The Building BAB project is the result of funding from the Tech For Social Good Program at UC Davis. This funding supported a partnership between a team of UC Davis students and community partners running the South Sudanese money transfer network and youth entrepreneurship training project BAB for General Trading and Investment (BAB takes its name from the Arabic word for “door,” a reflection of its aim to offer opportunities to youth). BAB’s innovative use of cell phone technology for money transfer allows them to run a lean, targeted, alternative financial infrastructure that connects people in towns in every region of war-torn South Sudan. Money transfer is run entirely on cellular phone networks, with agents on either end using log books and issuing transfer codes to the senders and recipients, allowing people to send and receive money in locations with no banks or other financial institutions. This allows family members working away from home to send their salaries to their families in rural areas, small businesses to rapidly transfer money between different employees, and people displaced by conflict to access emergency loans and assistance from friends and family.
By partnering with BAB to assess and expand their work, the Davis team and the members of BAB strategized and assessed the launch of three new business centers to serve as money transfer points. Through these centers, they will also run programming to teach war-affected youth financial literacy and entrepreneurial skills and give them access to funds to launch small-scale businesses. This is all aimed at meeting three goals: linking people displaced across the country and region, confronting the devastating long-term effects of conflict on once-thriving commercial centers, and reducing people’s continued dependency on foreign aid for both work opportunities and their basic needs.
BAB has centers in the capital of Juba, the centrally located commercial hub of Rumbek, and the two towns in northern and northeastern South Sudan hardest hit by recent conflict: Bentiu and Malakal. The Davis team worked with them to oversee BAB’s launch of new business and money transfer centers, co-develop a plan and implementation of financial trainings targeted at youth, and formulate a long-term strategic plan. They helped them in their goal of connecting BAB’s network to the mobile-phone-based Mpesa and MTN Mobile Money systems based in Kenya and Uganda and thus better connect South Sudanese people with the regional economy in spite of the severely limited banking infrastructure in the country. The project employed an innovative, real-time, web-based assessment strategy rooted in the anthropological insights and critical development literature. Most project assessments are retrospective and many have narrow starting goals that close off implementers’ abilities to shift, innovate, and adapt based on new insights and shifting dynamics. Inspired by the adaptive methodology of ethnographic fieldwork, the Davis team conducted continuous assessment and adjustment during the project’s implementation with the goal of building a detailed, experience-based strategic plan. While conducting his programming through in-person visits to the transfer centers, Gai analyzed and digitized transfer records and interviewed each center’s staff, customers, and youth trained in sessions. These notes were added to an online Google Docs that he and the Davis team will be able to view and edit in real time. They followed up with him through phone calls and Skype meetings. The Davis team launched these online assessment tools in July of 2016.
Christian Doll, the lead researcher and a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at UC-Davis and Gai Makiew Gai, the Managing Director of BAB, kept in touch throughout June, July, and August of 2016. While Christian, unfortunately, had to postpone his planned trip to Juba in August 2016 due to the political situation, he successfully transferred the first installment of funds to the BAB team and the quickly got to work. Gai and the BAB team put off plans to launch a center in the town of Wau, but successfully launched a center in Kuajak (Kajok) town in northern South Sudan and another one in Panyequor (Panyagor) in eastern South Sudan. The Panyequor center will serve four major counties: Waat, Ayot, Uror, and Akoba. These counties host a large population of internally displaced people and BAB’s new center is their only financial access point. The BAB team also launched a center in Mayom county in the north of the country. This center is located in one of the regions hit hardest by the recent conflict in South Sudan. The BAB team conducted extensive training of the newly employed managers at these three centers. This training focused on day to day operational strategies and customer relations. Gai appeared on a talk show on the most trusted source for information in South Sudan, Radio Miraya, a station listened to throughout the country and run by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. On the program, Gai announced the new centers and spoke about the location of BAB’s existing centers to encourage people to use their services to transfer money between regions that until now had no access to financial services.
Opening the “Door” Across Borders
The ongoing conflict in South Sudan—which has displaced thousands of people—has made carrying out the Building BAB project both more necessary than ever and more
complicated to pull off. Members of the BAB team living in Juba have been directly affected by the conflict, with one member moving into one of the United Nations Protection of Civilians camp in Juba after the violence that broke out ahead of South Sudan’s fifth anniversary celebration in July of 2016. Other South Sudanese people have been displaced within the country or have fled across the border to Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan. BAB has been able to meet the growing need for separated families and social networks to be linked financially even as they have been scattered throughout the country and the region. Funding from the Blum Center has allowed the Juba based team and the Davis consulting team to explore the feasibility of continuing to create access to money, increase entrepreneurial energy, and combat the effects of ongoing conflict through an alternative financial infrastructure. By closely following the process of opening new money transfer centers and links to mobile money transfer systems in neighboring countries, the Building BAB project has collected a plethora of data they will use to formulate a long-term strategy and seek further funding to achieve the aim of empowering war-affected youth and lessening dependence on humanitarian aid among people throughout South Sudan.
BAB’s money transfer centers are run with a lean operation: a customer can enter any office, fill out a form, and give cash and a small fee to the office’s manager. The manager records the transaction on paper, then contacts the office where the money will be picked up by the customer’s friend or family member. Using a secret number, the person on the other end can pick up the funds in any other office. Each regional office keeps a record of transactions and the management team in Juba oversees the overall records. Each office maintains a small supply of cash to pay out transactions, and the Juba office replenishes these supplies as necessary. The small footprint of each office has meant that each center has become profitable quickly with all costs—rent, salaries, logistical costs— beyond the first month covered by the small profit from fees charged on each transaction.
The only banks in South Sudan’s operate in the largest towns and they cater almost exclusively to the professional class of government workers and humanitarian aid professionals and thus remain largely inaccessible to the majority of South Sudanese people, especially those living in the war-torn northeastern region. BAB’s money transfer network has meant that people who subsistence farmed but had to leave leave their land behind can now receive money from family members employed in Juba. It has also allowed soldiers stationed in far-flung parts of the country to quickly send money to pay school fees for their children living in Juba or elsewhere. Blum Center funds have made even more of these transfers possible and by allowed a rapid expansion of BAB’s scope and a quick expansion of its network while offering the team an opportunity to experiment with new potential programs and study the feasibility of building an even larger network.
In August 2016, the team set up two new money transfer centers in Aweil and Mayom. After setting up these centers, Gai, and his team conducted an in-depth training with all of the current transfer center managers. The training focused on customer service strategies and ways to increase daily uses of the centers. The training aligned with one of BAB’s key goals: training youth in entrepreneurship skills. The young people hired were recruited from the communities the centers would serve and their training gave them skills useful for their work with BAB and beyond. This training will also potentially make each of BAB’s centers more successful and profitable and thus allow for further, self-sustaining growth.
In September, the BAB team connected BAB’s network of transfer points with the Kenya-based MPESA system, a vast and extensively used mobile-phone-based money transfer system. This connection will allow people based in the areas around BAB’s centers to send and receive money from friends and family based in Kenya. This new connection will have monumental impact on many people’s lives. Transferring money between South Sudan and Kenya in the past few years has been incredibly difficult as it required either paying massive bank transfer fees or taking the risk of carrying cash on public transport across the border or sending cash with a traveling acquaintance. The MPESA-BAB link is now helping South Sudanese people displaced to Kenya send and receive money from family members in South Sudan and will allow South Sudanese people working in Kenya to support their family members living in South Sudan. It will also be a tremendous resource for the many Kenyans running small businesses throughout South Sudan and the enormous population of South Sudanese secondary and university students studying in Kenya.
Alongside creating this new linkage, in September, the BAB team also used Blum Center funds to run a two-day entrepreneurship training for 15 youth at the Juba Civic Engagement Center. This training, similar to the one conducted in August, aimed to improve the skills of its center managers but also served as an experiment in finding new ways to reach out to and empower South Sudanese youth to engage in entrepreneurship.
October proved an equally productive month for building up BAB. The Juba team used Blum Center funds to pay rent and set aside starting funds so that they could launch a new center in the largest town in northwestern South Sudan, Aweil. They also began working to launch a center in Malakal, a historic and formerly robust trading center in the northwest of the country. However, renewed fighting between the government army and armed soldiers near Malakal led the team to call off launching this center until the situation improves. In the face of this setback, the BAB team rebounded and finalized the paperwork to connect the BAB network to the MTN Mobile Money network, using Blum Center funds for registration fees and the logistics required to set up this linkage. MTN Mobile Money is an extensively used and well-regarded money transfer service offered by the largest wireless network operating in Uganda, MTN. It lets anyone with an MTN phone line send money to any other MTN customer, which can be withdrawn at any location that sells MTN phone credit. Similar to its connection with MPESA, the linking of BAB to MTN Mobile Money will allow easier linkages between people living across the border. It will be helpful to the large population of South Sudanese living in Uganda and even to the number of Ugandans working in South Sudan. This connection will encourage deeper commercial connections between the already deeply linked countries. This new financial connection will be especially transformative for small business owners and regular people who have no access to banking institutions or any form of money transfer after fleeing to the rural region of Uganda just across the South Sudanese border.
Outcomes and Ways Forward
Amid these developments, Gai, the head of the BAB team in Juba, and Christian, the head of the Davis side of the project, have been in constant contact, discussing day-to-day operations, the logistics of expanding BAB, ways to develop new programs, and how to achieve future plans. They have kept records of these conversations so that the rest of
the team will be able to analyze them and write up their overall findings. With the new centers running and the MPESA and MTN Mobile Money connections in operation, BAB is planning to use the profits from its small fees for further expansion. Their immediate goal is to set up a BAB office in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. Many South Sudanese live in Sudan, travel through Khartoum, and have been displaced to areas across the border in Sudan. Offering a simple and cheap way to transfer money to Khartoum will thus offer a further essential service for connecting the community and the region. Gai and Christian have also begun strategizing the next stage of their assessment of BAB’s operations and their research on this alternative infrastructure experiment. Christian is writing a written survey for the BAB team members to respond to and he is also planning to visit South Sudan on a future research trip. With the data from these surveys and the information he gathers by meeting with BAB workers and customers, and through further consultation with the BAB team, Christian and Gai plan to write a comprehensive strategic plan that will explain specific proposals for making BAB’s centers have a greater impact on their communities. Potential expansions include offering loans through the centers and offering free financial literacy, business management, and vocational training for local youth. The BAB team is also researching new sources of support for all of these projects, with Gai using his links to the NGO community in Juba and Christian using his proximity to Silicon Valley to speak with app developers and finance technology experts in the tech community of California.
Overall, support from the Blum Center allowed the Building BAB team to expand BAB’s networks, closely analyze its operations, draw up concrete plans, and directly improve the lives of hundreds of conflict-affected people throughout South Sudan. The staff of BAB summarized the impacts and achievements that Blum Center funding facilitated into four points:
- 18 youth from various locations in South Sudan were permanently employed and earn their daily living successfully.
- Expansion of BAB branches has been realized. Only five centers were functional before and now the centers have increased to nine.
- Peace, unity, love and reconciliation was achieved through BAB’s operations among the youth and internally displaced people who were very divided during the recent crisis in South Sudan. BAB was able to unite people through money transfer activities and increase communication networking activities among the youth and the people at large because of the positive interactions and interconnection that comes through money transfer, which connects people in a variety of ways.
- We have encouraged other youth to engage in business rather than thinking of politics as the best way of getting money—which has been in the mind of many young people in South Sudan.