Delivering a Cash Calculator to Build Financial Capability among Innumerate Women in the Arid and Semi-arid Lands of Northern Kenya

Deliver and pilot a “cash calculator”– an Android app to empower illiterate and innumerate people to confidently and safely manage money.

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  • Yes, I fulfill all of the eligibility criteria.

Initiative's representative name

Brett Hudson Matthews

Initiative's representative date of birth


Initiative’s representative gender

  • Man

Which eligible market are you based in?

  • Canada

Where are you making a difference?

In arid northern Kenya among innumerate women in collaboration with the BOMA Project, an NGO.

Website or social media url(s) Twitter: @myoralvillage & @bretthmatthews LinkedIn: &

When was your organisation founded?


Focus areas

  • Helping people adapt to technologies of the future
  • Financial skills and capability
  • Creating digital tools

Project Stage

  • Pilot (have done first proof of concept)

Yearly Budget: How much capital do you need to accomplish your proposed project?

  • $10k - $50k

Organisation Type

  • Non-profit / NGO

1. Founding story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this to succeed

In 2014-15 My Oral Village conducted a series of tests of what we call ‘financial numeracy’ among illiterate adults using financial services. We quickly learned that the biggest skill deficit was inability to read place-value notation. We met many women selling goods in the markets. They carried mobile phones with them, but very few could use the pre-installed calculators. Surely a calculator would be valuable to a market vendor, whether literate or not? Yet when shown the calculator, they were confused and unable to use it. It was then that we realized that the typical poor market vendor could not use the calculator because she couldn’t read the outputs.

2. The problem: What problem surrounding employability or financial capability are you helping to solve?

Illiterate and semi-literate adults can’t read or write place-value notation. This means they cannot–without help–perform many tasks required in the formal economy, like reading a cash receipt or keeping sales records. However, many can count and calculate in cash, and speak clearly about any number needed for economic activity. There is a need for a translation device between the known (informal number) and the unknown (formal written number).

3. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

There are several parts to the solution. One important part is a general-purpose translation device, that allows people who can count and calculate in cash and verbally, to read and write multi-digit numbers, especially those that are 3-digits in length and longer. There are approximately a billion adults who cannot read or write numbers worth between $10 and $100 US in their own currencies. A ‘cash calculator’ allows the user to perform all the functions of a basic calculator – add, subtract, multiply and divide – using local cash items alone. It provides instant translation between the aggregated total of all cash sums selected by the user (on the one hand) and a numerical counter (on the other). And it allows the user to learn to use a conventional calculator – if they wish to do so - by providing a conventional numeric input editor, and displaying the cash equivalent in real time as a cross-check.

4. How are you innovating or using unique approaches to solving the problem?

In user-testing in Tanzania we have shown that female market vendors and other microentrepreneurs who are unable to read 3-digit numbers can input 6-digit Tanzanian sums (there are about 2,300 Tanzanian shillings to US $1.00) using the cash input method. After using it for a while, a typical one remarked: “I would use it for calculation and showing my customers in my business of buying and selling sunflower. Using it on calculation is very simple and I am sure I cannot lose my money ….” Shareability is a key use case, as many of their customers are illiterate, even if they can read and write. “I will use it for paying back the changes to my customers in my business and show them the calculation.”

5. Employability: how is your organization or project teaching people to develop the skills that they need to survive in the future job market?


5a. Please describe which future-oriented skills your organization is focused on fostering and how you have measured / plan to measure progress


6. Financial capability: how is your organization or project creating innovative solutions that arm people with ability to optimize their current and future financial health

My Oral Village is pioneering the practice of “oral information management” (OIM). We work to rigorously design, test and rollout safe and empowering paper-based and digital OIM tools and other services that oral people can use safely to access formal financial services and better manage their enterprises and direct their livelihoods. Inexpensive tablets and smartphones are greatly expanding the scope for OIM solutions, which focus on ensuring usability based on images and voice. We plan to deliver a “cash calculator” – an Android OIM tool (see attachment “cashcalculator_Ashoka.pdf”). With the requested funds we will deliver the cash calculator to female savings group members and microentrepreneurs so they are enabled to track the growth of their savings and businesses in writing. This will facilitate their safe participation in financial transactions.

6a. Please describe what aspect of financial capability your organization is focused on fostering and how you have measured / plan to measure progress.

The cash calculator will enable illiterate adults to safely read and write large-digit numbers so they can document and verify their financial transactions. Additionally, through repetitive practice they can learn to read and write Indo-Arabic notation, a motivating capability for micro-entrepreneurs. We will observe the participants as they use the app, including reviewing with them their savings, credit and business recordkeeping and discussing whether and how the app has changed the way they manage their household budgets and plan their livelihoods activities.

7. Marketplace: Who else is addressing the same problem? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

In the provision of a cash calculator that is fully accessible for “oral” users – i.e., people who are unable to read or write the equivalent of US $10-$100 in their national currency – we are unaware of any competition. Digital solutions by others rely on text, symbols (e.g., $, %, #), operators (i.e., +, -, x, and ÷), and multi-digit numeral strings (e.g., ‘9050’) that are inaccessible to the innumerate, who can often read 1-digit or small 2-digit numbers, but cannot decipher the results (e.g., when multiplying 8 by 37), which are expressed as multi-digit strings (ordinal numbers).

8. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?

We are ready to pilot a beta-version of our cash calculator app (illustrated in the attachment cashcalculatorAshoka.pdf). In Dodoma, Tanzania, we placed the cash calculator (displayed on a smartphone) into the hands of 20 people (distributed by gender, age and rural/urban) who we had verified through testing to be illiterate and innumerate. We did not give them any guidance, other than to explain the “drag and drop” technique for using the screen interface. Several quickly caught on to how to add and subtract various quantities of currency. The others required some coaching before they were also able to do so. All said they would like to have the app because with it they would be able to confidently make or receive payments, pay or collect wages, display amounts to buyers of their goods, and price items they wish to buy or sell.

9. Financial Sustainability Plan. Can you tell us about you plan to fund your project and how that plan will be sustainable in the short, medium, and long term?

To complement this funding request, we seek support to localize and finalize our cash calculator app for testing with women’s savings groups in Kenya. Non-cash contributions include inputs from a student team at the U. of Toronto that in Spring 2020 is designing several cash calculator features. We plan to offer free trialing of the app and sell very low cost permanent licences to individuals. We will offer attractive bulk pricing for NGOs and slightly higher fees to commercial entities such as financial institutions or money transfer firms. Revenues will be plowed back into app improvements and adaptations to other national markets (i.e., updating images of the currencies used).

10. Team

The project is led by Brett Matthews, MOVE’s executive director (a 2019 Ashoka Fellow). Leveraging his 20 years’ experience designing and delivering tools to enable people with low or nil levels of literacy and numeracy to build their financial capabilities, he will be complemented by a full-time technical director overseeing contracted coders. To drive uptake of the cash calculator, MOVE’s partnerships director will work with NGOs promoting economic empowerment and financial service providers.

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  • Ashoka page or contact
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Attachments (2)

Matthews_Hidden constraints to digital financial inclusion the oral literate divide.pdf

A refereed article written by Brett Hudson Matthews and published open access in October 2019 in the journal Development in Practice. Attached and also available for free download at:


A 10-slide illustration of the "counting table" component of My Oral Village's cash calculator app.


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