Posts Tagged ‘savings’

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.

 

source: http://fsdkenya.org/data-visualization/chart-of-the-week-credit-in-kenya-how-big-are-loans-on-average/

source: http://fsdkenya.org/data-visualization/chart-of-the-week-credit-in-kenya-how-big-are-loans-on-average/

 

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

system-monster

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.

 

 

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.

Sharing insights on the ROI of cow ownership with The Economist et al

Dung cakes provide free fuel for the rural housewife (photo credit: Goverdhan Meena)

While the internal rate of return (IRR) of a cow may certainly be in the high negative numbers, per the recent Economist note on research, there are other elements of the cost/benefit analysis that also need to be taken into account when considering the real value of owning livestock. There are differences based on region and locale naturally though the patterns of economic activity might resemble each other due to similar challenges. Here, I will mostly look at the rural Indian context.

1. Fuel

Rural households without access to the electric grid use firewood and cow dung cakes for cooking and heating in India. Cow dung as fuel is not used to the same degree of prevalence in rural Africa as it is in India. Above is a photograph of a typical village home in Rajasthan, western India. You can see the source of fuel, the black buffalo, tied up next to the work area. During the dry winter, dung is collected, mixed with bits of twig or straw and shaped into patty cakes by hand and then left to dry. After they have sufficiently hardened, they are stored for future use in their own shed.

Dung is slow burning and retains heat longer, while wood catches fire quicker so a combination might be used based on the day’s menu or if wood is not available. While labour cost has been calculated for the upkeep of a cow, it does not take into account the labour cost of foraging for firewood whereas the dung is both free of cost, plentiful and easily available right there at home. This pattern of juggling more expensive fuel with cheaper fuel (here, expensive and cheaper can also be said to be easily available or convenient and less accessible or time consuming to obtain) is prevalent in rural households observed in The Phillipines, in India, in Malawi, in Kenya and in South Africa.

2. Fertilizer

Organic, free, sustainable fertilizer. Enough said.

3. Milk

Even if the women in the household may not be able to afford a cow or it may be considered a man’s possession, she usually has a nanny goat or two for milk in the morning. When there is no access to the electric grid, nor home appliances to preserve it for longer than a day, then the best way to access fresh milk for the morning cuppa is directly from the udder. With larger livestock such as a buffalo or cow, the quantity maybe sufficient for cash sale to the ubiquitious chaiwallah if noone else. Milk and milk products such as yoghurt and cottage cheese (paneer) are a part of the Indian vegetarian diet. Sales provide an avenue for cash money, necessary to the most self sufficient farm, such as for mobile airtime or salt, oil and tea leaves.

4. Investment

An assumption that these recent discussions on the ROI of a cow or buffalo seem to be making is that the cost is that of a fully grown animal. Few lower income households could afford mature livestock and the majority would tend to purchase a young calf. Whether its subsequently fattened for food, such as in The Philippines or for milk and young, such as in India and Kenya, 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. In parts of rural Kenya, livestock prices are known to be depressed at the beginning of the school year as parents prepare for fees, books and uniforms.

5. Status

When it does not make sense for you either purchase or park that shiny Mercedes in front of your humble home, how do you communicate wealth and status?

The walls are plastered with a mixture of cow dung and mud before the womenfolk decorate with traditional designs. Dung is considered a purifier and has myriads of uses. This household clearly sends a signal of its status in the village and its ownership of a producer of fuel, food and fertilizer.

As Singh notes, the respect and regard paid to cows in India is well known, but the importance to rural Indians of the dung and urine of this sacred animal is often ignored. “Cow dung is used as a cooking fuel, sanitizing cleanser, construction material, for insulating and waterproofing walls and floors in rural houses, as a cultural symbol in religious worship and the raw material for producing organic compost and generating electricity.

Discussion

Further discussion on the findings published in The Economist was by economists Daren Acemoglu and James Robinson, in a post titled “Cows, Capitalism and Social Embeddedness” where they say:

 What to conclude from this? Perhaps one explanation is to embrace the idea, once popular among some social scientists and recently gaining some further traction in more sophisticated forms among development economists, that poor people are irrational and cannot make decisions in their own best interests.

An alternative, however, is provided by the anthropologist James Ferguson in his book The Anti-Politics Machine that is a study of development problems in Lesotho in Southern Africa. There are many points to this book but one of them is to show that economic analyses that failed to take into account the social ‘embeddedness’ of economic behavior often come up with spurious interpretations of what is going on — and as a result, give irrelevant policy advice.

The consistent behaviour, call it socially embedded or irrational foolishness, that has been overlooked in these highly learned discussions is that of emphasizing self sufficiency and independence from the formal or cash based economy

Cattle are but one of the many means rural households utilize to ensure that they need the absolute minimum cash money outlay in their daily household expenses. Labour cost is rarely that of the head of the household, most cows will be looked after by youth or womenfolk on the homestead. What is a daily challenge for those who live on the land and off of it is the availability of actual coins and paper notes for conducting transactions. The seasonality of the harvest, yet another element that tends to be overlooked by urban educated professionals receiving salaries in digital money directly deposited to their bank accounts, implies that any significant amount of actual tangible cash money is also linked to that period of buying and selling on the market.

For the rest of the natural year, there are very few sources of cash money available to even the most self sufficient household, and this is a behaviour that is emphasized. Most everyone interviewed will proudly proclaim just how little they need for external purchases, pointing proudly to their sources of “free” fuel, firewood, daily milk or dairy, and of course non perishable staples like wheat or rice.

This pride in the rural resident’s self sufficiency and independence from what they see as the burden of ties to cash money requirements is not something that any amount of data collection, metrics or economic rationality can ever quantify nor replace, as The Economist suggests, with mobile money as an alternate savings mechanism.

Women Together: Incentivising Savings

Prema Salgaonkar has been working with Mahila Milan for over 20 years and now heads a group of local facilitators of a daily savings scheme for Dharavi residents. Mahila Milan means “women together” and provides a decentralised vehicle for the empowerment of women via leadership roles and advocacy alongside its pivotal daily savings collection. Prema visits around 450 households each day, of which a third will deposit anything between Rs 5 to 200, with almost all households banking something each week. Such a savings mechanism is ideally suited to the irregular nature of earnings at the base of the pyramid which we have been widely discussing here.

The deposits from a number of collectives are formally banked but rather than paying interest Mahila Milan provides community and emergency support in a transparent manner. For many, without this daily visit which both incentivises and protects savings, surplus cash would not even be conceived of – let alone put aside. Savings are readily accessible and members of the scheme can apply for credit if required. If loans are requested the local Mahila Milan leaders will assess the need and ability to repay, possibly consulting with neighbours as to the borrower’s situation. Repayment terms are negotiated on a case-by-case basis around the borrower’s earning patterns, with consideration given to the maintenance of some savings alongside repayments. Loans – usually for up to Rs 500 at 2% interest – have helped with school fees, medical bills and entrepreneurial start-ups from tailoring services to coconut vending.

Beginning in Mumbai in the eighties, initially Mahila Milan had many more illiterate members and developed a system whereby coloured squares of paper would be exchanged for deposits and kept by the saving member in a plastic bag: red for one rupee, yellow for two, green for three and so on. This way members could always check how much money they had access to and plan accordingly. Now this system has been largely disbanded and replaced with passbooks which members were proud to show us and explain the context of various peaks in savings and withdrawal. Currently Mahila Milan constitutes a networked federation of nationwide woman’s collectives encompassing 60,000 women

The system is not just about collecting money but also about daily contact which deepens the understanding of various issues facing Dharavi residents. Contributing to a consensus of community priorities, this information is often passed on to other support groups in the area such as the local community council (panchayat) plus used to inform a number of Mahila Milan initiatives. One of our informants (above) who used the scheme conveyed that even on the days when she has nothing to deposit that its was reassuring to be visited by a trusted outsider with sound financial knowledge and that she sometimes used the opportunity to discuss issues such as how rising food prices were affecting those beyond her own neighbourhood. She notes that watching her savings grow has allowed her to start imagining and planning a better future for her family – with her mother and sister also active members in the scheme.

We were told of numerous success stories like the woman who saved towards buying a second-hand sewing machine which allowed her daughter to leave a gruelling job at a local garment factory to start her own now-flourishing dressmaking business. Another woman with six children and an alcoholic husband saved Rs 5-10 a day till she had Rs 5000 with which she bought a machine to process heavy duty plastic for recycling and now boasts a much higher standard of living for herself and her family. Others access their savings on a more short term basis to counter income fluctuations – still signalling a heightened life standard. And significantly most continue with their savings schemes while servicing their loans.

Micro-credit has been commanding a fair amount of attention surrounding poverty alleviation of late – including voices of caution as have featured on blog posts below. Mahila Milan seeks to strengthen financial assets primarily through savings-led services with micro-loans being offered as a secondary and complimentary service. Last year’s brief article Putting the Microsavings in Microfinance from the New York Times makes the highly relevant point that “only some poor people will benefit from the chance to borrow, but almost all will benefit from the chance to save.”

[Check out more photos from fieldwork at Dharavi.]

Savings Circles

Sudha makes and sells floral garlands at Dharavi and as our conversation turned to savings she told me that she used bishi. I’ve spoken to a number of people at Dharavi who participate in bishi schemes (bishi = money matters in Marathi). Bishi is a kind of informal and voluntary local savings club which has a long history in India and has been employed rurally to also save and credit rice and grains. Bishi schemes constitute a type of Rotating Savings and Credit Association (ROSCA) – which are found across the world in base of the pyramid communities under a number of various names.

The schemes have various forms but at Dharavi basically go something like this example: a voluntary group is formed of 12 women within a particular community nominate an amount that they will each put into the scheme each month. (eg. Rs. 500) providing a monthly total of Rs 6000. Every month they will draw a saver’s name on a lottery system to be awarded the collective Rs 6000. Then that person will be removed from the list so that they cannot claim the full amount twice within a 12 month cycle. On occasion one of the participants may require credit from the group rather than waiting for their name to be drawn (eg. their cooker broke and they need to purchase a new one) They can appeal to the group and together they decide whether to award the full amount to them that month instead of using the lottery system.

Initially I had to work hard to put aside my assumptions about the inadequacies of bishi schemes. Yet after talking with a number of women I came to realise that they provide a local savings mechanism in which community participation creates a social pressure to save within a trusted environment with no transaction fees. The potential to fluctuate between emergency credit and the lottery system suits the flexible needs of investors. For some women I spoke to it wasn’t their only form of saving yet seemed to nurture a social platform on which to discuss money matters between women. Many were proud of what they had purchased via the scheme. (fridges, school fees, sewing machines, etc)

Some mentioned that even children run small bishi schemes, putting in Rs 2 each a day amongst 30 kids and drawing on a lottery system weekly to win Rs 420 – providing them more motivation to save than merely putting aside money alone which creates too much temptation to spend. Such incentivising to save is mentioned by all women I spoke to though others mentioned that the tendency to spend immediately on winning doesn’t support planned investment. Some told me it was an effective way of drawing some money away from male control of household finances.

The widespread and trusted nature of bishi schemes have indeed evolved into a number of more complex community run micro-finance models, some of which even intersect with more formalised banking. Merits and demerits aside – bishi highlights the social aspect common to many savings and credit schemes at the base of the pyramid.