Archive for the ‘Banking’ Category

Untapped opportunities in Francophone Africa for design of apps and smartphone solutions

Bacely Yorobi shares challenges at the AfDB Innovation Weekend, Oct 2015 Photo: Niti Bhan

Bacely Yorobi shares his challenges at the AfDB Innovation Weekend, Oct 2015  Photo: Niti Bhan

Bacely Yorubi frames the opportunity space for local app design and development in The Toronto Star:

“Lots of young Africans who’ve studied elsewhere and returned home have expectations of mobile services that don’t yet exist,” said Bacely Yorobi, an app developer from Ivory Coast. “So they’re the ones coding and putting new African-made apps out there.”
[…]
“Africans don’t like to put their money in the bank, but they will put it in their phone,” said Yorobi.
[…]
“We have everything we need to build an app, but we don’t have the support to bring it to market,” said Yorobi, during a trip to Paris to court investors.

I find it all the more interesting from the francophone West African perspective, as the nascent tech industry races to catch up with their anglophone neighbours in Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. Given the waves being made by world class outfits such as Cameroon’s Kiro’o Games, or Senegal’s rapidly maturing tech ecosystem, one might discover they’ll outpace the competition given time and support.

Bacely’s comments also make me wonder why the global giants pushing financial inclusion in Cote D’Ivoire and other WAEMU countries aren’t looking for local partners and developers, given their ongoing struggles for traction. Perhaps its time to discover that not everything imported from abroad is always the best solution.

Customer-Centric Business Model Design for Financial Inclusion

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The Challenge

Digital financial services (DFS) seek to bridge the chasm between the structures, policies and institutions of the formal economy, and the cash intensive informal and rural economy. Current day approaches tend to take the perspective of the service providers when assessing the market opportunity and the needs of the intended customers. And so the research to inform the design of products and services focuses on the behaviour of the end users apart from their context, and isolates their unmet needs within the narrow bounds of a specific project or purpose.

Given that the user researchers, the concept developers and the service providers, are mostly from the formal operating environment and/or first world contexts, they tend to consider consumer behaviour without the explicit acknowledgement that these user responses to the introduction of digital financial services (DFS) are emerging from the context of very different conditions than they themselves are immersed in. That is, there are implicit assumptions tacitly being made regarding the market and its opportunities, which, if left unquestioned, may obscure the underlying causes of the problem. And, thus, may inadvertently act as intangible barriers themselves.

 

A Framework for Approaching this Challenge – Pasteur’s Quadrant

The cash intensive informal and rural economies of the African continent are a very different operating environment from the formal, structured economy of banks, service providers and institutions. This chasm in context, and thus customer worldview, is particularly wide for the vast majority who tend to be defined as financially excluded. They manage their household expenses on irregular income streams from a variety of sources, not regular and predictable paychecks.

This means that many of the market assessment frameworks and tools anchored in the characteristics of the formal, calender based economy may not apply directly to a wholly different context with entirely different conditions and criteria, and their use without adaptation or acknowledgement may skew the resulting insights and concepts. Most of the available research tends to fall into either pure social science or design driven user research. As we have seen, when it comes to making markets work for the poor, neither approach alone is enough to make sense of the opportunity.

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We are inspired by what is known as Pasteur’s Quadrant – a hybrid approach that integrates the need to understand the context with the pragmatic goal of immediately useful and relevant information.  Our objective is identify strategies that lower the barriers to adoption, whilst minimizing the dropout rate. That is, our goal is to craft sustainable concepts that work for the target audience within the contexts and conditions of their own operating environment and daily life. This approach increases the success rate of a business model. We have been inspired by the way the prepaid airtime model bridges this same chasm for telecommunication giants around the world.

 

Grounding Insights in the context of Informal and Rural Ecosystems

Taking a systemic view of the untapped market for digital financial services, thus, would ground the market observations and the customer insights within the frame of reference of the target audience’s own operating environment. Among the financially excluded, particularly on the African continent, this can safely be said to be the informal sector which contributes a significant proportion of each nation’s GDP and employment, regardless of industry.

Framing the essence of the challenge in the form of these critical questions,

  • What are the barriers to adoption of DFS ?
  • What can be done to lower these barriers to adoption?

permits us to take a systemic approach to identifying barriers to DFS adoption, balancing the need for understanding the unknown with the insights required for conceptual design.

The following questions demonstrate the way we can drill down for comprehensive understanding for a particular customer segment or region in a viable manner:

1. What are the common characteristics of the cash intensive informal economy in which this population resides?
2. What are their current means to manage their household expenses – urban vs rural
2a. What are their current options for financial services – which all do they have access to and which all do they actually use – informal AND formal
2b. Why do they use what they use? And why don’t they use what they’re not using but have access to?
3. What are the market forces acting upon the existing DFS market in their region – regulatory, policy, prices, interoperability, tech of the solution, type of phone etc
4.  What are the assumptions these DFS are making wrt their target audience needs, behaviour, usage patterns and capabilities? How do these assumptions fall short of the real world context and usage behaviour in the context of their cash intensive operating environment?

And thus, the starting point for business model design are the answers we are able to synthesize from the insights gathered above, in order to answer the following question:

What is necessary in order to bridge the gap between the DFS and the intended target audience?

 

Our approach offers a pragmatic diagnosis of the situation, from the perspective of the informal economy and the poor, within the conditions and constraints of the current day regulatory and policy environment. It clearly identifies the gaps in the existing system and describes the opportunity space for new business models that would offer value and resonate with the target audience’s needs and context.

We recommend giving technology a backseat and approaching the solution development process from a more holistic perspective of people, their operating environment and their existing financial behaviour.

Read more on these interdisciplinary lenses for innovating for the informal economies of the developing world’s emerging consumer markets.

First world trends: Financial inclusion, the unbanked, and the prepaid business model

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The Economist explains just how expensive banking can be for the lower income population, even in the United States. Financial inclusion for the unbanked and underbanked must include cost/benefit analysis based on the limitations of income streams of those whom they hope to serve. The cost of ownership is often overlooked in current day literature, which tends to focus on access to formal financial services, whether digital or otherwise. As the data clearly shows, value for money is a critical part of access, and a deciding factor in the choice to remain unbanked.

Life is expensive for America’s poor, with financial services the primary culprit, something that also afflicts migrants sending money home (see article). Mr Martin at least has a bank account. Some 8% of American households—and nearly one in three whose income is less than $15,000 a year—do not (see chart). More than half of this group say banking is too expensive for them. Many cannot maintain the minimum balance necessary to avoid monthly fees; for others, the risk of being walloped with unexpected fees looms too large.

Increasing popularity of prepaid business models

The GSMA expects the North American prepaid market to grow to 31% by 2020 and its hovering around 29% at this time. This is just over double the proportion of prepaid vs postpaid subscribers in the past 5 years.

In fact, US telcos like Sprint have recently announced their intent to drop the 2 year contract business model, offering smartphones on lease just like competitors Verizon and T-Mobile. And phone maker Apple has gone as far as to offer their own rent to own program, one which resembles SUV leasing arrangments with a new model every year.

Screenshot-2015-09-10-10.02.44-600x283This is an interesting trend as it points to the reluctance of consumers to commit to 2 years of unexpected bills at the end of the month, preferring the certainty that prepaid offers over your spending. Concurrently, there’s been a noticeable rise in prepaid credit cards and other similar facilities.

As of 2012, roughly 12 million Americans used a prepaid card at least once a month and we collectively loaded $65 billion to them – double the amount loaded just three years prior. That figure is expected to rise to $337.8 billion by 2017, according to Mercator Advisory Group – an increase of 420%.

The prepaid business model empowers customers by putting control over timing – frequency & periodicity, as well as amounts spent, in their hands. Flexibility to manage one’s expenses, against incomes, is another aspect that’s attractive about this business model. Companies love it too as cash flows accrue in advance, minimizing the risks of defaults.

Consumer income streams are changing in America

Do these trends reflect the changing patterns of cash flow among consumers, as indicated by the rise of such revenue generators as Uber, AirBnB and others of their ilk?

Irregular and unpredictable income streams are part and parcel of the independent worker, regardless of label, as they are not guaranteed a known amount in the form of a salary arriving on a predictable calender schedule.

This app offering to help you manage uncertainty seems to imply so.

Uncertainty and The Prepaid Economy: Time and Money

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Uncertainty characterizes the entire global Prepaid Economy and is the underlying driver for decision making.

Systems are unreliable

Inadequate infrastructure, variability in basic services (will we have electricity this morning?), obsolete or incomplete systems; all of these, and more, are part and parcel of life in the emerging regions of the world. Will we wake up to find the capital city grinding to a halt because riots have erupted over the price of onions? None can say.

All of these elements act together to create a far more volatile operating environment which adds up to an uncertainty around timing. Will an accident along the main artery cause hours long grid lock familiar to anyone from Lagos to Lahore?

Cash flow is irregular

For the vast majority employed in the informal sector, regular predictable paychecks are not the norm.  Irregular unpredictable income streams from a variety of sources are the norm, and daily wage workers are not guaranteed that work will be available the following morning.

Even the farmer faces uncertainty, though her fields might be fruitful and ready for harvest. Seasonal ebbs and flows in cash flow are part of the rhythm of daily life outside of the formal economy’s calender year with its predictable regularity.

Smaller businesses too may feel less secure in cash intensive markets, dependent as they are on ensuring that incoming revenues must cover outgoing expenses.

Uncertainty is the only certainty

No one, however is immune from the larger uncertainties of their environment. Strikes, riots, power cuts or floods – these can bring entire cities grinding to a halt.

And the lower down the income stream you are, the greater the impact of this uncertainty. Without float, planning becomes a challenge and community is your insurance in times of need. Juggling to minimize the volatility between income and expense is an ongoing exercise in trade-offs.

Empowering oneself through control of time and money

In the prepaid economy, the greater the span of control you have over timing of a payment – its frequency and periodicity, and the amount to be spent, the greater your ability to plan and manage your finances. From chaos and disorder, one can find ways to negotiate and be flexible, whilst striving to keep one’s head above water.

This characteristic manifests itself in a wide variety of forms – purchasing patterns; choice of cooking fuel; social and flexible weights and measures; a wee bit of wriggle room to negotiate in case of the unexpected.

This is the second article in The Prepaid Economy Series. Here is a link to the IntroductionThe next one will take a closer look at the importance of flexibility and negotiability – that wee bit of wriggle room, left for the unexpected.

3 Myths of Financial Inclusion

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Mama waiting for biashara in Sagana, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan)

This article has been co-authored with Michael Kimani @pesa_africa

Banking the unbanked is very popular right now, as financial inclusion is seen as a key milestone on the path to development. In parallel, a plethora of “cashless” or “cash lite” solutions have begun permeating the cash intensive informal economy. These can be broadly described as digital financial services aimed at financial inclusion as they leverage the popularity of the mobile phone as an affordable delivery platform. Yet, their uptake has not been as viral as hoped.

We take a closer look (i) at the challenge from the perspective of market women and micro-traders who form the backbone of informal trade in daily necessities. Without her cooperation, the mass market adoption of digital currency is highly unlikely to become a mainstream part of life. We’ll call her Mama Biashara, from the Swahili word biashara meaning commerce, trade or business.

The United Nations defines the goals (ii) of financial inclusion as follows:

  1. Access at a reasonable cost for all households to a full range of financial services, including savings or deposit services, payment and transfer services, credit and insurance;
  2. Sound and safe institutions governed by clear regulation and industry performance standards;
  3. Financial and institutional sustainability, to ensure continuity and certainty of investment; and
  4. Competition to ensure choice and affordability for clients.

 

Myth 1: Mama Biashara is financially excluded

All of this assumes that Mama Biashara has no option (iii) but to stuff her savings under the mattress. Since Kenya is the world’s leader in digital financial solutions for the unbanked, grabbing visibility with the undisputed success of its M-Pesa mobile money platform, we decided to choose its context for our analysis. Given below are the various financial services and tools available to Mama in the rural context, placed along a continuum from most informal to most formal.

Informal Formal final QZ africa

As you can see, Mama has a large variety of solutions that she avails for her financial needs – its just that they can’t all be classified as “formal”. Yet, technically, by the UN’s definition given above, can we actually say that Mama Biashara is financially excluded from “Access at a reasonable cost to a full range of financial services, including savings or deposit services, payment and transfer services, credit and insurance”? Many of these locally grown alternatives such as Chama*, ROSCA* or ASCA* have been institutionalized in the Kenyan context, able to match the UN goals for points (2) and (3) as well as proving to be valid and viable competition offering choice and affordability (4).

If Mama Biashara’s basic financial services needs are being met right now by the variety of options and alternatives easily accessible to her, then what is the value proposition of a bank?

Her long standing reputation in the community, her relationships with her friends, family and peers, her “credit history” if you will, all becomes null and void when she approaches a faceless formal institution such as a bank. Due to the cash intensive nature of her business, little hard data on her financial history might be available for formal financial service requirements. On the other hand, her social recognition and long standing business relationships serve this purpose in the informal sector. Daily variances in cash flow which might require a quick loan or flexibility in payment can be easily covered by her ecosystem of financial options, something that the formal procedures and processes of financial inclusion solutions aren’t designed to accommodate. There’s an inbuilt component of trust that  the formal system is unable to overcome at scale.

 

Myth 2: Trust lies in the regulations, standards, governance and continuity of formal financial institutions

Trust in financial institutions, as implied by points (2) and (3) of the UN Goals, is embodied in their continuity, their regulations and performance standards, their governance by the laws of the land, and all the rest of the formal structures in place to create sound and safe solutions. This assumption, emerging as it does from the point of view of the sophisticated systems of the developed world, places the onus of trust on the rules and regulations governing the institution rather than the reputation of the individual or their worth in the community.

Yet, over and over, we see that Mama Biashara barely ends up using her bank account even if she manages to obtain one (iv) or is slow to adopt an innovative digital financial service. So we reorganized her financial tools on a continuum of most trusted to least trusted to see what patterns we could observe when we compared the same against the formal vs informal continuum. Was formality indeed the driver for trust?

Trust Continuum QZ africaWe were surprised to note that the least trusted was the most common metric of financial inclusion – the bank. These insights, based on interviews with women in Nyeri by Michael, reflect what Susan Johnson wrote on Kenya (v) –

But the difficulty of gaining loans through them (banks) means that the evidence confronting poor people is that a relationship with a bank is not a dynamic system of exchange in which funds are lent in both directions. The bank does not therefore represent a social relationship of equality and a means through which social connections are developed in ways that offer access to resources.  

The very nature of the formal system – in this case, the regulated and institutionalized bank – is the barrier to adoption among those active in the informal sector. The system is faceless, nameless and cannot provide the basis for an equitable, social relationship, as compared to a network of peers, a self help group (SHG*), or your friends and relatives. You cannot negotiate with the system as it offers no flexibility to accommodate the individual’s peculiarities or sudden needs.

Sustainable Value Chain 1

And the issues of trust and performance, in closely knit communities, depend upon social relationships, word of mouth and reputation built up over time. If someone doesn’t repay a loan, or if the semi-structured self-help group faces issues with their treasurer, these matters not only become common knowledge but can be dealt with directly by the affected members. For the most vulnerable segments of society, most of whom also fall in the category of being “unbanked”, whom do they turn to if a national bank or large telco fails them? Even M-Pesa is fronted by a human intermediary, the mobile money agent, a locally known member of the community.

 

Myth 3: Financial inclusion is an individual matter, or for the nuclear family

In Mama’s environment, social connections and belonging is very important. It is the foundation of her business, and it matters a lot. Especially in the rural context, your friends, neighbours and extended family are most likely to be your customers. The vast majority of your daily financial transactions are conducted within the community. This is reflected by the patterns seen in the two continuum diagrams of trust and formality. Each points towards local networks and social relationships as an important component of money management by the unbanked.

As Johnson discovered, reciprocity is as much a critical part of the functioning of the informal financial group, as negotiability (vi) is for successful adoption in cash intensive operating environments. The prepaid business model offered by telcos empowers Mama Biashara by giving her control over how much money to spend on her mobile phone, when to spend it as well as how often. In contrast, banks may penalize the early payment of a loan or impose a rigid payment schedule based on the calender year. Give and take is part and parcel of the community life. Groups help Mama in self control, restraint on spending, planning and saving for goals, together with social support in ritualized form.

Yet, the financial inclusion industry focuses counting the number of bank accounts rather than the number of people accessing one together under some umbrella of cooperation – a self help group or a chama might collectively bank their pool of money for safekeeping.  A group account is not about labels eg. Chama,  or a type of bank account, or the social features in a digital solution. There are rituals, practices and human connections embedded in the sharing of value. Entire cultures revolve around the community spirit and coming together in times of need – harambee, it is called.

When what is measured is what gets done, the financial inclusion industry overlooks all these elements in their goal to sign up each individual with a bank account (vii). No wonder such a high percentage of bank accounts become dormant within a year.

 

Mama Biashara’s perspective: What does financial inclusion mean to the unbanked?

These three myths are very powerful ones and they drive the design and implementation of financial inclusion programmes for the unbanked. Assumptions made by the stakeholders immersed in their formal, structured environments from the outset, when left unquestioned, act as intangible and unseen barriers across the formal/informal economic divide. “Banking the Unbanked” is such a catchy slogan that it took M-Pesa’s success in Kenya to expand the definition of financial inclusion in the latest version of the World Bank’s Findex report. Now, we see digital financial services rapidly becoming the holy grail for reaching the unreached. Yet not a single program or research project has begun from the perspective of their target audience of their aims and objectives. What does financial inclusion mean to Mama Biashara? Is there a need not being met by her existing solutions? What are her current alternatives? Until the informal sector is taken seriously in its own right as a vibrant & dynamic market and operating environment, offering stiff competition for Mama’s few extra shillings, we don’t see any of the technological marvels being introduced as viable or desirable in the long run.

 

Glossary:
ASCA –        Accumulating Savings and Credit Associations
ROSCA –     Rotating Savings and Credit Association
SHG –          Self-help group of mamas with common business interest
Chama –      Informal cooperative society used to pool and invest savings
P2P credit –     peer to peer credit eg mama to mama
B2C credit –     business to consumer credit eg mama to her customers
B2B credit –     business to business credit eg a supplier to mama
MFI –          Micro Finance institution
SACCO –     Savings and Credit Cooperative

 

End Notes

(i) Qualitative interviews on digital currency with rural women micro-entrepreneurs in Nyeri, Kenya in February 2015
(ii) http://aid.dfat.gov.au/Publications/Documents/financialservices-fullstrategy.pdf
(iii) Mobile Finance: Indigenous, Ingenious or Both? http://www.pcworld.com/article/154274/article.html
(iv) One out of four accounts ‘dormant’ as mobile money takes over banking http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/business/1-in-4-accounts-dormant-as-mobile-money-takes-over-banking/-/2560/2727556/-/he4s34/-/index.html
(v) How Does Mobile Money in Kenya Affect Financial Inclusion? http://www.cgap.org/blog/how-does-mobile-money-kenya-affect-financial-inclusion
(vi) “Payment Strategies for those with irregular income at the BoP” (2009) – The Prepaid Economy project by Niti Bhan (UNIID SEA 2012)
(vii) Financial exclusion http://www.economist.com/news/economic-and-financial-indicators/21648642-financial-exclusion

 

Emerging Futures Lab brings to life concept design of innovative products and services by applying years of immediately actionable primary research in the cash intensive informal sectors of the emerging economies of the developing world. We see opportunities and markets where others see adversity and scarcity. Contact us now if you’re interested in the exciting frontier markets of Kenya, East Africa or elsewhere on the African continent.

Purchasing Patterns in Cash Based Markets and Informal Economy

When cash flow is irregular and not always unpredictable, both in amount and frequency, such as it is for the majority earning a living in the informal economy, buyer behavior is not quite the same as for mainstream consumers with access to credit cards and regular paychecks.

I’ve quite often made reference to how operating primarily in cash money influences purchasing patterns. Here, I cluster the patterns observed into 4 categories, based on a combination of need and money available.

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Source: http://www.hobotraveler.com/electricity/prepaid-electricity-units-in-ho-ghana.php

1. Paid for in advance – Usually a service that can be utilized or consumed over time can be purchased in advance when funds are available and then made to last as long as possible. The best known example of course is prepaid airtime – voice, text and data for mobile phones. Consumers on limited budgets then seek coping mechanisms to extend the “life” of the service purchased.

FOURfridge

Source: Niti Bhan, South Africa January 2008

An example is this refrigerator powered by LPG available in rural South Africa. It helps conserve the electricity consumption (South Africa was the first to install prepaid electricity meters) and is a parallel investment in ‘prepaid’ energy – the LPG cylinder.

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Source: Niti Bhan, South Africa, January 2008

2. Bought in bulk – Usually food staples or something you cannot live without would be purchased in this manner, either when there is a sudden influx of cash or a payment at the end of manual labour, or, if managing on a fixed amount each month such as remittances from abroad. This ensures that there is something to eat even if money runs out before the next payment might be due. If it’s a sudden influx of cash for someone not on a pension or remittance, then this lumpsum is also the source of funds that may go towards a consumer durable purchase or big ticket item of some kind. In rural economies, the harvest season is major shopping time and boost to local commerce.

Freshly shredded cabbage (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

Source: Niti Bhan, rural Kenya, February 2012

 3. On demand or daily purchase – mostly perishables like bread, eggs, fresh vegetables purchased for the day’s needs. Partly cultural but also influenced by availability of cash in hand. Cigarettes sold loose or two slices of bread and an egg are some examples we’ve seen. Indian vegetable vendors are also willing to sell you a small portion of a larger vegetable either by weight or by price. You can buy 50p worth of cabbage for a single meal. Mama Mboga in Kenya will even shred it for you. Minimizes wastage whether you’re cooking for one or have no fridge.

This is also the most common pattern if you earn small amounts daily, like the vegetable vendor, shelling out what you have for what you need and then if there’s some change, debating what do with it.

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Source: Niti Bhan, The Philippines, January 2009

4. Single use portions – A form of on demand purchase. Interestingly, I came across this working paper by Anand Kumar Jaiswal at IIM, saying that sales results in rural India seemed to imply that only shampoos and razor blades were more successful in sachet form, whereas things like milkpowder, jam etc sold more in the larger size.

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Source: Niti Bhan South Africa January 2008

The author cautions against assuming all sachets will sell. I believe it could be based on the usage pattern of the product in question or its nature – what if you packaged a perishable item in single servings that didn’t need refrigeration until opened? Formal packaging in sachets – the kadogo economy – emerged from existing behaviour in informal retail. Breaking bulk down into smaller portions is popular across the developing world’s informal markets.

Single meal portions of vegetables, Cabatuan market, Iloilo February 2009

Single meal portions of vegetables, Cabatuan market, Iloilo February 2009 Photo: Niti Bhan

This shopkeeper in The Philippines has gone a step further to offer you the convenience of purchasing all the vegetables you need for stew – carrots, beans, cabbage – without the financial burden of having to purchase the entire cabbage or carrot. Its a combination of the single use packaging (not quite a sachet) and the on demand purchase of what’s immediately required or affordable. The Philippines has some of the most creative variations of the kadogo or sachet economy that I’ve seen in informal retail.

Business Models for the Informal Economy

You can see the roots of the many variations on business models in these purchasing patterns. As people told me over and over during a project on household solar in East Africa, it wasn’t the price of the product that was the problem but the payment plan which didn’t fit with their existing behaviour. Both must be designed to meet the needs of your intended target audience.

Contact me if you need insights on consumer behaviour, household energy consumption behaviour and financial management behaviour in the rural and informal markets of the developing world. Note, this is not a free offer.

 

Source: These insights are drawn from patterns of behaviour observed among consumers in cash based and informal markets in South Africa, The Philippines, India, Kenya, Rwanda and Malawi. Primary research led and conducted by Niti Bhan. Citation.

Creative ways to financial inclusion, inspired by observing practice

Needless to say, mobile money has been a wild success in scaling an expansive agent network for converting cash to e-money and enabling person to person money transfer. Speaking at a recent conference, John Staley, Chief Officer – Finance, Innovation and Technology at Equity Bank had this to say:

“We should move the conversation from mobile money to mobile financial services.”

Absolutely! My takeaway from his comment was ”how do we get there?”

You see, with a mobile phone in (almost) everyone’s pocket, coupled with ubiquitous mobile money, conventional wisdom quips “to each his own bank.” Building on this assumption, focus quickly shifts to tweaking mobile money functions and pushing mobile based financial products to market. While this strategy may work for affluent, educated urban consumers, already familiar with banking functions of a modern economy, is it a fit for others who do not meet these criteria?

 

Banking Outside the Box

Often cited as the ‘unbanked’, lower income segment groups found amongst rural and informal sector demographic, aren’t as helpless as we imagine them to be. In fact, they have devised creative ways to exercise parallel banking functions: group savings, insurance, social reputation based credit scoring and loan systems; mechanisms oblivious to outsiders and at times, even subject to misinterpretation.

One instance, from Kenya’s Kiambu County, in part rural part urban Ruiru, a young goat grazes idly, unmanned and tethered to a pivot stone. For the family that owns it, this is their way of saving; it costs little in terms of management and input, with a future expected value that can be reasonably estimated. This practice is not unique to East Africa, evident from similar field observations in rural parts of India and the Philippines.

“The comparative affordability of a calf is such that the value of the mature animal is considered a worthwhile return on investment. In an emergency, livestock is a walking fixed deposit, to be sold for ready cash.” – Niti Bhan

The way I see it, in order to succeed, financial inclusion efforts need to draw insights from the people it seeks to enable, be considerate of their culture, observe their behaviour and get a better sense of their environment. Like the domestication of animals common in rural, for example.

Which is why I was rather pleased when I came across this headline on an unconventional approach to credit, Ng’ombe loan; much closer to the realities of a rural operating environment in my opinion.

“[Murang’a] Youth will receive high-yielding, pregnant dairy cows on credit [from Muramati and Unaitas SACCO] and repay the loan through milk deliveries to processors.” – Business Daily

An expectant cow as the loan principal, with repayments priced in daily milk deliveries.

 

Putting People first

So how do mobile financial services fit into this picture? What will mobile financial services for the ‘unbanked’ look like in the future? Is mobile even a consideration for servicing the ‘unbanked’?  I won’t pretend to know.

One thing seems certain though, if the plan is to expand these services to our target audience, then just tweaking won’t cut it. It could be because the people involved are far removed from our daily experiences, interactions, notions and concepts of money or banks. Whatever the reason, when the customers are people, it behooves us to better understand their POV, even if seemingly unorthodox, so as to inform design of financial products – mobile or not.

The values gap in banking the unbanked

Back in 2008, after my first deep dive into the African consumer market, on behalf of Samsung, I’d identified something I called the “values gap” as an intangible barrier between the first world’s consumer brands, and the mindset and worldview of the majority market, then referred to (erroneously) as the “Bottom of the Pyramid.”

The value propositions of the producers immersed in mainstream consumer culture – “buy now; pay later”, “new and improved” or “throwaway and replace”- fell far short of the mark when it came to reaching the emerging consumer markets of frontier economies.

Overlooked by marketing communications and the messaging of the advertising industry for generations, these new consumers were not conditioned to respond to these familiar messages. In fact, their buyer behaviour – their “consumption values” if you will – resonated more with almost the exact opposite responses – “minimize risk; maximise returns”, “tried and trusted”, or “repair and reuse”.

These choices were the outcome of their environment of uncertainty, and often, adversity; of inadequate infrastructure and, incomes which tended to be irregular and unpredictable. Without access to consumer credit, their purchasing patterns were driven by their cash flow, and an environment of resource scarcity influenced their consumer behaviour.

This gap in mindset and in values meant that the value proposition of a product or service or even a business model was ignored for the most part, as noise. “Not for the likes of us” as some had said, in India, in South Africa, or in The Philippines. The irony, in some cases, was that even when the product or service was meant specifically for the lower income segment or for those in the cash based informal sector, the way it was advertised overshot the target it was intended to reach.

An example of this is Wizzit, a South African mobile bank designed for the erstwhile Base of the Pyramid (BoP) customer. Unlike traditional banks with their reams of required paperwork, most of which were unavailable to the BoP customer, all you needed to open a Wizzit account was your mobile phone number and your ID. You didn’t even need any money, nor were you penalized if the account was empty or left unused for 6 months.

You would think that everyone would open an account as soon as they’d heard about it? Well, it didn’t happen that way.

Wizzit’s marketing messaging focused on the value proposition of “mobile” as interpreted for the first world or privileged customer – “Now you can bank on the go”

Imagine someone who had never thought that they could qualify for a bank account hearing or reading that value proposition? “Its not for the like of us” and tune it out.

If the messaging had touched upon the value proposition embedded in the product’s design – ALL you need is a phone number and your ID and YOU TOO can have a bank account – their audience would have immediately recognized its relevance to their own context. “Hey, I can qualify for this bank account, let me go find out more”

As simple as that.

When the value proposition of the producers immersed in mainstream consumer culture don’t resonate with the world view and mindset of the customer, there’s a gap that cannot be crossed no matter how hard you try. This values gap manifests itself in the product’s design, its marketing communication, distribution strategy, and sales promotions.

And its not just consumer products or services that fail to bridge the chasm. Wherever you seek to lower barriers to adoption and minimize the dropout rate – promoting a new irrigation technique, for instance, or adoption of formal financial services – bridging this gap is key to success.

Can digital currency earn trust in hyper-local rural economies?

One characteristic of rural and informal type micro-economies, is irregular patterns in cash flows and money supply.

Mama biashara for instance, finds it hard to replenish stock if business is generally slow within her domain. Even if she could, there is still Mr. boda boda who has to be paid. When he doesn’t get paid, the local bicycle repairman loses out as well; ultimately, a long chain of intra-local value exchange is not originated.

It seems, when there is little or no fiat cash to go round, the aggregate action of actors to yield economic activity within a locale is stifled – business cycles, household and individual consumption patterns.

But, what if they could bypass using cash? And make use of say, an alternative medium to settle biashara, boost short term liquidity and add sorely needed economic value ?

From my most recent immersion in rural Nyeri, I made a couple of notable observations on how slow moving fiat cash inhibits economic exchange where it is needed most:

Cooperative IOUs as trust currency

As a member of a coffee SACCo, my aunt is entitled to periodic lump sum payments for her share of the crop; IOUs that she can literally take to the bank. Every now and then, she settles transactions amongst her peers, by promising her soon-to-mature IOUs.  Since SACCo disbursements are a well known event, her creditors know when to come knocking.

Milk Co-op, Nyeri County, Kenya (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

Mutethi, a subsistence farmer, is a member of a dairy cooperative. He carries with him a blue milk card issued by KCC Kiandu milk cooling plant. All of his milk drop offs are weighed and a matching entry appended to his card. He redeems his IOUs during the next scheduled payment in cash, bank or mobile money. Until that time, all he has is this money form, that he cannot exchange for goods and services. Or just maybe, like my aunt, he does.

Valuable insights from the field! Two separate instances of alternative currencies, built around trust and a backdrop social setting – one virtual , the other physical.

Concept to prototype – Bangla Pesa, Kenya’s slum currency

Will Ruddick took this concept to prototype in Kenya’s Bangladesh Slum with Bangla Pesa – a coupon currency. Its multiplier effect, backed up by data, increased small business activity by 22% – that otherwise would not have transpired.

Senior Fellow Mwangi S. Kimenyi and Policy Analyst David Muthaka wrote on Brookings blog:

“Around 83 % of participants […] reported that their total sales were increasing as a result of the vouchers with only 0.05 % reporting a decline in sales. Average daily sales through Bangla-Pesa represent 22 % of the total daily sales […] ”

Take Away thoughts: Trust currency is virtual and so is digital money

In this post, I highlighted the perception of mobile money in informal and rural cash based micro-economies and posited:

“Are attempts at replacing cash with digital money, deep down, really about taking on ecosystems?”

Right now, I am especially interested in the implications of alternative social currencies on mobile money for development in SSA. Can such an approach aid transitions from cash to virtual money in cash intensive rural and informal domains? After all, it is here where the unbanked are likely to be found.

 

This post is a guest blog by Michael Kimani (@pesa_africa) founder of the African Digital Currency Association

Related post of interest: Systems thinking and the mobile platform for economic impact and wealth creation

Role of Chamas in informal sector entrepreneurialism in Kenya

Researcher Mary Njeri Kinyanjui shares deep insights from Kenya on how social cooperation and collaboration play an important role in the informal entrepreneur’s business financing strategy.

In East Africa, particularly in Kenya, the formation of chama—a Kiswahili word for social group—has helped to enhance group agency and solidarity entrepreneurialism. Individuals collectively and cooperatively form a chama to pool and invest savings for welfare activities, such as paying medical bills or celebrating the birth of a child, as well as for investments, such as buying property, rural land, or plots in the city. The contributions are saved and then given to members on a rotational basis as lump sum loans at low-interest rates. Such business exchanges occur in a free and open market, which discourages hoarding, unfair trading, overpricing, and undercutting.

Here are two stories of Kenyans who have successfully utilized solidarity entrepreneurialism, and chama especially, in informal economies to improve their social and economic wellbeing.

In the 1990s, John, a trader of clothing and accessories, bought his products from wholesalers across Nairobi. However, with the onset of economic liberalization, many of these wholesalers went under, and new suppliers were too expensive. He decided that the only way to sustain his business was to go to China to source his products. With a group of friends, John formed a chama, which was comprised of 10 men, and traveled to China. Together, they made monthly contributions of 10,000 Kenyan shillings (or $108 in today’s dollars). The accumulated wealth was given out as loans, with an interest rate of 10 percent, for hotels and travel expenses in China. Through this initial chama, they have created a revolving fund that facilitates Kenyan traders’ visits to China when demands arise.

In 2011, Jane was invited by a friend to rent a stall to sell clothes in ECT Mall on Taveta Road in Nairobi. She had about $2700 in savings. She spent $325 of her savings to make a down payment and to start her business. After her first earned profit of $485, she was able to renew stock from wholesalers in Kamukunji and also save some money to contribute to her chama. After saving money for five months, she obtained a loan from her chama, which enabled her to buy more stock. And after one year, the traders in her chama made a unanimous decision to use their pooled savings and earnings from loans to buy land in Kitengela. Jane thus moved her clothing business to the plot of land in Kitengela and is now able to maintain her stall with ease because rent, water, and security costs are shared among the traders.

An older article by kiwanja offers an overview of the role played by these indigenous financial cooperatives in Africa, while the chama‘s importance in Kenyan society has already captured the attention of the tech innovators looking to develop mobile solutions.