Digitising Village Saving and Loan Associations in East Africa

Updated: Feb 6


Image 1: two screens (home and loan repayment) of the app, and the overview page on the web platform.
Image 1: two screens (home and loan repayment) of the app, and the overview page on the web platform.

Summary


I designed a VSLA digital solution to help SaCoDé facilitate 765 (and counting) Village Saving and Loan Associations spread across Burundi. This post will take you through a journey that begun with exploring existing solutions for the challenges SaCoDé was facing and concluded in the creation of high-fidelity prototypes of and Android app and a web platform.


Role: Product designer. Timeline: 8 weeks. Tools used: pencil & paper, Sketch, Adobe Photoshop, Protopie and Zoom.


Context


A Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) is a self-managed savings group, in which members save money together (the capital), then use that capital to give each other loans repaid with interest. Each VSLA is comprised of between 10 to 25 members. This model had spread to 77 countries with over 20 million participants worldwide (source: vsla.net). At the time of writing this article, SaCoDé was facilitating 765 VSLAs in Burundi.


VSLAs are a powerful tool to transform marginalised communities, by helping them to mobilise savings. These provide members with means to cope with emergencies, manage household cash-flow, build capital and solidify social networks, solidarity and trust. Visit vsla.net to learn more about the VSLA model, and click here to watch a video of a member of one of SaCoDé’s VSLAs programs recounting how it has changed her life.


Image 2: a VSLA meeting in Rwegura, Kayanza.
Image 2: a VSLA meeting in Rwegura, Kayanza.

The Problem


When I took on this project, I was wearing my “Head of Development” (at SaCoDé) hat. I set out looking for a solution to help SaCoDé facilitate its 765 VSLAs more efficiently. At the time, all the book-keeping and management are done manually, using notebooks. The work to monitor the groups was overwhelming staff and costing the organisation a lot of resources. Covid-19 made things worse: sending staff to attend each and every VSLA meeting exposed them, colleagues, VSLA members and their respective families to greater risks of contamination. Therefore, we needed a tool to facilitate VSLAs more efficiently.


Initially, I was looking for an existing solution. We didn’t invent VSLAs, so I imagined someone had already developed a tool. I found a few, even had some demo'd to me in detail, but none of them were a good fit for our needs. The main flaws I identified were related to:

  1. A lack of separate accounts — more specifically, an account for Agateka purchases: Agateka is SaCoDé’s flagship program and the main feature of many of our VSLAs. We make reusable and washable sanitary pads (called Agateka) which VSLA members can buy at a discount; often after saving money together, in an account separate from the main capital and the social fund. Besides, an Agateka-focused VSLA cannot do any other transactions unless all the members have received their Agateka kit.

  2. The language barrier: all of the viable solutions I saw were designed and built in English. Most of our VSLA members can only read and speak Kirundi and our staff is essentially francophone.

  3. The User Experience: as a UX designer, I couldn’t help but notice a lot of tasks and functionalities that could have been designed better.

An Opportunity


As Director of Development, my main job was to raise funds and/or introduce income-generating activities for the organisation. It occurred to me that since there wasn’t a solution available in Burundi, SaCoDé could build one and monetise it, by making it available to other organisations that facilitate VSLAs in the country and in the region.


So, I put on my UX Designer hat and went to work!


Image 3: a screenshot of my workspace.
Image 3: a screenshot of my workspace.

The main users

  • The Secretaries: each VSLA has Secretary who takes notes during each weekly meeting. In a notebook, they note down attendance, how much each member contributed to the funds, each member who took out a loan (with details), each member who repaid a loan (with details), expenses incurred and income received by the VSLA, as a group, etc. I designed a mobile app for the Secretaries to capture all of this information in.

  • Project Managers: they’re in charge of tracking each VSLAs progress (by reading each notebook), conflict resolution, as well as delivering to members financial literacy, entrepreneurship, menstrual hygiene management and sexual and reproductive health training. For the project managers, I designed a web-based platform that will consolidate all of the data captured in the app into meaningful and easily accessible information.

The main tasks


For the app’s prototype, I focused on the activities that happen during a meeting:

  • taking attendance,

  • contributing into the Agateka fund,

  • buying Agateka kits,

  • buying shares,

  • taking loans,

  • repaying loans,

  • contributing into the social fund,

  • registering expenses,

  • registering income,

  • collecting fines,

  • and taking summaries of training received.

The web platform reflects this information.


The design process


After a meeting with project managers to take note of the needs, I designed the app’s low and mid-fidelity wireframes with pencil and paper, then Sketch; stitched them together with Protopie, then had 3 SaCoDé project managers and 2 VSLA secretaries test the first prototype and give me feedback.


The latter was mostly positive, with suggestions of features to add, for example: the possibility to register the number of the deposit slip, when contributions to buy Agateka kits are deposited at the bank.


I used the feedback to improve the wireframes, and then turned them into a high-fidelity interactive prototype. You can click here to explore and play with the prototype if you like.


Some wireframes


1. Réunion (meeting)
Image 4: Mid-fidelity (left) and high-fidelity (right and focused) "Réunion" wireframes.
Image 4: Mid-fidelity (left) and high-fidelity (right and focused) "Réunion" wireframes.

Main features:

  • a top navigation bar;

  • a date picker;

  • activity tabs, each with a summary of what was accomplished at the meeting;

  • a button to end the meeting and upload the report to the cloud, with a meeting progress bar at the bottom; and

  • a bottom navigation bar.


2. Liste des Présences (attendance)
Image 5: Mid-fidelity (left) and high-fidelity (right and focused) "Liste des Présences" wireframes.
Image 5: Mid-fidelity (left) and high-fidelity (right and focused) "Liste des Présences" wireframes.

Main features:

  • A members list;

  • Buttons to mark each member present, late or absent;

  • Presence, lateness and absence indicators, which can be modified when swiped left;

  • An attendance meter, with information about the fines applicable for lateness or absence (the latter was added during iterations); and

  • Not shown in the image, but there's a popup to indicate whether a lateness or absence is justified (no fine applicable) or not (fines applicable).


3. Achat d'actions (purchase of shares)
Image 6: Mid-fidelity (left) and high-fidelity (right and focused) "Achat d'actions" wireframes.
Image 6: Mid-fidelity (left) and high-fidelity (right and focused) "Achat d'actions" wireframes.

Main features:

  • A members list, with an indication of what they owe from previous meetings if applicable (see Faustine);

  • A contribution meter showing the total amount raised at the meeting, the grand total amount and information about the cost/price of an individual share/contribution; and

  • Dials to increase or decrease the number of shares bought by each member.


4. Demandes de prêts (loan applications)
Image 7: High-fidelity "Demandes de prêts" wireframe.
Image 7: High-fidelity "Demandes de prêts" wireframe.

Main features:

  • The application form;

  • A list of members who were approved loans at the meeting, with information about the amount approved and what it will be used for; and

  • A pop-up to confirm a loan registration with a summary of the loan.


5. Remboursements (repayments)
Image 8: High-fidelity "Remboursements" wireframes.
Image 8: High-fidelity "Remboursements" wireframes.

Main features:

  • A list debtors, with information about how much each owes in total;

  • A repayment button;

  • A pop-up with details about each amount owed and fields to input the amount(s) repaid;

  • An indicator that a payment has been made; and

  • A repayment meter, with information about total repayments made at the meeting, interest collected from the repayments and the total debt owed by all debtors.


6. The VSLA Overview page on the Web platform

Image 9: High-fidelity wireframe of the VSLA overview page on the web platform.
Image 9: High-fidelity wireframe of the VSLA overview page on the web platform.

Main features:

  • A top navigation bar;

  • A side navigation bar specific to the VSLA;

  • A meeting cycle picker with (next to it) information about when the cycle starts and ends;

  • VSLA data presented in the form of graphs; and

  • A list of reports submitted through the app, each with a download button.


What’s next?


The hi-fidelity prototype was approved by SaCoDé in September 2020 and we began talks with developers, to move into production. But this is just the tip of the iceberg… there is still a lot of work to be done for the vision to fully manifest.


First, I’ll need to design all of the other wireframes and tasks not included in the prototype. Second, I'll need to compile the design system. Third, we’ll need to translate the copy of the app to Kirundi. I designed in French (flows easier to me), but the app will be used essentially in Kirundi. On the other hand, this is just the first phase of the project. Future phases will include:

  • Opening the app to all members of the VSLA for some self-service transactions, such as applying for a loan, and will require the design and development of USSD/SMS processes, for members who do not own smartphones.

  • Connection to our SMS messaging and education platform.

  • Enabling mobile money transactions.

If you’d like to learn more and follow these developments, please don’t be shy to reach out. You can also drop a comment below — I’d love to hear your impressions of and any questions you may have about my process and the project!


This is all, for now!

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