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Market fairs acting as mobile money boot camp in Haiti

Haiti, May 25, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Erin Wildermuth/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Guerrier Elicienne participates in practice-based mobile money in Saint-Marc's 5eme section. Photo: Erin Wildermuth/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Erin Wildermuth/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Guerrier pointing out a radio at a market fair in Saint Marc's 5eme section. Photo: Erin Wildermuth/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Erin Wildermuth/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Guerrier with her newly purchased mattress (the red one) at a market fair in Saint-Marc's 5eme section. Photo: Erin Wildermuth/Mercy Corps

On May 13, the Haiti Economic Recovery Team arrived on site in Saint-Marc’s 5eme section to witness our first market fair.

As we drove up to the football field that had been selected for the event, we were greeted with a crowd of beneficiaries, women selling water and snacks on the sidelines and more than 20 tents evenly spread around the field’s boundaries. Within each tent, a vendor sat proudly behind an assortment of goods in a Mercy Corps shirt embossed with the slogan "Bayo Chwazi" — “let them choose” in Creole.

There were a variety of goods to be chosen from: high stacks of pots, buckets, radios, mattresses and even building materials welcomed the beneficiaries as they completed the registration process and meandered through the fair grounds. An entertainment system blasted messages on cholera prevention and hygiene interlaced with jazzy local tunes, which beneficiaries would occasionally complement with impromptu dance moves.

The air was saturated with a tingling excitement that permeated every corner of the field. Each of the more than 300 beneficiaries was there to spend 9,000 Haitian gourdes (approximately US$220). Many had never had so much money, and it all needed to be spent in one day, in one fair. Several interviews conducted during training sessions had revealed that beneficiaries already had an idea of what they wanted to buy.

Guerrier Elicienne had been clear on her intentions — she was buying a mattress. Surely, though, when faced with the reality of the fair, a bucket would turn into a pot or a single mattress into a double. Choices would change, adding to the exhilaration and power of the event. Guerrier Elicienne hadn’t mentioned buying a radio, but in the flurry of fair day, it seemed to compliment her mattress particularly well.

None of the above descriptions were new to Mercy Corps’ American Red Cross-funded Market Fair Team. They are old hats to the excitement, music and energy of a fair day. There was, however, a new element that I have not yet mentioned: for the first time, participants of the fair were equipped with cellular phones and transfer codes instead of brightly colored, numbered vouchers. Mobile money had arrived, thus bringing two Mercy Corps teams together.

Mobile money is an innovative program that Mercy Corps has been involved in since last year. To date, we have successfully integrated mobile money into Mercy Corps’ Cash-for-Work program (CfW), Local Regional and Procurement Program (LRP) and Unconditional Cash Grants (UCG).

Market fairs present a unique challenge to mobile money. As a one-off program environment that lasts only one day, time is of the essence. This is in contrast to other programs, where beneficiaries can spend money at their leisure. In previous integration programs, beneficiaries who have trouble with the technology can practice over time, participate in spontaneous peer-to-peer trainings and repeatedly ask questions of participating vendors. This process is not possible in a market fair environment.

The Economic Recovery Team, in collaboration with the Market Fair Team, has turned this potential problem into a rare training opportunity. Key to exploiting this opportunity, the integration pilot was conducted with LRP participants.

The beneficiaries were already familiar with mobile money, and had already received training. They were also provided additional training with an increased emphasis on practical experience. Mercy Corps staff and volunteers broke the beneficiaries into small groups to physically practice the codes and receive one-on-one feedback. Older, illiterate and/or disabled beneficiaries who were not comfortable with the technology were asked to bring a friend or family member to help them with the transaction. Their mobile money partner attended both the training and the fair.

The Local Regional and Procurement Program is a great introduction to mobile money. It presents the technology in an unstressed, low-key environment. In contrast, market fairs are a mobile money boot camp. Participants buy multiple things in a limited amount of time The two programs in conjunction create a perfect learning environment: an easy, spread out introduction, followed by an intense day of using relatively familiar technology.

With these innovations in place, on Friday, May 13, market fair participants successfully used mobile money instead of vouchers.

Amazon Marie Flore was more excited that she would no longer have to sleep on the floor, having bought a new mattress at the fair, than she was by her new technological skills. That said, Flore, an internally-displaced mother of one, reported that the supplementary mobile money training made all the difference in the world and that she was much more comfortable with the technology than she had been before the fair.