Driving financial inclusion for women in Afghanistan: Cashless payments by HesabPay

WFP Innovation Accelerator
5 min readMar 28, 2024

Cashless payments by HesabPay, selected as one of the ten innovations for the WFP Innovation Challenge by the WFP Innovation Accelerator in 2023, is revolutionizing the landscape of cash assistance in Afghanistan.

By Julia Dalibor

Woman redeeming her WFP assistance at a local HesabPay store. │Photo: WFP/Hasib Hazinyar

Decades of conflict and political turmoil have taken a heavy toll on Afghan society, particularly affecting women. The resurgence of the Taliban in 2021 further exacerbated the situation, severely limiting women’s rights and access to essential services such as education, healthcare and employment. Despite recent efforts, Afghanistan still faces a persistent food security crisis, with 97% of the population living below the poverty line and nearly 40 percent of the population expected to experience acute food insecurity in the first quarter of 2024.

In 2023, the World Food Programme (WFP) assisted 18.6 million people across all programmes among which 9.4 million were women and girls, and 11 million were children. However, a significant obstacle remained: the safety concerns associated with cash assistance, particularly for women, hindered their full participation in relief efforts.

Vulnerable families queuing for WFP cash assistance in Maidan Shar district of Wardak province of Afghanistan. │Photo: WFP/Ziauddin Safi

For women relying on cash assistance, redeeming this assistance often meant standing in queues for hours, taking up to a whole day of their time on multiple instances throughout the year. This meant that valuable time was lost for women who often also serve as the providers for their families. The redemption of cash assistance was also attached to security risks for women who often relied on public transport options such as taxis to redeem the assistance.

Enhancing women’s financial inclusion and WFP’s operational security

To address these challenges, WFP Afghanistan collaborated with local fintech company HesabPay. Cashless Payments by HesabPay introduced a digital alternative to traditional humanitarian cash distribution, simplifying the process and enhancing safety for recipients.

Digitally delivering cash aid isn’t groundbreaking on its own. In areas like East Africa, where a robust mobile money system like mPaisa in Kenya exists, it’s a common practice. However, in regions like Afghanistan, where such infrastructure is lacking, it represents a significant shift.

Users can now open their first digital account at HesabPay branches linked to their mobile phones in just 15 minutes. Once established, recipients no longer need to visit physical banks. Instead, they can now transfer and utilize their digital Afghani currency with any phone that holds an account. Through this system, users can conduct digital transactions and redeem their assistance at local markets, choosing between cash or products offered by local merchants. HesabPay shops, managed locally, are widespread across the nation, ensuring convenient access for all users. This innovative approach reinstates their time, dignity and autonomy, placing the power of choice back into their own hands.

Kelly Stablein, Digital Inclusion Lead at WFP Afghanistan, underscores the significance of the innovation’s impact: “First, we removed distribution lines because, in addition to simply being inconvenient, we learned that women often traveled far and alone to reach them. We made assistance redeemable in the safety of their local shops instead. Then, we gave women a digital account so that instead of carrying a wad of cash, they could have digital assets in their name.”

While the new financial transaction process makes it notably easier for people to receive assistance without being exposed to security threats or wasting time in queues, it also has an advantage for WFP operations. The cashless transaction ensures that assistance reaches the intended individuals while offering valuable real-time insights into programme effectiveness. With a clearer understanding of individual needs, WFP can refine and tailor its programmes accordingly.

Stories of hope: HesabPay’s impact on women

In the journey towards a more inclusive and equitable future, innovations like HesabPay play a vital role in supporting vulnerable communities and fostering economic independence for women in Afghanistan.

Its impact becomes apparent when hearing directly from the communities it serves. Banoo, the primary caretaker of a family of nine, including her disabled husband, relies on her son’s help with a wheelbarrow to earn a meager income. Despite their relentless efforts, the earnings barely cover the cost of bread. Without assistance, her family faces dire consequences. Bibi Koh, another woman relying on WFP assistance, emphasizes the difficulty of providing for her family of four. As the breadwinner, she collects cans, washes clothes, and sacrifices meals to make ends meet.

Bibi Koh and her family in their home. │Photo: WFP/Hasib Hazinyar

Banoo and Bibi Koh exemplify the transformative effect of the new cashless payment principle. With HesabPay, they no longer endure long queues or security risks to access assistance. They can conveniently manage their funds through digital accounts, empowering them to make decisions for their families’ well-being.

Kelly Stablein reflects on the essence of innovation: “I believe innovation is all about empathy. The question that I asked myself when I arrived in Afghanistan was, ‘How would I like to receive WFP assistance if I were in the position of the people WFP serves?’ The answer was simple: I’d want it to be dignified. Dignity is universal. In a context where women’s rights are being attacked and squeezed, the motive grew to give a dignified experience, while returning power and agency to women in any small way that we had control of. The innovation came as a result of beginning to shift from giving food assistance to providing economic power.”

Alejandra Rivera-Stapper, Innovation and Market Development Lead at WFP Afghanistan adds, “Investing in women means achieving long and lasting multiplier effect on their families and communities. Women have a central role in social dynamics and are a source of social cohesion.”

HesabPay’s Cashless Payments solution is a lifeline for women like Banoo and Bibi Koh, ensuring secure and immediate access to aid. In the last several months alone, WFP has gone from a handful of families in a pilot phase, to more than 14,000 families receiving assistance. That number is expected to grow considerably in the coming months. As HesabPay continues its journey, expanding its solution across several WFP locations worldwide with the support of the WFP Innovation Accelerator, it remains committed to achieving financial inclusion for more women globally.

The WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to end hunger worldwide. We provide WFP colleagues, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies, and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support, and WFP’s global operations.

Find out more about us: http://innovation.wfp.org.
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WFP Innovation Accelerator

Sourcing, supporting and scaling high-impact innovations to disrupt hunger.