In the past week alone, I’ve seen three glaring cases of unquestioned assumptions around the design and implementation of Digital Financial Service (DFS) particularly for financial inclusion, but also otherwise. This gives rise to the question whether the industry is prepared to undertake the mission they have set for themselves.
The first is that their technology, in whatever form – the app, the device, the USSD service – will and should (unquestioned, remember) disrupt people’s behaviour completely. While it is true that using a mobile phone to make a payment instead of cash is a change in behaviour, or rather, habit, it is not the same as type of change as transforming the entire culture to become more individualistic as opposed to communal; or less relationship oriented and more contractually transactional. I am finding the words clumsy to use and hope that one of you reading this has the expert knowledge at their fingertips to better articulate what I am attempting to describe. Hofstede had a clue.
There is a fundamental arrogance in framing the need for human intermediaries in the digital financial service transaction model as a “necessary evil” – sounds like a toddler’s bad habit that they need to be weaned off in order to become adults. The bulk of those who are financially excluded live in cultures where human contact and social relationships within the community are more important than faceless, meaningless transactions by the individual isolated with their techno-utopian device. To expect this to change to conform to your pretty little use case diagram is rather presumptuous, if not downright offensive.
The second is more generalized. Its a blithe disregard for any differences in context and operating environment between the more formal economies and those where the informal sector is the majority. Nobody pauses to question whether there are differences that need to be considered. Its like landing on Mars expecting the same atmosphere. This report on the global emergence of a cashless economy ends with offering 3 implications of 4 megatrends.
If indeed two of these implications are the outcome of the single factor of increasing financial inclusion, then how can they be lumped together with the third implication which is clearly one meant for more advanced consumer markets? The interpretation on transaction volume and pricing behaviour is thus rendered inaccurate as it does not distinguish between the digital payment ecosystem currently prevalent in emerging markets from that existing in advanced markets.
When your fundamental premise has no foundation, your extrapolations and projections will not only be in error, but the unquestioned starting assumptions will snowball along the strategy and product development chain leading to a vast gaping void between your original intent and the actions taken, much less the outcomes aimed at.
Lastly, when it comes to fintech in the African context, there’s a pattern of analysis that is either too basic in its assumptions – mobile phones are good for digital financial services and nobody has actually noticed this fact because we never did; or, too ready to read the worst in a chart or the data. This leads to policy recommendations in 2016, ten years after Mpesa was introduced in Kenya, that offer up such insightful suggestions as “Africa must promote the use of mobiles to include the excluded financially.”
This is rather disheartening for the rest of us who have been watching the African digital financial economy move forward in leaps and bounds, in many ways far ahead of the rest of the world. It also takes the current conversation back to kindergarten level rather than the post graduate courses we could be discussing. Given the advancements already actively engaged with across the continent, isn’t it time that policy researchers took the trouble to come up to speed?
And given the importance of financial inclusion, isn’t it time that the stakeholders actively working on digital financial services took their target audience seriously, with some respect, and wee bit more humility? They might discover their efforts move forward much faster.