[Part 2] Understanding the mental models around the savings culture and aspirations of women in rural Bukavu

By Kennedy Kirui
iHub Consultancy
  Published 05 Aug 2016
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In the first part of this article, we covered our first trip with Women for Women International to rural Bukavu in The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This was the first phase of a project the iHub UX Lab undertook with Women for Women International to understand the mental models around the savings culture and aspirations of women in rural Bukavu. The research study was done in 2015.

In this post, we will share some of the findings from the first phase of the project, talk about our experience during the second phase, talk about the findings from the second phase, and sum up with the final recommendations that were made. Enjoy!

Reflections from the first phase

For the first phase of the project carried out in March 2015, Abigael spent a total of two weeks in rural Bukavu. It was a hectic two weeks and so when she came back, the rest of the team couldn't grill her immediately. After resting for a couple of days, Abigael spent a week with colleagues both from the iHub UX Lab and iHub Research analyzing the data that was collected.

In the analysis phase, a grounded thematic qualitative analysis with affinity diagramming methods was used. The data collected from the interviews was sorted thematically and concepts that stood out were mapped into related groups and subgroups on sticky notes. The team then used a collaborative analysis approach in reviewing, discussing and iterating the interpretations of the findings.

Our first objective was to find out what the women understood when it came to savings. The work Women for Women International had previously done had created a good understanding about savings among the women.

To this end, we set up the groups in two different ways. A number of groups were part of the Village Savings and Loans Association (VSLA) and the rest saved in an ad hoc manner.

In the VSLA groups, the women already had saving groups with a well-defined savings and loans process. They handed out booklets, maintained a register, collected money for social activities and marked the actual savings contributions in individuals’ booklets. All this was done in a systematic and orderly manner. The booklets were collected from the owners and locked up in a metallic box together with the collected money. The box had three locks and keys to the locks were given to three different individuals to avoid theft. The process was both open and secure.

A section of the women at a VSLA meet up A section of the women at a VSLA meet up

In the ad hoc savings groups, the women met and made their savings contributions dependent on whether they had sufficient funds. The women mentioned that they do not meet regularly as they only meet when they have money to contribute. It is safe to say that having the VSLA groups created a better saving culture.

In the first phase, we also sought to understand the initial technology capabilities of the women. Two key things stood out to us during this phase. Even though the women were mostly semi-illiterate, with the majority not having gone to school or only through primary school level, their knowledge, and interaction with the smartphone applications grew. Additionally, the women were excited about teaching and practicing some of the activities with their husbands and children.


“This phone has given me an opportunity to be called ‘teacher.’ I managed to teach others in the community to use the phone...I can now say I have been a teacher once in my life.”


There was a lot of interest shown in the mobile phones. However, some of the women assumed due to their illiteracy they would not be able to use the phones. This notion was dissuaded once they got basic training on using the phones from the facilitators.

With this information, we were then ready to embark on the second phase of the project.

The second visit

The second phase of the project was a tad more memorable to the team from iHub that traveled to Bukavu. It involved a case of food poisoning and one of our team members being denied entry into Rwanda because of a visa-related issue.

The second trip to Bukavu happened two months after the first one. It was meant to dive deeper and understand if women had any aspirations after the first phase and if they had yielded to any interests. This phase was meant to confirm or refute the hypothesis by providing answers to what mobile technology needs women had, including what their future aspirations for mobile technology might be.

To this end, Abigael, who you met in the first part of this article, traveled with Adam Chagani, then a researcher with iHub Research, to Bukavu for a week. The trip to Bukavu was uneventful. The same drill was repeated - a flight from Nairobi to Kigali, a 4-hour taxi ride from Kigali to the DRC/Rwanda border, and a thirty-minute drive in a 4*4 to from the Rwanda/DRC border to Bukavu. Just like the first time, a security briefing was done. Bukavu and its environs were still classified as amber alert. This meant it was relatively safe but anything could happen at anytime and the team could only stay out in the field until 3pm.

What happened while we were away?

During the second field visit, a check in was conducted with 2 savings groups, a VSLA, and an ad hoc group. The first thing Abigael and Adam observed on their return to rural Bukavu was that the women had learned more while we were away. Two groups had saved and each bought a group mobile phone ranging from $10 to $13 for their group use. Following the initial mobile literacy training that was conducted during the first field visit, they saw the value of owning a mobile phone. Both groups mentioned that they would be looking to subscribe to mobile money shortly. This showed that the women were ready to get on the mobile platform even if it meant sharing one phone amongst themselves. Most of them had bought SIM cards. By contributing to a shared fund to buy group phones and personal SIM cards, the women were working around their resource limitations to achieve their goal.

One of the groups that contributed to buy a phone to be shared amongst themselves One of the groups that contributed to buy a phone to be shared amongst themselves

The women had also figured out other ways to use the phones. Some of them sold bricks and farmed at the same time. Typically, they would choose a day to go to the farm and another day to go and sell bricks. At times, after traveling to the brick selling site and staying there for a full day they wouldn't get even a single customer! With a phone, they could plan with the brick customers when to be on site.

Additional findings from the second phase

During the initial field study, the women consistently voiced the need for more information and training. Aside from vocational training in sewing, pottery, and baking skills, they also asked for further training in numeracy and literacy skills. Some women also requested training in computer literacy. Numeracy and literacy training would ease the women’s interaction with technology and improve their businesses. All vocational training would improve income-generating activities and increase the amount of money accessible to the women for savings.

Additional technology solutions could help with the VSLA processes.

The trip back

Before they knew, it was time for Abigael and Adam to head back to Nairobi. On the last night before traveling back, the iHub team and Women for Women International had a small celebratory dinner. It was at this dinner that Abigael made a decision that she would regret later. Afflicted by the party mood, she decided to have a go at a local delicacy - frog legs. Adam was too scared to try it, a decision he was happy about later although he soon ran into a different problem on the way back.

Morning came and it was time to head back to Kigali for the flight to Nairobi. All was smooth until the iHub team got to the DRC/Rwanda border.

The first signs of trouble emanated from Abigael. The delicacy she had the previous day was not going down well with her. Her stomach was revolting. Adam followed suit. Apparently, a Canadian citizen traveling from DRC to Rwanda needs a visa. The opposite isn't necessary. Adam had no visa and so they wouldn't let him cross over until he got one.

An ode to Rwandan efficiency

Seeing as Abigael had a visa, she proceeded to Kigali. Adam later claimed that Abigael can't possibly work for the army - she would leave every man behind. Luckily for him, he was able to apply for a Rwandan visa online. It only took him three hours to get his visa. He made it to Kigali on time for his flight back to Nairobi.

Recommendations from the second phase

It was recommended that two applications be built for the women:

  • A learning application that would teach numeracy and literacy skills.
  • An application that would digitize the VSLA (table banking) process that the women were then using in their savings group.

The learning application would be an access point for knowledge that builds confidence and provides opportunities for skills development for the women. Exposure to an application that assists them with numeracy and literacy would also assist in increasing their technology (mobile) literacy and thus be opening up more opportunities for them. The application would need to have built-in indigenous language capabilities to allow for translation of the curriculum from the local dialect (Mashi) to either English or French.

As these women continued to save larger amounts of money in their VSLA group, it would be beneficial for this data to be captured digitally. It would also eliminate the need for paper, calculators, rubber stamps and other analog materials that the women were using. This was advised for efficiency purposes. However, adoption would be gradual.

The development of the application would be the third phase of the project. Unfortunately, this didn't happen because of resource constraints.

How did the project transform our thinking?

Sitting in an air-conditioned room in the heart of Nairobi, it is very easy for one to take for granted a good number of things. Previously, we have done work in remote environments but they had never really felt too different from our environment. Most of the participants we have interacted with in such environments have mobile phones and possess a good understanding of mobile telephony and its usefulness. One of our projects with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is also in a remote environment. However, the rangers we work with understand smartphones and phone usage really well.

This project took us to where we had never been before. We saw how what we considered as a small intervention could make such a huge difference in someone's life. We learned never to underestimate the impact 'small' interventions can have on people's lives. And most importantly, we learned that what we do at the UX Lab is fundamental to human-focused projects around the world.


Interested in the work we do at the iHub UX Lab? Don't hesitate to reach out to us via [email protected]

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