Kahanbu Mastayabo (right) discusses the quality of dried fish with her husband (left) and sister (middle). Photo: Christian Jepsen/NRC

Changing lives with one swipe

Text and photos: Christian Jepsen|Published 19. Apr 2017
The Norwegian Refugee Council in DR Congo has introduced a new distribution system, where people displaced by conflict are provided with electronic e-Voucher cards to enable them to chose for themselves which foods or household items they want.

As the mid-day sun appears between the clouds, Kahanbu Mastayaboo, 26, unfolds an umbrella to protect her five-months-old daughter, Esther, tied to her back, from the scorching rays. The young mother and her husband, Muhinto Meso, 23, are doing their shopping at a dusty, bustling market at the outskirts of Kanyabayonga, a small town in Eastern DR Congo. The couple stop at a small booth.

“Let’s buy some of this oil,” Kahanbu Mastayaboo suggests to her husband.

They agree on five litres of palm oil and pass their electronic payment card to the trader, who swipes the card on a scanner on the back of a smartphone. $3.79 USD is subtracted from the card and Kahanbu Mastayabo taps her personal code on the screen to confirm the purchase.

Many advantages

Markets in the conflict-ridden North Kivu province in DR Congo are not normally this technologically advanced. The allocation of electronic cards and setting-up of a market place have been organized by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) after an assessment of the situation of newly displaced families by the organisation’s emergency response teams.

“These e-Vouchers have many advantages”, says Jose Kibasubwamo, 52, one of several local traders with a palm oil stall at the market. “Compared to paper vouchers, the electronic system is much more secure and precise, and by the end of the day it is easy and fast to calculate how much we have sold and then sort our payment with NRC,” explains the trader with a big smile. He has left the operation of the smartphone to her oldest daughter who seems more comfortable with such modern devices.

The personal e-Voucher card is swiped at the back of the smartphone to confirm each purchase. The screen displays how much money has been spent and how much remains. Photo: Christian Jepsen/NRC

A new kind of payment

Two improvised market streets are occupying most of Kanyabayonga’s football field – the only place in Kanyabayonga’s hilly landscape that is sufficiently large and flat to accommodate more than 6,000 families. One street is lined with small food stalls, while the other street has booths with household items such as mattresses, clothing, shoes, radios and solar chargers. The selection of goods has been chosen through meetings between NRC and the beneficiaries themselves.

Kahanbu Mastayabo and her family have finished today’s shopping and pass through the exit gate, where NRC staff check their e-Voucher card to confirm that the allocated amount of 55 USD for the family has been fully utilized. The family are loaded up with a mattress, a blanket, beans, palm oil, cassava roots, fruits and soap.

“This kind of payment is very new to us, but we like the system and we didn’t face any problems,” explains Kahanbu Mastayaboo. As most other newly displaced families in DR Congo, the family is struggling to making ends meet in their new home in Kanyabayonga. They work in the fields for 1,500 Congolese Francs (1.10 USD) per day to pay for rent and food.

Before Kahanbu Mastayabo and her family leaves the market, an NRC staff checks that they have spent all money that was loaded into their e-Voucher card. Photo: Christian Jepsen/NRC

The first time in DR Congo

Starting in December 2016, NRC was the first humanitarian agency in DR Congo to continuously implement the e-Voucher system with relative success. As NRC’s Emergency Coordinator in DR Congo, Ibrahim Abdullya Ly is responsible for the planning and implementation of e-Voucher markets.

“Vouchers have long been a useful method of allowing people to select the goods they need the most – and by using e-Vouchers, we are eliminating many of the risks of fraud and theft that exist with paper vouchers or cash distributions. And since the electronic system works much faster, we have been able to accommodate 200 more families per day compared to other systems,” he explains.

But all beginnings carry challenges. Many traders and customers in this region lack reading skills, so NRC has had to thoroughly train beneficiaries on the usage of the cards and the special smartphones used to scan the cards. NRC also has staff available throughout the market to assist and handle issues and complaints.

A total of 6,180 displaced families – more than 37,400 people – stocked up with food and household items at the Kanyabayonga e-Voucher market during the 11 days it was open.

The distribution of food and household items is one of several activities that form an integrated approach to support displaced populations in DR Congo. With funding from the European Union Humanitarian Aid (ECHO), NRC aims to provide education, legal assistance and emergency distributions under a rapid response mechanism to more than 147,000 displaced people and members of host communities in 2016 and 2017 in North and South Kivu provinces of DR Congo.

This article covers humanitarian aid activities implemented with the financial assistance of the European Union. The views expressed herein should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of the European Union, and the European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

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