Going digital where technology is feared

A recent SaveAct study investigating scope for digitization in rural and peri-urban communities found widespread fear and distrust of technology among members.

Despite the fact that ninety percent of SaveAct’s savings group members own a mobile phone, the majority of them are still very wary of introducing technology into group processes, and this fear will have to be factored into any digital strategy adopted by the organisation.

This was one of the main findings of a study commissioned recently by SaveAct. One of the aims of the research was to assess the need for a mobile application in streamlining groups’ savings activities. The study was undertaken by Lakheni in Margate and Scottburgh in KwaZulu-Natal and a total of 70 participants, representing 32 groups, were engaged with.

The study found that there is significant concern among members about the safety of their money and savings information, to the extent that many groups duplicate this information in a “back-up” exercise book that is kept at an alternative venue.

Mobile phone penetration within groups is high and 90% of participants own at least one mobile phone, while 17% own two or more. However, the majority of participants (63%) are not able to use their phones without assistance, and older members have difficulty seeing what is on the screen. Many of those with feature or smart phones need help with using and updating applications.

And although 97% reported being aware of services accessible through mobile phones such as cash send, airtime transfer and buying electricity, only 8% make use of these services because they do not trust them.

“We have heard of it but people have had airtime disappear, so you can’t trust it,” said one participant.

 Why technology is distrusted

When focus groups were asked to explore possible uses for phones as part of SaveAct groups, some common themes emerged.

• Although groups recognize a need for an alternative solution to a cash box in keeping money safe, they had misgivings about using technology because of their self-assessed lack of ability to do so.

• “Evidence” in group activities is very important– the ability to see, touch, and understand everything that happens within the group; and participants were concerned that moving onto any electronic platform would mean that some group processes are “hidden” from the majority. Knowledge and access would be centralised to the few that are tech savvy and some younger members of the groups.

“Not all of us can understand computers, but all of us can understand something that is written down,” said a participant.

• Groups were concerned about their inner workings being shared with outsiders and had misgivings about using a technological platform for SaveAct activities, because mobile phones are shared resources within households and group secrets could therefore be exposed to non-members.

• Groups were generally distrustful of technology and shared multiple stories of “disappearing” airtime and data. Anton Krone, SaveAct’s executive director, said corporate practices of mobile network operators and banks tend to contribute to this perception. “Data ‘disappearing’ after 30 days on data arrangements, and money being lopped off bank balances are part of everyday practices that many consumers find hard to bear.

“However, if you do not appreciate these as normal practices, the natural assumption is to conclude that someone is stealing my data or my money. This means that trust is never built between the user and the service provider.”

Members also don’t fully understand how technology works and therefore find it difficult to trust. “I trust writing down. You never know about computers,” said a participant.

• There was concern that “clever” people who know how technology works might be able to exploit their ignorance and defraud them of their savings. Participants were also worried that having a dedicated mobile phone or computer would attract criminals who would otherwise not bother with their SaveAct books.

• Members were concerned that the introduction of technology might change group dynamics. Group meetings as they are currently operated are important as a tool for controlling members’ behaviour through reprimands, reminder of obligations and fines. Transparency and broad participation in groups are highly valued and there was concern that technology might exclude many members from full participation.

• Older members were averse to technology, saying they were “too old” to learn how to use it, although those who had previous positive interactions with technology were more likely to be open to the idea.

• “We are old, we don’t use our phones, but our books are CLEAN, with no mistakes,” said a participant. Young people, on the other hand, had strong views about moving group processes to tech platforms and were generally more open to the idea of total integration with tech.

 Technology must be introduced in non-threatening way

The authors of the study said any digital strategy for savings groups should take these fears and realities into account and should be scaffolded onto existing SA processes and run in conjunction with the existing system, so that members can experience technology in a safe space.

They warned that there is a risk that technology will be embraced by a few individuals who then take on greater responsibility within groups, thereby centralizing knowledge, power and access.

Krone said despite these concerns, “SaveAct believes it is important to prepare members for digitization, both in terms of enabling them to take advantage of what this can bring them in added value, but also to equip them to negotiate the vagaries of the world, as they become increasingly a target of other service providers, opportunists and scams.”

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