Fostering Resilience: How Mobile Money Transformed Crisis Response in Cameroon
Ioana Botea, Economist
Omar Ndiaye, Senior Digital Payments Specialist
In early 2020, Cameroon had a well-established safety net. The Social Safety Net Project had reached almost 10% of the poor (140,000 households) with either cash transfers or, mainly for youth, temporary employment through public works. More broadly, the project had put in place robust systems to identify beneficiaries, monitor implementation, and handle complaints. While it had recently expanded support to refugees, it remained focused on addressing chronic poverty rather than responding to crises.
The COVID-19 pandemic provided the impetus for change. To mitigate adverse economic effects, the government launched an emergency cash transfer program in urban areas. The goal was to provide income support to 80,000 informal sector workers affected by social distancing restrictions. Yet, it soon became apparent that more agile mechanisms were needed to distribute the aid timely and safely. The government decided that, for the first time, the transfers would be made digitally into beneficiaries’ mobile money accounts rather than in cash.
The experience turned out to be transformative for safety nets in Cameroon both for the Government and for the population. But it was not without challenges. A process evaluation financed by the G2Px Initiative helped identify four main lessons based on the COVID-19 response:
- The right laws and regulations must be in place. The government was unable to issue direct transfers to beneficiaries’ mobile money accounts due to paper-based payment proof requirements and the lack of a legal framework for electronic government-to-person (G2P) transactions. Instead, the payments had to be intermediated through commercial banks or microfinance institutions. To remove this bottleneck, the government passed a decree enabling G2P and person-to-government (P2G) electronic payments in 2022.
- Data accuracy and consistency are essential. The shift from cash to mobile money requires tighter data management at each implementation stage. During the COVID-19 response, inaccurate or incomplete data led to substantial payment delays for some beneficiaries. As a result, information on national ID, SIM card, and financial account numbers (if available) is now collected and verified during beneficiary registration.
- The lack of national IDs is a barrier for the target population. Initially, around 1 in 5 beneficiaries didn’t have valid identification documents to open a financial account or register a SIM card. Some of them managed to acquire or renew their IDs, while others had to be replaced by another adult in their household as transfer recipients. This exposed deep-rooted issues with civil registration in the country, prompting the project to now assist beneficiaries in obtaining IDs.
- Clear communication is key. Last-mile communication was not always efficient during the COVID-19 response, leading to confusion and distrust among some beneficiaries. Although a call center had been set up to handle complaints, few people knew about it. Based on this experience, the project has enhanced its sensitization and communication strategy. It further plans to include basic financial literacy and consumer protection training.
Transition to Adaptative Safety Nets
Despite these challenges, the adoption of digital payments is no longer called into question in Cameroon. Beneficiaries clearly prefer them: 78% of those interviewed chose mobile money over cash or other methods. Those already using mobile money could receive their transfers more quickly and conveniently, while those without previous mobile money experience could reap the benefits of improved financial inclusion. For the government, digitizing payments increases operational efficiency, reduces costs and leakages, and increases transparency.
The COVID-19 experience has also paved the way for improved resilience and crisis preparedness overall. The government launched the Adaptive Safety Net and Economic Inclusion Project in 2022 with shock-responsiveness at its core. The project includes a broader set of interventions to strengthen poor household’s incomes, assets, and economic resilience as well as to provide timely support in the event of a crisis. In addition, besides expanding digital payments to rural areas, the project is developing a national social registry to facilitate beneficiary identification and coordinate social aid.
When the next shock—be it related to the climate, security risks, or rising consumer prices—inevitably hits, the Government will have established mechanisms to swiftly and efficiently identify, reach, and assist those in need. This is essential in ensuring that the most vulnerable groups are protected, especially as the frequency and severity of such crises are likely to increase.