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Mobile Apps That Reward Impoverished Students With Food, Medicine

In exchange for taking small actions that might break the cycle of poverty—like going to school—mPowering's users earn points that can be exchanged for important goods. The company was founded by veterans of Apple and Salesforce.com.

It's a choice that no one should have to make: ditch school so that you can make a little money for your family, or go to school in the hopes that one day you will be able to climb out of poverty (but in the meantime, live without food). MPowering wants to eliminate those choices and make education more immediately gratifying, with a little help from mobile technology.

The organization, founded by veterans of Salesforce.com and Apple, is partnering with nonprofits in the developing world to provide food, medicine, and more to people in places like Orissa, India (the poorest state in the country, but one that has high cell phone penetration) who perform positive actions like going to school or taking advantage of prenatal care.

Here's how it works: mPowering finds places where people are living on less than $2 per day, partners with local nonprofits, and develops mobile apps that help residents move out of poverty. Onsite programs offer incentives for "life-enhancing behavior."

"The ultra poor spend 80 percent of their income on food but still fail to meet their daily nutritional needs, explains Kamael Ann Sugrim, a cofounder of mPowering, in an interview with the Stanford Social Innovation Review. "That leads to people making short-term decisions because they’re hungry. We want to help them make long-term decisions that will lead them out of poverty."

MPowering is already at work in Orissa, where it has partnered with Citta Foundation, an organization that runs a local hospital and school. Forty-nine families in the region were given phones by the foundation, which they now use to document when they go to school or attend local health care classes for expectant mothers. A child going to school, for example, logs in to the "school" option on the mPowering mobile app and scans his barcode to check in. The app is entirely picture-based, so users don't have to be literate. At the end of each month, the families pool together their points to score medicine, food, and clothing from the nonprofit partners.

The idea of offering rewards to impoverished people for good behavior seems a bit paternalistic at first, but mPowering's approach may in fact be the best way to convince people to invest in their futures. In places where there are seemingly no rewards for going to school or taking prenatal classes, mPowering is offering valuable compensation.

[Images: MPowering]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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