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”