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5 Lessons Learned Managing COVID-19 Grant Applications in South Africa

By Guest Writer on December 17, 2020

Mobile Phones eGovernment

Kwantu was working closely with the Free State Department of Small Business Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (DESTEA) when COVID-19 hit South Africa.

The pandemic quickly impacted small businesses in the Free State province, and DESTEA rapidly developed a programme to assist small business, spaza shops (informal convenience shops, often in informal settlements) and larger enterprises. DESTEA offered grants under four schemes:

  • The COVID-19 Risk Sharing Incentive: De-risking viable business proposals with up to 40% of co-funding requirements within priority sectors that have the potential to create jobs
  • Enterprise Support Incentive Scheme: Provides grants to support operations and business expansion, and business hubs in township economies
  • Informal Business Support Incentive: Grants to informal businesses such as hawkers that can be used towards stock purchases and other needs.
  • Spaza Shops and General Dealers Incentive: Funding for spaza shops and general dealers to bulk-buy from participating wholesalers

With South Africa entering what would turn out to be a five-week lockdown, DESTEA approached us to ask how we could help them to accept and process applications electronically, since the restrictions meant that in person or mail-based applications were not possible.

Most of the target businesses only have mobile phones with limited and expensive bandwidth.  Many business owners have low levels of technology literacy and very few have broadband Internet or laptop/desktop computers.

Testing Digital Grant Application Processes

DESTEA decided to experiment with four COVID-19 digital response approaches to see which one would best serve its constituents:

  • USSD on mobile phones
  • Let’s Talk citizen progress update app
  • Emails
  • A web app integrated with DESTEA’s existing administrative data systems

Both USSD and Let’s Talk were not able to handle the full application process, which required business to provide information on their registration status and evidence of tax status.

Feedback on the USSD tool also found it to be complex and hard to use.  The Let’s Talk app offered a good way to communicate way DESTEA officials but required that businesses also email in their documents and other information.  This added to the workload and made it harder to track the status of applications.

The mobile web app was accessed via a link that DESTEA placed on their departmental website. They also sent it out via email and SMS  It enabled businesses to apply by completing a form on a mobile phone browser on a range of phones.  This included any supporting documents needed to apply.

Once submitted the application entered directly into an administrative data system already used by DESTEA officials.  This enabled them to track each application through the steps needed to process the application and make a decision.  Businesses could also return to the application to track it’s progress and see where it was in the review process.

5 Lessons Learned Using Digital Applications

The response to the schemes was significant.  Over the six-week funding window, DESTEA received 2,380 applications and 1,047 were approved at the time of writing. There were several important lessons to learn from this process.

1. Setting up new systems can be done quickly.

The entire process from design to configuration to testing and rollout took six weeks.  While the existing relationship with DESTEA no doubt helped, this shows that government agencies can move fast and tech systems can also be set up quickly.

2. Real time feedback helps alleviate fears.

Many small businesses in Free State were hit hard by COVID and were depending on these grants to survive.  This led to understandable concern over when their applications would be processed.  Businesses could see real-time updates on the web app as their application proceeded through the due diligence.  They could use the integrated chat tool to get help.  These features received very positive feedback.

3. Digital solutions offer significant time savings.

Having the data feed directly from a web app into DESTEA’s administrative data system made the process faster and easier.  Staff working at home could continue to process applications, managers could see real-time reports on applications coming in, grants approved, and payments made.  Upward reporting to the Treasury on disbursements was also much simpler.

4. Beware of browser compatibility challenges.

Our support team assisted people via the built-in chat function to help them complete grant applications.  By far the biggest challenge encountered were browser compatibility issues. While almost all the phones used an Android-based operating system, the wide variety of mobile phone hardware, customized software, and modified browsers meant that almost every phone would render the app webpages differently.

5. GovTech actually works!

One potentially positive side to the COVID pandemic is the accelerated adoption of new GovTech and CivicTech.  This project demonstrates the potential for local government in developing countries to use technology solutions to better meet the needs of the communities that they serve.

Rob Worthington is the Director of Kwantu, a Cape Town based social enterprise

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