Technology For Good

How Mobile Payments Can Help Keep Children in School

Kupaa, a new mobile solution from Mastercard, allows parents, schools and governments to make and track school payments while opening new pathways for community access to other important services.

How Mobile Payments Can Help Keep Children in School

June 10, 2019

More than 260 million youth around the world—one in five—are not in school. Violence, war, displacement, gender discrimination and child marriage are some of the well-known challenges children face in getting an education. Economics, though, is also a barrier. As a World Bank report finds, school costs are the biggest financial barrier to education. Far too many children are kept out of school simply because their parents cannot afford to pay the fees for uniforms and supplies.

A new mobile solution is helping families in Uganda overcome this barrier by allowing them to pay for school-related expenses securely with their phones in small increments or installments. Kupaa, a Mastercard mobile payment platform launched last year in partnership with UNICEF and Uganda’s Ministry of Education, has reached hundreds of schools and more than 100,000 parents and guardians. But Kupaa (Swahili for “to soar”) is more than just a tool for financial transactions. It can help schools manage payments, track teachers’ attendance and other performance-related indicators. 

As Salah Goss, head of Mastercard Lab for Financial Inclusion, says, “For parents, it’s about flexible and secure payments that work for their unpredictable incomes; for schools, it’s about efficient management systems; and for the government, it’s about relevant information on schools.”

Payal Dalal, the Center’s vice president for global programs, spoke with Goss about the challenges of education, especially for girls, and how communities in Uganda are benefiting from Kupaa, as well as the potential benefit to education systems around the world.

Payal Dalal: We know that the inability to pay fees and other education expenses keeps a lot of kids out of school. What challenges do families in developing countries like Uganda face in paying for school-related expenses?

Salah Goss: In Uganda, 70 percent of households are smallholder farmers or small traders with irregular incomes. Yet school-related expenses must be paid in lump sums. Forcing parents to pay this way creates absenteeism or, even worse, forces families to pull their children out of school.

Making payments is also arduous. Parents must close their shops to go to the bank, stand in long queues and take the receipt back to the school. It can take them an entire day. They also have to pay transportation costs and sometimes the money can be stolen along the way.

Dalal: What is Kupaa and is it more than just a payment platform for parents?

Goss:  Kupaa allows parents to pay remotely in installments on a phone, and it enables schools to keep track of those payments. Parents enter a unique student identifier code and can pay in very small amounts. The school is able to track in real time the payments made against the student’s account. They can set up a student profile to track other information as well.

We describe Kupaa as a payment platform, but it’s really much more than that. Our research and development team was able to design and build features that our stakeholders value. A good example is Kupaa’s dashboard that provides a view of parents’ contributions to school fees versus the government’s payment to help identify the economic burden parents are facing. Through the government dashboard, education officials can also track teacher attendance, given that governments pay for teachers’ salaries.

It’s worth noting that Kupaa is also available for private schools, which can be forgotten in the financial inclusion discussion. A 2017 UK-Aid study estimated that of the private schools serving pre-primary, primary and secondary education markets, 59 percent of schools had no bank account, 82 percent never had credit while 60 percent want access to credit. In many countries, private schools educate more children than public schools.

Dalal: You’ve addressed some of Kupaa’s benefits: tracking teacher attendance, enabling families to pay in installments and keeping kids in school. What are some other impacts you anticipate?

Goss: It’s the tip of the iceberg. Parents can pay in cash, which is tracked through the system, but some schools have gone 100 percent digital and parents are beginning to understand the benefits of digital payments.

You’re going from cash-based rural communities to digital. Kupaa creates a place where parents can securely send and store money, allowing them to better plan for the cost of education. One parent told us how she saves money in a coffee can hidden under her mattress. She is constantly worried about theft. With Kupaa, her money is digital and that record of payments toward her children’s education and saving can unlock access to other financial products like credit. It really is a foothold into the formal economy.

We also see school as the place to reach vulnerable communities. Some of these government-supported schools are the only formal institution that a family will touch. Helping underserved communities requires lowering the cost of identifying and registering beneficiaries of services. Once a child and a guardian are registered with their school, they can more easily be signed up for vaccines, school meals and other government programs. 

Dalal:  We know that investing in girls’ education has a huge return on investment for both families and the community. Do you expect to see more girls in school because of Kupaa? Do women have a little bit more control of their finances now because of the platform?

Goss: Yes, women now have more control over how they save. We know that when we empower women, they will provide for their families. As it becomes easier to save for education in general, it will become easier to save for a girl’s education. We are in the early days of assessing changes in enrollment, but it is something we’re tracking.

This ability for women to control savings is an important aspect of Kupaa because girls are pulled out of school at a higher rate than boys. Right now, the economic or social reward of having a girl in school is not as obvious to many parents. They often look to solve more immediate economic needs by marrying their daughters off, so girls could be taken out of school, married or sent to work. That is a global issue.

In Uganda, one-third of girls marry before age 18, despite legislation against this. Three out of ten girls have babies before age 18. So there’s more of an emphasis on marriage as a way for a girl’s family to economically prosper rather than investing in her education.

Dalal: Scale is the holy grail in international development. Can you tell me how lessons from Kupaa will be applied on a more global scale?

Goss: Ultimately, Kupaa is a solution that can help governments make data-driven policy decisions. If you think about it that way, the lessons are rich no matter what country you’re in, whether it’s a developed country like Australia or a developing country like Kenya, which is where we’re thinking of rolling out Kupaa next.

We work closely with the government and partners to understand what information is important at the school, local and national levels. Kupaa is not simply a payment solution. It feeds the ecosystem so that we’re enabling more families to afford education and creating a path to reach children and their parents with other vital services.

If you are interested in learning more about programs like Kupaa or working with the Center for Inclusive Growth, send us an email at