Supporting the ‘Safe Journey’: How Mobile Tech is Making Migration More Secure and Less Costly
For millions of Nepali workers who have gone overseas for work in recent years, smartphones have become a crucial tool for navigating the highly complex and risky process of international migration. Despite widespread smartphone usage, however, there remain serious information gaps between those seeking to migrate and the providers of important services that can help migrants undertake the process more safely and productively. The Asia Foundation’s Shuvayatra (“Safe Journey”) project is the first to attempt to address this gap by using a mobile-first “platform” approach to connect migrants with services and information in an effective, accessible and sustainable way.
For young men and women from Nepal’s remote, rural and underdeveloped areas, foreign employment in wealthy economies like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, and South Korea can be a huge economic opportunity. Even workers in low-skill jobs like domestic work or construction can earn far higher wages abroad than they could at home – in fact, the sum of the remittances sent home by overseas Nepalis is the equivalent of more than 30 percent of the country’s GDP. But in their pursuit of economic opportunity, migrants journeying to these faraway destinations are placed into a system where exploitation is rife and information is highly asymmetric. Employment brokers take advantage of the complexity of the migration process to illegally charge high fees for job placements; to pay these fees, prospective migrants take out loans from informal lenders who charge interest rates of at least 30 percent (and reportedly as high as 200 percent in some cases).
The Asia Foundation’s “Wise Money” project, funded by MetLife Foundation (a NextBillion partner), leverages the Shuvayatra mobile and web platform to reduce the financial and personal vulnerability of Nepali migrant workers and their families. It produces content, such as articles, videos and interactive tools, that can help migrants before, during and after migration, and utilizes Shuvayatra to connect migrants to these resources. Since the launch of version 1.0 in 2017, Shuvayatra has grown to become by far the largest and most used online platform for Nepali migrant workers. It is accessed by more than 50,000 current and potential migrants every week, and its content library contains about 2,000 written articles, videos, audio podcasts and infographics related to financial literacy and safe migration. It contains contact details and contextualized information about dozens of financial service providers, including banks, insurance companies and remittance companies. This helps bridge the gaps between customers and providers of important services, resulting in better and more informed choices for customers, and greater market access for providers.
The Shuvayatra platform addresses both the demand and supply sides of the migration ecosystem, and its sustainability model relies on this dynamic. On the demand side, the platform fills a need among migrant workers for more accessible and mobile-friendly information and services. For migrants, who come from all over Nepal and travel to workplaces all over the globe, cheap Android phones and smartphone applications like Skype, Viber, YouTube and Facebook have already become crucial parts of the migration experience, giving them access to information, entertainment and a connection to home during what can be a very difficult and isolating experience. The presence of Shuvayatra content on an Android app and website, as well as via social media channels and a partnered news app with over 800,000 daily users, allows migrants to discover crucial information and to find service providers they might otherwise never encounter. The breadth of this audience is itself a sustainability mechanism, as it results in further opportunities for advertising revenue and content sponsorships.
On the supply side, Shuvayatra acts as a platform to connect many different stakeholders in Nepal’s migration ecosystem, matching consumers to providers of services offered by financial institutions and the private sector; civil society organization and NGOs; and the Government of Nepal. Since the Wise Money project’s inception, new partners have joined the platform in order to better reach migrants and convey useful information. The Shuvayatra platform is now being leveraged by the Skills for Employment Program (funded by the UK Department for International Development and implemented by the International Labour Organization) to deliver job- and employment-related information and opportunities to current and potential Nepali migrants. At a more local level, through partnerships initiated under the Wise Money project, several Nepali banks have also signed on as sponsors of locally-produced radio programming on financial literacy, allowing these popular shows to continue on a financially sustainable basis.
When the Shuvayatra platform first launched, it was primarily a news and information app. But through subsequent expansions and upgrades, it has evolved to offer more and more dynamic and interactive services, as well as more direct connections to financial service providers. For instance, the addition of an automatic foreign exchange tracker and calculator allows users to see at a glance today’s exchange rate, in order to more easily compare local prices or decide when to remit money. And a new Q&A feature allows migrants to ask questions directly from their phone and get answers from experienced safe migration experts. The Q&A feature has led to a significant increase in user engagement.
Over the next year, the Shuvayatra platform will continue expanding to new audiences, engaging with new partners, and pursuing new opportunities for sustainability within Nepal’s evolving economic and political system. An upcoming launch in spring 2018 of a more advanced financial services directory will allow users to see the full range of services available to them, and related tools will help them plan their finances and predict the overall cost of loans. Through this and other releases, the project will develop deeper and more productive partnerships with financial institutions in Nepal and overseas, helping Nepali migrants to understand and access the services that can help them make lasting improvements to their financial security.
Photo credit: CIFOR, via Flickr.