Lucy Mbabazi: How One Rwandan Woman Is Using Mobile Phone Technology to Change the World
Lucy’s mother Janet Nkubana grew up in a refugee camp—not that camp, but a similar one in Uganda—brought by her mother, a Rwandan Tutsi, who had fled across the border trying to escape persecution by the Hutu majority. By the time Lucy was born, Janet had her own home in Uganda. And although Lucy’s childhood was normal, she would hear her family talk on and on about their native land, Rwanda, a "paradise" they would one day return to. But in the spring of 1994, the tension between the Hutu and the Tutsi erupted again there, this time into genocide—close to a million Tutsis were slaughtered within a span of three months. "You would see bodies flowing into Uganda’s Lake Victoria," Lucy told Glamour, "and then the sadness that we had [when] everyone started to realize, ’Wait, these people must be from Rwanda.’"
After the war, Janet decided it was time to go. Lucy was 15. The devastation was worse than they could have imagined. There were no schools, Lucy says; bodies were strewn on the roads, and the highlight of her day was going to the market or watching Coming to America on VHS. (“I think I saw it 1,000 times.”)
Lucy watched as her mother, undeterred, quickly got to work. Janet organized local weavers to create baskets, bringing together the Hutu and Tutsi widows of men who had murdered each other. At first, it was a challenge getting them under one roof, but necessity brought them back day by day. “Everybody [was] trying to find food for their families,” recounts Lucy, “And that sort of brought them together to just talk about these things and begin to forgive each other—naturally, without probing.” The program got the attention of an American social entrepreneur, Willa Shalit, who helped bring it to Macy’s. The retail giant began selling the baskets in 2005, giving thousands of impoverished women a source of steady income, and still does today. What started with 27 local weavers is now a multi-city operation that employs over 3,000 women.
“Basket money” helped Lucy go to school in the United States. After graduating from college in Pittsburgh, Lucy bucked tremendous odds to earn a spot at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Public Policy. On her first day at the program—surrounded by peers who’d gone to private schools all their lives and interned at senators’ offices—Lucy thought, This was a mistake. But after she graduated, she wanted to use her newfound education to give back at home, in Rwanda. As soon as she could, she returned to her native country to work with the government’s Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) division as a policy and strategy adviser. When Visa approached the Rwandan government about piloting a new mobile banking and payment system, mVisa, she was tapped to lead the partnership.
Lucy found a perfect way to test pilot a system with the United Nations World Food Program [WFP], which had been looking to replace the costly process of donating food to nearly 15,000 Congolese refugees in the Gihembe camp in Northern Rwanda. "For years, this food was being imported into Rwanda—rice, salt, maize," says Lucy, “Maize is not something that [Congolese refugees] eat! They were trading in that maize to buy cassava flour.” Why not just give refugees money to buy what they wanted at the market? Cash is easily stolen in the camp. Lucy offered a solution: WFP would use mobile banking to wire the refugees electronic funds to cover their living expenses.
So, in 2013, WFP donated phones to the heads of families—often women and children—in the Gihembe camp, which they now use to access the donated funds. “The refugees dial a bank short code and a menu comes onto the phone. They [can] select “send money,” “withdraw cash,” “pay merchant,” says Lucy, and the money stays safe in the banks.
Lucy’s dream is to extend this opportunity to everyone in the country, and it’s working. The program expanded to its third refugee camp in November, and as a result of her work implementing the system, Rwanda has committed to becoming cashless by 2020.
And what has the new system meant to the refugees? “They have choice in the food that they get to eat…. just that choice, the dignity of choice, I think alone, is crucial,” Lucy says. “Who knows? Maybe they can also leave that camp just like my mother did. And go on to have a better life outside the camp, and send their children to amazing schools, who can then be part of rebuilding their countries.”