Archive for the ‘Savings’ Category

Work in Progress: An Introduction to the Informal Economy’s Commercial Environment

This topic is being shared in the form of a collection of essays on the following themes, each becoming hyperlinked on completion. Do bookmark this page for regular updates.

Introduction to Background and Context, some caveats apply
Fundamental Elements of Informal Sector Commercial Activity
Rural household financial management as a foundation
Linkages and Networks span Urban and Rural Markets
Underlying Principles for Financial and Social Contracts in the Informal Economy
Informal Sector Business Development Strategies and Objectives
Why A Blanket Approach to Formalization is not a Panacea
Disaggregating and Segmenting the Informal Sectors
The Journey to Formalization Cannot be Leapfrogged


Creating Economic Value by Design (John Heskett, IJD 2009)
Financial Behaviour Patterns Observed Among Households in Rural Informal Economy (IDRC, 2009)
More or Less: The Fundamental Principle of Flexibility” Slides (Informal Economy Symposium, 2012)
A Comprehensive Analysis of the Literature on Informal Cross Border Trade in East Africa (TMEA, 2016)

Financial Behaviour Patterns Observed Among Households in Rural Informal Economy in Asia

This is the original working paper of the research conducted on rural household financial management, in developing country conditions, pioneering the use of methods from human centered design for discovery, during Nov 2008 to March 2009, aka the Prepaid Economy Project. It was peer reviewed by Brett Hudson Matthews, and I have incorporated his comments into the PDF.

This research study was carried out with the aid of a grant from the iBoP Asia Project (, a partnership between the Ateneo School of Government and Canada’s International Development Research Centre (

The abstract:

The challenge faced by Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) ventures has been the lack of knowledge about their intended target audience from the point of view of business development whereas decades of consumer research and insights are available for conventional markets. What little is known about the BoP’s consumer behaviour, purchasing patterns and decision making tends to assume that there are no primary differences between mainstream consumers and the BoP except for the amount of their income – pegged most often between $2 to $5 a day.

In practice, the great majority at the BoP manage on incomes earned from a variety of sources rather than a predictable salary from a regular job and have little or no access to conventional financial tools such as credit cards, bank accounts, loans, mortgages. This is one of the biggest differentiators in the challenge of value creation faced by BoP ventures, particularly among rural populations (over 60% of the global BoP population lives in rural areas).

Exploratory research was conducted in the field among rural Indian and rural Filipino populations in order to understand how those on irregular incomes managed their household expenses. Empirical data collected by observations, interviews and extended immersion led us to identify patterns of behaviour among the rural BoP in their management of income and expenditure, ‘cash flow’ and ‘working capital’ and the significance of social capital and community networks as financial tools. Practices documented include ‘conversion to goods’, ‘stored wealth’, ‘cashless transactions’, and reliance on multiple sources of income that mature over different times.

This paper will share our observations from the field; identify some challenges these behaviours create for business and also explore some opportunities for value creation by seeking to articulate the elements that BoP ventures must address if they are to do business profitably with the rural ‘poor’ based on their own existing patterns of financial habits and norms.

The Conclusion:

In sum, it can be concluded that the challenges for value creation can be quite different for BoP ventures interested in addressing the rural markets. From the observations made in the field, we can highlight three key implications for business development. These are:

  • Seasonality – with the exception of the salaried, everyone else in the sample pool was able to identify times of abundance and scarcity over the course of natural year in their earnings. Identification of a particular region or market’s local pattern of seasonality would benefit the design of payment schedules, timing of entry or new product and service launch, for example.
  • Relative lack of liquidity – The majority of the rural households observed tended to ‘store wealth’ in the form of goods, livestock or natural resources, relying on a variety of cashless transactions within the community for a number of needs. Conventional business development strategies need to be reformulated to take this into account as these patterns of behaviour may reflect the household’s purchasing power or income level inaccurately.
  • Increasing the customer’s span of control over the timing, frequency and amount of cash required – Since the availability and amount of cash cannot be predicted on calendar time, this implication is best reflected by the success of the prepaid mobile phone subscriptions in these same markets. When some cash is available, it can be used to purchase airtime minutes for text or voice calls, when there is no money, the phone can still receive incoming calls. Models which impose an external schedule of periodicity, frequency and amount of cash required may not always be successful in matching the volatile cash flow particular to each household’s sources of income.

Bridging East Africa’ formal – informal financial services divide

Kenya’s formal inclusion looks pretty, the financial inclusion industry has been has been great at talking up its achievements over the past 10 years. Here, 75.3% of Kenyans are now formally included, a 50.3% increase from 19 years ago. Official statistics on mobile phone penetration is up to 80.5% of the population and there is general consensus, the mobile phone has been central to expanding formal financial services to the – unbanked and under banked. The numbers are pretty awesome.

In February, FSD Kenya’s chart of the week featured an interesting pattern.





The red line marks the axis between the formal (prudential) and informal financial services alternatives. The largest source of credit for the bottom 40% populate the informal segment – SACCOs ,MFIs, Peer to peer, community groups. Dotting the top in blue are the banks and mobile banking lending products Mshwari.

So, there is more going on besides what the numbers say about formal financial inclusion.


Appreciating the informal sector’s financing alternatives

I got a sense of this gap between what the reports say and what was on the ground in 2015/2016 as part of 2 immersive fieldwork projects – Nyeri Mama’s Financial Diaries and later same year as part of Borderland Biashara: Mapping the cross border, national and regional trade in the East African informal economy project. I got to meet and spend time with biashara people, mama biashara, informal traders at the borderlands, boda boda guys, brokers and 65 year old Wangari – all in their natural setting – the mostly rural and cash intensive informal economies at the borderlands.

I found out that 90% of them had a basket of alternative credit, investment, insurance and savings informal financial products at their disposal – up to 8 different volatility management groups. The flavor of these alternatives ranged from extreme formal prudential to extreme informal.

Wangari, from Nyeri, for example, did not have a bank account but, was part of

  • 1 Micro-finance bank,
  • 2 Cooperatives
  • 1 ROSCA (Rotating Savings and Credit Association
  • 1 Chama (savings group)
  • a Catholic church group and
  • a modest Nokia mobile phone with Mobile wallet (Mpesa) and mobile wallet bank (Mshwari)

At the borderlands of Busia and Malaba between Kenya and Uganda, close to 96% of 100 biashara interviewees were part of at least 3 savings groups, besides their mobile phone. There was almost always one savings group that was part of their trade or craft networks.


Bridging the Gap


When we look at the under banked strictly through the lenses of a bank, we miss out on the rich diversity of community bank-like products at their disposal. When their options are labelled informal, the tone becomes one of expanding the larger banking formal system, at the expense of our dear Chamas.

My suggestion for the present day efforts to push towards financial formalization, is to instead transform into a pull towards formality. Is there a middle ground? Where we can have the rich of the Chamas and savings group together with the formal financial system? Or where we can have a blend of the rich of the savings groups with technology?

Yes, we can, and there are examples from East Africa’s Kenya and West Africa’s Chad

  • Equity bank directly engages registered savings groups at the Busia Malaba border, a trader’s Chama.  A credit officer from a local branch attends weekly meetings with the group, and liaises between Equity Bank and the Chama. The bank facilitates loans guaranteed by the group as a unit. 

“Muranga county seeks to ease unemployment with cow loans”Daily Nation

  • Ng’ombe loan, by Muramati and Unaitas SACCO, was an unconventional loan product much closer to the realities of a rural Muranga. Youth in this county received high-yielding, pregnant dairy cows on credit, and were to repay the loan through milk deliveries to processors. An expectant cow as the loan principal, with repayments priced in daily milk deliveries. How cool!

“TigoPaare – People’s Banks for Communities across Africa”Balancing Act Africa

  • In Chad, Paare are the equivalent of Chama group savings plans in East Africa. TigoPaare is a group wallet that adds a ‘group layer’ on top of standard mobile money, to deal with common funds, trust and other group initiatives. The wallet helps informal cattle trades look after their income from cattle sales, with the functionality to make loans to members. The pilot attracted 19,000 users, including community mutual funds, cotton producers cooperatives, churches, market sellers and women’s groups.



Insights on the psychology of cash money – Demonetization vs Financial Inclusion

moneyThe flurry of commentary on the Great Indian Demonetization of November 2016 has thrown up some nuggets of insight worth considering more deeply.

Santosh Desai explores the psychology of cash money in the Times of India blog, linking the need for tangible evidence of income to physical labour, as opposed to those of us with the contextual knowledge to understand the virtual concept i.e. digital currency.

“…there is another aspect of this situation that needs more reflection- the nature of the relationship we enjoy with cash. Cash is not merely a symbolic representation of value. Cash is the idea of value captured and owned. It is the product of labour that is an entity by itself and becomes much more than what it can buy. Sitting on a pile of cash gives pleasure both metaphorical and real.”

“…there is some value that is placed on the device of currency notes over and above the value that it signifies.”

This aspect has not been looked at deeply enough, imho, when financial inclusion is talked about, particularly in the context of digital solutions. I suspect that therein will lie behavioural insights that could conceivably drive design changes that lower the barriers to adoption in the strategies to introduce digital currencies and mobile monies to hitherto unbanked populations.

Earning money needs to be signified concretely. Those whose life’s earnings are in the form of a few high value currency notes, do not decode demonetization in quite the same way as those used to money in its conceptual form. The idea that it is possible to de-legitimise their life’s labour is to shake the foundations on which one’s life is constructed. What if some money is not exchanged? What if some paperwork, that bane of those living on the margins, is incomplete?

What if the mobile phone’s battery dies? Do my hard earned monies disappear like other unsaved data?

Trust in technology is a function of our contextual knowledge – our immersion in an environment saturated with electronic communication and screens of all types and purposes provides us with conceptual frameworks that are entirely different from someone whose daily labour is on the farm, or at a mechanic’s garage.

While those who are financially excluded might not face demonetization i.e. the de-legitimization of their labour, as Desai mentions above, the current attempts to convert their cash intensive habits into digital form via various “cashless” initiatives overlook the psychology of cash. Regardless of locale, those at the margins (the excluded) have high levels of mistrust in the system, through their experiences with institutions and the system, over time and history.

The talk of ‘cashless’ is easy, but it ignores that there is a cultural dimension to the physicality of cash. Digital wallets operate on a transfer of intention, where a promise to pay gets converted into an intention to buy. For this to work at scale, one needs to have become comfortable with the idea of surplus and develop the confidence that money will come without having to struggle or having to think about it all the time. One needs to develop trust in institutions, in a context where the evidence around is overwhelmingly to the contrary.

I suspect that if this subject was explored further, we would discover that where mobile money has succeeded, such as in East Africa, the institution that was trusted was the telco – the mobile service operator, and that the early stages of adoption have a different narrative from that being used currently in entirely new markets where mobile money still struggles to penetrate. India and South Africa are two such places where the unbanked and the financially excluded have reasons of history to develop high mistrust of the systems of the privileged.

To convert one’s worth into worthlessness, even if for a small period is to make everyone nervous. Psychologically, money works on a convention of mutual deception. We agree to call something money, and that is good enough. But to have the thinness of this convention exposed in such a way is to cause great anxiety.

The transition to a cashless future can be made gentler and more accommodating to their fears and concerns, generating a sense of security and commitment, with some empathy for an entirely different world-view and life experience.

Analysis of the mobile phone’s impact on cash flows and transactions in the informal sector

As we saw, Mrs Chimphamba needs to juggle time and money as part of her household financial management in order to ensure that expenses can be met by income. We also saw that the mobile phone was made viable and feasible by the availability of the prepaid business model that gave her full control over timing and the amount required to maintain it — how much airtime to purchase? when? how often? — all of these decisions were in her hands, within the limits of the operator’s business model. Now, we’ll take a closer look at the impact of the mobile on her domestic economy.

Readily available real time communication has helped Mrs C by speeding up the time taken for a decision on a purchase or a sale. That is, the transaction cycle has been shortened. As the speed of information exchange increases, it increases the speed of transactions — it shortens the duration of time taken to execute them from inception to completion. This, in turn, implies that more transactions can now take place in the same amount of time thereby increasing the frequency and the periodicity. When mobile money is present, one can see that as both quantity and frequency of transactions speed up, so does the cash flow. We’ll come back to this factor.

To explain using a real life example, Mrs Chimphamba does not need to sit at her homestead wondering if today someone will pass by to purchase a bottle of wine. Similarly, Mrs C’s customers do not need to go out of their way to pass by her homestead to see if the wine is distilled and ready for sale, or whether it will still take another day or two for the next batch to be ready. Further, the uncertainty of whether they’ll have cash on hand on that future day, or if they’ll return as promised are all elements that real time communication have minimized.

Now, Mrs C is able to let her regular customers know that she’s making a new batch for sale and do they want to reserve a bottle for purchase? It allows her customers to put aside cash for this purchase. She is even able to accept and execute larger orders for some future date, and even accept some cash advances if her operating environment includes the presence of a mobile money transfer system such as those more prevalent in East Africa. This in turn changes her purchasing patterns and decision making as the pattern of cash flows — timing and amount — changes. She isn’t making do anymore on an unknown and predictable sale based on sitting and waiting for someone to show up to buy her wine.

Real time communication has improved the decision making cycle for both buyer and seller in a transaction as it counteracts uncertainty and information asymmetry even while speeding up the time take for a decision.

As the quantity and frequency of transactions increase— first, in cash conducted face to face, and then later, remotely by mobile money, regardless of the size of each transaction — the change in cash flow patterns begins to smooth out the volatility (the uncertainty factor has changed completely) between incoming and outgoing, as well as the decisionmaking involved. That is, the gap between income and expense starts becoming less in terms of both timing and amount — there is the possibility of a steady stream in the pipeline. Calculus offers hints of how the curve can begin to smoothen out as frequency and periodicity of transactions begins to accelerate.

Size of transactions thus begin to matter less in that the incoming amount now does not need to be so large as to cover expenses for an unknown duration of time before the next incoming payment; nor do expenses have to be tightly controlled constantly due to the uncertainty of the duration of time before the next payment, and the types of expenses incurred during this unknown period of time.

So the boost in decision making — how long it takes to complete a transaction, how often can transactions be completed — enabled by the real time communication facilitated by the mobile phone; plus the attendant immediacy of receiving payment via the same platform is the root of the improvement in the hyperlocal economy and consumption patterns among the informal sector actors. This is why large established traders (with sufficient financial cushion) were heard to observe that both purchasing power and consumption patterns had changed in their market town (Busia, Kenya Jan 2016) in the past 10 years since first the mobile phone, and later, mPesa, were introduced into their operating environment.

Uncertainty and information asymmetry that have long characterized the fragile and volatile nature of the informal sector operating in inadequately provided environments with unreliable systems and scarce data. In the next chapter we’ll step back and take a broader look at communication, connectivity, and commerce in the informal economy starting with the description of the operating environment’s characteristics regardless of continent.

This is part of a newly launched Medium where I will write in detail on economic behaviour and its drivers in the informal economy. Much of it draws upon the original research in the field from 2008-2009 which was shared on the prepaid economy blog. I found that time had passed and increased my understanding and I wanted to explore those discoveries in writing. Much of this is the foundation for recent works on ‘Mama Biashara‘.

Mobile Money in South Africa: The nature of the beast by Flo Mosoane

pexels-photo-3The 2015 State Of The Industry Report (SOTIR) for Mobile Money published by GSMA, reveals a picture of a service that continues to change the landscape of financial inclusion in developing and poor countries across the globe. In December of 2015, the industry processed transactions in excess of a billion, most of which were in Sub Sahara Africa.

It seems however, that the continued success of Mobile Money eludes South Africa. What with the untimely death of Vodacom Mpesa after millions of Rands of reinvestment. Only 4 months after which MTN South Africa also announced that they are ceasing new registrations, marking the end of (Mobile Network Operator) MNO-lead Mobile Money deployments here.

Despite the large bang that MTN Mobile Money launched with, managing to sign over 2 million subscribers; at the end, Vodacom Mpesa only had just over 75 000 users, and MTN Mobile Money only about 140 000 or so users. A performance that neither of these well-established, successful, multinational MNO’s can be proud of.

We lament the apparent failure of Mobile Money in South Africa. It is well established that it has made a significant contribution to financial inclusion for underserved populations, and still presents significant opportunity to serve unbanked and underbanked communities.

This is a very special contribution by Flo Mosoane, writing from first hand experience on the ground on this subject. Do read the whole article.

Read On…

Lessons for Formal Finance from Informal financial services


On one of my many field explorations on rural financial services,  I found out, that for one mama biashara, as soon as payment checks in, she withdraws all her funds from her local coffee SACCO account, and spreads it out via micro-deposits across her more than 5 local informal savings groups (from right to left on diagram).


Choice of Informal Formal financial services – continuum


A report conducted across East Africa using data from [Finaccess, Fin survey – ’09,’12,’13] Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda, found that on average, 60% of survey participants saved with informal groups and places – ASCAs, ROSCA, SECRET place


“Determinants of Household Savings Mobilization across EAC Countries: An Exploratory Analysis.”


Even M-Shwari – “a new [mobile] banking platform that enables customers to save, earn interest, and access small amounts of credit instantly via their mobile phones”, on paper an ideal tool for banking the unbanked, faces the same challenge as per CGAP’s How M-Shwari Works: The Story So Far Report (pdf).

“The main competition to M-Shwari as a place to deposit and store money temporarily comes from informal savings groups and banks”

There is mounting evidence of widespread use of informal and semi-formal financial services, despite efforts to shift to digital financial services (DFS). While in formal circles they may be perceived as ‘a risky place to borrow/put your money’, based on evidence, there is an allure that does not readily lend itself to be seen. Often, what is lost in countless narratives, is the fact that before banks (B.B.), people weren’t necessarily unbanked per se. As creative social beings, they devised ways to meet typical banking functions  eg credit, saving, credit rating etc Not devoid of shortcomings, but filled a role all the same.

How, do they [informal financial services] compete so well with formal finance with nil marketing budgets?


Consider Financial Historical Data

In the formal world of finance, any unrecorded financial history before Banks or Telcos proprietary mobile phone spending history is non-existent. Mobile phone history instead, is preferred as a surrogate for credit history. In turn, the bank provider

“partners with Safaricom (telcos) to use one’s mobile phone usage data and Mpesa transaction data as a credit score for how much in instant loans you qualify for”

Here, there is a rather obvious disconnect. For starters, majority of transactions in rural and informal economies (where the poor, unbanked and underbanked likely found) occur in cash – forms of savings, micro-loans and micro-transactions! Secondly, rich peer to peer (P2P), business to consumer (B2C) and business to business (B2B) credit exchanges, occur frequently in this domain, based on social ties, trust and familiarity in rural and informal economy transactions. Both inherently valuable credit histories.

Yet, all these financial exchanges that take place in these groups and the informal cash intensive economy are not considered as valid credit history.  If we consider mama biashara’s alternatives (as per my formal -informal continuum diagram above), for emergencies, she is likely to turn to her informal devices for plugging her short term credit needs – P2P credit, B2B credit, Business Self Help group etc than say a bank. As a function of trust therefore, these informal devices, rank favorably in her implicit trust continuum scale seen here.


Trust Continuum – informal and formal financial services


Takeaways from Informal

If by their own admission, telcos and banks admit informal savings groups are their biggest competitors, shouldn’t the first step be to understand the competition ?

by Damien Newman

Cash intensive rural and informal domains are a rich data mine semblance of spaghetti balls, unlike digital data that lends itself to direct measurement. The nature of this data is more qualitative – the kind collected from exploratory research, people, immersion, observing behavior, cues picked up from dialogues, and time spent interacting in environments. While we focus on readily measurable metrics, we are missing out on an even bigger source.



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

3 Myths of Financial Inclusion


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.


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
(iii) Mobile Finance: Indigenous, Ingenious or Both?
(iv) One out of four accounts ‘dormant’ as mobile money takes over banking
(v) How Does Mobile Money in 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


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.

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 importance of the agent/customer relationship for successful financial inclusion

The role of agent networks in East Africa’s mobile money and mobile banking roll-outs is widely documented; as an intermediary, a kiosk exchange point – accepting deposits for e-money/ withdrawals for cash and usajili (registration).

“. . .as the first point of contact, human agents help bridge the gap between a high-tech service and low-literacy clients.” – CGAP

But, most research falls short of exploring the subject in its entirety, specifically, the relationship between customers and human agents  – a recent example is the just released Agent Network Accelerator Survey – Kenya Country Report 2014 by Helix Institute of Digital Finance. To sum it up, I would say it was a numbers driven top-down approach to the subject (most likely focusing on what is best for the service provider), that failed to explore the human touch-points that make mobile money relatable.

“A lot these findings, I’m noticing, do indeed do all the research, but leave their underlying assumptions on people unquestioned [. . .] researchers go in & see behaviour – the What & How – but assume a lot on the Why”@prepaid africa

As I see it, there is a subtly rich layer to the mobile money agent and client relationship that is readily observable in close knit communities; frequent micro-transactions lead to conversations beyond basic transactions, off-the-cuff inquiries, and thus reinforce continued trust. For people not well acquainted with the intricacies of mobile money, or tech for that matter, these human intermediaries – the agents, most of whom happen to be women – are your trusted guides to the technology and face of the service providers.

Which is why, this assumption in a post by Mondato, hit a nerve.

“In the long run, as more fully developed digital payments ecosystems develop, there will be less need for agents . . .”

When talking about Africa’s markets, in mobile financial services or whatever context, research reports which disregard the qualitative nuance of local, social and communal interaction, lead easily to such assumptions. The  Helix report for example, grouped agents into 2 categories: rural and urban. On the ground however, these are polar extremes on a scale. If we go by strict definitions, this frame of reference doesn’t translate on the ground ; more common is a mix of both, or peri-urban or even rural folk who commute to their place of work in peri-urban. Perhaps a measure of cash intensity or ‘unbanked-ness’ in immediate contexts makes for a better framing?

My point is, the agent – customer relationship on Moi Avenue in Nairobi’s CBD, is markedly different from Githurai’s packed informal market place despite both located in Nairobi. In this cash intensive ecosystem, in the thick of all the chaos characteristic of informal micro-economies, human agents sit right next to mama biashara and boda boda guys. Here is where, you are likely to find the unbanked, underbanked and lower income segments.

I can’t help but think there is a larger role for mobile money agents in financial inclusion; one that resonates with commonly observed themes in this segment – social groups, local, face to face, trust. Like Monica, a cyber cafe attendant in Maai Mahiu whose role in the local community extends beyond simply offering internet browsing services. Jan Chipchase aptly describes this as symbiotic : customers, agents and service provider.

“The careful use of real world analytics combined with contextual qualitative understanding has the opportunity to reveal not only what people are doing, but also the nuances of how and why . . . this in turn will lead to the next round of service innovation insights”