Brett Matthews

My Oral Village

Toronto, ON

Sector Impact

Civic Engagement

Economic Development

Education

Human Rights & Equality

Science & Technology

Designing better financial bridges for the full inclusion of people who communicate by verbal means

Brett Matthews is supporting a billion innumerate adults to participate safely, independently and meaningfully in the modern digital economy.

Honouring oral communication.

About a billion adults worldwide are illiterate or innumerate, and two-thirds of these people are women. As the global economy has become more digital, we have overlooked millennia-old practices that innumerate people use to recognize cash values, as opposed to numeric representations, such as $1,250 or ₹24,300. This oversight and the mainstream push toward digitization exclude innumerate people from economic participation, contribute to cascading negative outcomes and perpetuate deep poverty.

Brett Matthews envisions a world in which everyone can safely, conveniently and independently use banks, ATMs, digital finance and account records, which is key to poverty reduction. For decades he’s focused on disrupting the global marketplace with an eye toward equity. In the 1980s, he led an impactful campaign at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, calling on the university to divest from companies attached to apartheid. And in the 1990s, he founded the Ethical Pathways Investment Club, one of the first investment clubs in Toronto with explicitly ethical stock-picking criteria.

After working in microfinance for about a decade, Brett started thinking more about how existing financial systems exclude people who are innumerate from participating meaningfully in the economy. He spent five years living and working in oral communities across Asia, Africa and the Pacific. Listening to people talk about their financial lives and aspirations, he came to understand more about the root causes of their financial exclusion.

During field studies in Myanmar and Côte d’Ivoire, Brett built an extensive database on financial numeracy and developed the first-of-its-kind financial numeracy indicator, which pinpoints specific gaps in financial numeracy so that potential solutions can be tested. His goal is to have this financial numeracy indicator mainstreamed into the movement for financial inclusion and reflected in the next round of global development goals.

In 2012, Brett’s field knowledge and experience led him to launch a non-profit corporation called My Oral Village. MOVE offers a suite of oral information management (OIM) tools, such as digital images of cash notes, oral iconography and oral metaphors for space and time. These tools are integrated into digital wallet applications, savings passbooks, micro-enterprise records and other financial transaction records.

The tools are designed to act like cognitive bridges — allowing illiterate and innumerate adults to use digital financial services autonomously, safely and in real time. They build practical skills like understanding three-digit numbers or reading payment transfers on their mobile phones, and these new skills help them to alleviate poverty.

As of 2019, OIM tools are reaching over 5,000 people, and Brett is working across multiple sectors to scale up his innovation.

To design, test and implement tools and solutions, he’s working with local partners in Cambodia, Bangladesh, India, Timor-Leste, the Solomon Islands and Tanzania. He’s developing an app in partnership with Hover, a Seattle-based fintech company. He’s engaging telecom companies, graduate programs, banks and remittance firms to show them that OIM can be adopted profitably, with limited risk and in a manner that expands their markets. And he’s striving to catalyze a flourishing science of OIM, fuelled by collaborations with the University of Western Ontario, the University of Waterloo, the University of Toronto, Centennial College and Alliance University.

Brett’s goal is to see 100 million illiterate and innumerate adults acquire the financial numeracy and record-keeping skills required for financial inclusion by 2030.

My Oral Village