with that? I mentioned the point around gender: How free are women to make financial decisions in the household? And how far can you push those questions and issues around their economic empowerment? Nowadays, I do a lot of work with adolescent girls. And I really struggle to understand how far I can push Financial Empowerment amongst young women because I see unaccompanied minors, often refugees, who are really making decisions for themselves—12-year-old girls who are already mothers that are making all kinds of decisions, and yet they’re 12 years old, and they are children. And we can’t give them cash directly because there are all these questions around child protection.

So, it’s so nuanced to think about, particularly if it’s not just about getting your product into as many users’ hands as possible—sending something shiny and exciting to them, and getting them hooked on some fun game. When you’re really understanding what people’s experiences are, and you’re trying to add real tangible value and not just a fun game for them, you start to think about these kinds of things. And certainly, when it comes to working with governments, you’re going to have the challenge of building relationships with some people, and then elections happen, and now you’re building relationships with new people.

The same with financial institutions; if you’re trying to reach out to poor people, are these the right clients that they want to work with? There’s a lot of different questions that you have to ask yourself in terms of what’s important, what’s critical, or even at the highest level, what are the countries that people are most interested in investing in? You know, if you’re working in a middle-income country, is that as exciting to a funder? What about, you know, if you’re implementing in a place like Myanmar, that’s right now dealing with a big coup where security is a massive issue? And what do you do in countries with prolonged security issues? How do you move around?

I think it’s really exciting to see how the private sector has dealt with this. And, you know, more people have cash in mobile money in Somalia than they do cash, hard currency, in their pockets, because it’s safer when it’s digitized. What a revelation. I think those kinds of things are really critical. And thinking back to my own experience about growing up in Yugoslavia, we had massive hyperinflation, I was going around and exchanging foreign currency on the street on the black market, because that’s what you do. People are now developing products that will revolve around Bitcoin to manage inflation. How exciting is that? I think there’s so much power in technology for development. But we do have to ask ourselves these questions around the end user and their experience, especially if we want to reach people that are the most vulnerable and most often excluded.

Jim Fruchterman [30:32]

You know, it’s funny that you bring up Somalia and its adoption of digital. The guy who influenced me to join the nonprofit sector actually co-founded Somali Telecom as a business. And even though there was no government in Somalia, it was a highly successful business, mainly because of the Somali diaspora who paid for essentially all the technology to go into the country, because they wanted to talk to their relatives back home. It’s interesting how these dynamics actually play out.

So as, as we’re, as we’re wrapping up, you know, obviously, you’ve worked a lot in what people call the Global South; and technology is a two-edged sword, right? So how do you see the role of technology as being more a tool for empowerment rather than a way to extract more resources from the poor or imposing decisions on them?

Ana Pantelic [31:20]

I think this really goes back to that issue of decolonizing development. We need to think about the user that that we’re designing for, and we need to stop having this kind of patronizing approach where, when we think about making tech accessible, it has to be beautiful, and user friendly, and simple, and solve people’s problems, all these things that we kind of talked about. But when we also think about the question around the return on investment, it gives me pause, because sometimes it’s not about the money.

And sometimes it’s not about getting a certain number of users or seeing certain metrics, because you think they should be there. I really think it’s important to get that practitioner experience and the real insights, to understand what’s going on in people’s lives. Sometimes, if the value that you bring is [the response], “I feel heard, somebody noticed me, you believe that I can do this, you gave me this technology”. And that, to me was a sign of respect. That’s a big deal. If somebody has learned something, if they’ve changed a little bit, their knowledge or their attitudes, so what if they didn’t go on and take out a $500 loan, or grow a big business with this hockey stick growth… So what? We talk about these big opportunities, and everyone an entrepreneur, everyone can make this big wealth… But some people don’t want that. Some people need the stability, and they want the stability. It’s not up to us to make those decisions for people and we need to stop judging people for the decisions they make lest we be judged for the decisions that we make.

Jim Fruchterman [32:34]

Wow. You know, I think one of the indicators of a technology program that’s not going to go very well is that it’s designed about what the designers think people should want, or should do, as opposed to what they actually want, and what they will actually do. And I think you’ve really summed up what it takes to do that.

So, as a final note, is there anything else that you think our listeners would like to take away from your experiences into their own tech for good work?

Ana Pantelic  34:56

So, I came up with this phrase some years ago. Here it goes goes. It’s building off of Steve Jobs’ famous quotes, but with a tweak.

“Stay hungry, stay humble. Dream the big dreams, you can save the world, but be aware of whether you are on the verge of developing a savior complex. Are you being paternalistic? You probably haven’t walked a day in the shoes of someone who’s poor, with the mental stress and the anxiety that comes with it. So, spend more time listening to people; maintain this learner’s mindset. These are your customers, you want to bring them value, you want to bring them delight, you want to reach millions, you see the problems in the world, so stay hungry, but know that you don’t have all the answers, and maintain that humility to constantly be learning.”

I like that phrase of “stay hungry, stay humble”. Just to keep yourself in check as you’re thinking about your amazing solutions, as you’re going out to conquer the world. Just keep that in mind. Be ambitious, but really question the context and know what you’re out there to achieve.

Jim Fruchterman [34:37]

Well, I think that’s a terrific coda to our conversation. And it just says to me, the importance of empathy for the people that we serve is so important. I think you’ve done a terrific job of outlining how that actually made your work successful.

I really appreciate the time we’ve spent, and thanks for contributing to the technology for social good field.

Ana Pantelic [35:00]

Thank you, Jim. And I can’t wait to hear more experiences from other people on the podcast. I really appreciate the opportunity to share an example that you might not have heard of, because it doesn’t get circulated in all of the news and media outlets. So, thank you for shining a light on the innovators out there. We really appreciate it.

Jim Fruchterman [35:26]

For more about Ana’s current work, check out her Twitter handle @anapantelic, as well as on www.anapantelic.com. And if you’re curious about Fundación Capital, go to www.fundacioncapital.org. To read more about this interview, or to find out about what we do at Tech Matters, go to www.techmatters.org and check out our blog.

This podcast is funded by the generous donors of Tech Matters, especially Okta for Good. Thanks! And see you next time.



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