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The My Oral Village Story

My Oral Village’s (MOVE) founder Brett Matthews first visited an oral village in 2000 as a microfinance consultant. He travelled to remote communities from East Africa to the Pacific, listening to villagers and learning about their livelihoods and financial lives.

He observed a tragic conundrum. Poor villager borrowed from microfinance institutions, but would not save with them. Yet having and using a savings account, he knew is vital to getting out of poverty. Most customers of microfinance institutions couldn’t read or write, and yet they received all the records of their personal financial transactions in writing. Could this disconnect between customer needs and product delivery explain the conundrum? And if it could – was it fixable?

From years of observation and research, Brett learned the long history of human practices in storing and managing information without writing. ‘Oral information management’ (OIM) practices remain common in countless communities world-wide. Could they be applied to this challenge? The diffusion of smartphones seemed to especially timely, due to their rich capabilities. But institutions that served illiterate people doubted OIM could work, and were reluctant to test it­.

To address this barrier Brett founded My Oral Village in 2011 with a visionary team of experienced finance and development professionals. Our team set out to prove that the OIM approach could empower illiterate adults to independently perform financial transactions and use financial services – including digital ones. Stuart Rutherford invited Brett to conduct formal testing and design work with users of the services of SafeSave, a microfinance institution he had founded, in Hrishipara, Bangladesh. Later, Stuart wrote of Brett’s team’s work: “We had to recognise that our documentation, designed to engender trust, that most essential ingredient of intermediation, may well have been fomenting distrust.”

Since then My Oral Village has continued to pioneer both the practice and the science of ‘oral information management’. The long-term goal is to ‘oralize’ the entire interface linking illiterate and semi-literate adults with formal financial services. We have also been pioneering work on the massive cognitive barriers to financial inclusion, such as ‘financial numeracy’ (the ability to read a number worth US $100 in the respondent’s currency). We have moved increasingly into software development, with apps like financial numeracy games, cash calculators, and oralized mobile wallets which help illiterate adults to complete financial transactions, increasing their numeracy skills as they go..