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Public Information Officer
Before joining WFP, Vigno Hounkanli worked for many years as a journalist in Africa.
In remote areas of Niger, families at risk of hunger are now using 'smart' cards to withdraw the cash they receive as part of a WFP food assistance programme. Villagers are thrilled with the new technology, but, without the benefit of formal education, they need to find their own ways of remembering their PIN code.
ZINDER -- In the village of Dogo Chaibou in the remote Zinder region, there is no electricity. The population, which is 95 percent illiterate, depends on basic farming for its livelihood. But the people have embraced the new technologies involved in WFP's latest cash distribution, which uses 'smart cards' very similar to the bank cards used at an ATM machine.
WFP started using Cash for Workactivities as a way of addressing food insecurity in Niger in 2010. Communities do agricultural work such as soil recuperation and tree planting in return for cash, which boosts their income and increases their purchasing power during the post-harvest season.
Beneficiaries were given cards with integrated memory chips that identify them and specify the amount they should receive. Villagers were fascinated by the technology involved in their new cards.
"I'm amazed that people know my name, how old I am and the amount of money they have to pay me as soon as they put the card into the machine. It's like magic. We have been told what the card is and how to use it, but now I've seen how it works, I'm fascinated. I can’t believe it," said Hadiza Malam from Zinder, 55, and a mother of five children.
Over the last year $US 7.5 million were distributed to more than 90,000 households out of which 75% were women. These cash transfers are an important part of the Relief and Recovery Operation that WFP is implementing in Niger.
"Our goal is to use magnetic cards in major cash distribution operations. It is a very efficient tool for identifying beneficiaries and controlling the operations," said Giorgi Dolidze at WFP cash programme office. "The use of these smart cards is also important for data archiving."
Remembering your PIN
WFP developed the operation in partnership with microfinance institutions which automatically top up beneficiaries’ cards with the amount due to them. Officials at these institutions use handheld terminals to read the password protected smart cards. Naturally, villagers must remember their 4-digits PIN code to receive their cash. A vast majority of them are illiterate, so this can be difficult. But they have found they can remember their PIN numbers if they look at each number in their code as a picture and try to remember that. Seeing the numbers as images, rather than 'writing', also enables them to remember which order they come in. Then, when they are faced with the handheld electronic payment terminal, they are able to punch in the right numbers.
Zoue Harouna, 46, mother of six children could not distinguish 45 from 54 to begin with. "I had trouble recognizing the numbers because I don’t know how to read them and it was very hard to keep them in mind," she explains. But when she started thinking of the 4 and 5 as images, everything got easier. "I made an effort to recognize them as a picture and which one follows which one. Now I am confident in recognizing them on the machine. I cannot forget them any more."
Cash delivery system through plastic cards is new in the West African region and WFP Niger is the first organization pilot such an initiative. The World Bank is observing WFP's project and exploring the possibility of putting in place a similar system for their safety net projects in Niger.