Archive for the ‘Banking’ Category

Mobile Phones and the Informal Economy

Western Kenya, June 2012

Over the past week or so, I’ve been scanning literature from African researchers on the broad theme of mobile phones and the informal economy. Here are some of my top findings:

  1. The Mobile Phone is a Business Tool and Income Generator – Regardless of the region (and cultural context) of study –  Cameroon or Cote D’Ivoire, Kenya or Botswana or Tanzania; and, regardless of whether the research methodology was quantitative or qualitative, respondents across the board considered their mobile phones as a critical capital expense for running their business, important for boosting efficiency, productivity, and incomes. In these studies focusing on the informal economy, respondents were micro and small enterprises, most often owned and operated by a single individual.
  2. Mobile phones and cellular services opened entirely new avenues of employment, particularly for youth – More visible in the earlier years of Africa’s mobile revolution, but still important enough today, are the new avenues that the ecosystem and infrastructure opened up for young people.  A slew of supporting services such as airtime sales, voucher sales, mobile money agencies, phone sales, download services, call booths, et al each had their day in the sun as a promising new way to tap into the double digit growth sustained by African mobile markets in the past two decades.  Most notably, mobile phone repair shops stand out as a whole new career path enabled by cutting edge technology. And, some of the best known hardware and software hackers went on to bigger things.
  3. Mobile money agents preferred to banks – Studies on this theme – if they were conducted where mobile money had reached critical mass – noted that mobile money agents were often considered as “one of us” by informal sector businesspeople as compared to forbidding requirements and investment in time required by banks. Mobile money agents were located conveniently in the same markets, often in neighbourhood shops, were open for longer and more convenient hours, and even on weekends. They were definitely more flexible and accommodating of the needs of informal sector commercial activity, and often a critical part of the business person’s network than any bank.

These three things caught my attention as showing up over and over again the literature, regardless of whether it was a PhD dissertation, an academic’s paper, or an MBA student’s thesis.

References:

The diffusion and Impact of Mobile Phones on the Informal Sector in Kenya (2010) – Wakari Gikenye and Dennis Ocholla

The role played by the informal economy in the appropriation of ICTs in urban environments in West Africa (2008) – CHENEAU-LOQUAY, Annie

The Economic and Social Effects of Mobile Phone Usage: The Case of Women Traders in Accra (2015) – Dissertation, Yvette A. A. Ussher

Mobile phones in the transformation of the informal economy: stories from market women in Kampala, Uganda (2016) – Caroline Wamala Larsson & Jakob Svensson

Cell Phone Repairers in Cameroon, 2000-2013 (2015) – Walter Gam Nkwi

Lessons from African Fintech for the Gig Economy

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to share my research on the past decade of mobile ecosystem development across the African continent with Dr. Antti Saarnio, founder of Zippie; co-founder of Jolla (developers of the Sailfish OS, among other things).

“We want to test our product first and foremost in Africa because there is an extensive and established informal economy,” he said.

That captured my attention immediately, since few think of the Africa’s vast “informal” commercial operating environment as a strength to be leveraged for competitive advantage, preferring to hope against hope that it will disappear into thin air to be replaced by the more familiar structures of the formal and organized sectors.

And, it got me thinking about the African fintech space, and the lessons it may hold for the rapidly proliferating gig economy in the ‘developed’ world. And, since at this point of time, all I know of Zippie, Dr. Saarnio’s latest venture, is that it’s a blockchain based mobile OS – not the kind of thing that you’d expect to be piloting in Africa – I asked him to elaborate on his thinking a little further.

Easy, he said. Not only does the informal economy dominate, with established norms and coping mechanisms, but its a mobile first and mobile only environment where people are already comfortable with the exchange of value in digital form, be it airtime or currency. People are already incentivized to think about boosting their productivity through newfangled digital tools on their smartphones. More often than not, the younger urban population is educated and tech-savvy, and in places like Kenya, ready to try something new.

I couldn’t argue with his assessment. In fact, I’d take it a step further, based on my own decade’s worth of research into the informal sector’s financial behaviour and cash flow management practices. The developed world economy is beginning to show signs of convergence, in pattern and in the types of challenges faced when attempting to manage in highly uncertain situations, on irregular and unpredictable income streams, often with the very same elements of seasonality – time of abundance and scarcity – as seen in rural Phillipines or India or Malawi.

For instance, Finnish farmers are being driven to use high interest payday loans to tide over the lean times because few other coping mechanisms exist in Finland’s highly formal commercial operating environment. Wedded to the land, they face the same challenges as a farmer in India, Kenya, or The Philippines. Yet no microfinance institutions catering to farmer needs would dream of showing up in rural Finland. Similarly, in the UK, lower income workers, dependant heavily on gig economy apps to generate revenue, can face significant differences in their cash flows from month to month, but again have no recourse but to use their credit cards or high interest payday loans to tide them over. The systems in their operating environment are designed for the past generations’ periodic and regular wages and paychecks, and cannot cope with the irregular cash flow patterns, as prevalent in the informal economy.

That is, the characteristics of the gig economy and the informal economy, when seen from the perspective of the end-user, are more or less the same. Ironically, however, those in the developing world have numerous solutions available to them – albeit informal, social, local – available to them to cope with shocks and volatility. These coping mechanisms have developed over decades (and centuries, in the case of India), hence the well known resilience of the local rural or informal economy.

As uncertainty increases globally, there are numerous lessons to be learnt from the mostly ignored informal economies of the developing countries which have provided incomes and employment for the vast majority of their populations, in times of conflict or peace, making sure that food reaches the urban table from the farms out in the countryside, regardless of the adequacy and availability of either systems or infrastructure. This is one situation where the formal economy’s inbuilt rigidity and dependence on predictability and periodicity are its embedded weak spot at a time when flexibility and negotiability are required to ride the shocks and volatility.

Pondering India’s Cashless Future

Chhotu here accepts digital currency payments via the mobile platform on a daily basis.

His QR code is prominently displayed upfront next to the bottles of sauce, and a sticker displays the icons of all the payment apps acceptable to his Bhim app.

The Bhim system, launched by the Government of India, is a godsend to micro businesses like Chhotu’s – it allows him to accept payments from a wide ranging variety of apps and systems with the use of just one QR code.

Mr. AutoRickshaWallah on the other hand, preferred to negotiate with me in cash, agreeing to an amount upfront, based on my destination than to go through the hassle of using his digital meter.

By law, he must accept digital payments, if asked by a customer. But, he says, this is very rare; he might accept a Paytm fare once a week. The balance is all in cash.

One size does not fit all

The need for cash in hand during the course of each of these service providers drives their payment acceptance behaviour. Chhotu may not need as much cash on hand once he has set up his inventory and supplies for the day, barring the need for change whereupon he can suggest the customer move to a digital option if required. Plus, at the end of his shift at 10pm he’s happier if the bulk of his sales is in digital form for safety and security.

Mr Autorickshawallah, on the other hand, feels the need for cash available to purchase fuel, food, and pay out wherever required for parking or other purposes (like the police!).  He’s on the move and the signal may or may not work when the time comes for him to accept payment.

Digital adoption is unevenly distributed

Their customers are also from different demographics. Where Chhotu is set up, the market is full of young people with disposable income, out for the evening with their friends. Hearsay has it that mobile apps are selected and used based on their marketing incentives – most offer cashback on digital payments as a driver for user acquisition, but users have gotten clever and download them all so that they can take advantage of different promotions and offers to maximize their benefits.

Mr Autorickshawallah’s customers come from a wider range of demographics, and not as likely to be as comfortable juggling digital payments as Chhotu’s youthful crowd. He’s in his vehicle and on the move, and must ensure the payment gets made, unlike Chhotu who can take the risk of waiting since he and his stall aren’t going anywhere.

Is Cashless in India’s Future?

While digital payments, cards, and mobile apps were certainly far more visible than ever before, and definitely since the demonetization of two years ago, there is a very long way to go before cashless becomes as broadly accepted and mainstream as mPesa in Kenya. Unlike mPesa, the Indian digital currency ecosystem is linked intimately to bank accounts, and thus, there’s an entire ecosystem of services and goods providers that needs to shift over to the formal economy and its financial institutions before cashless becomes seamless at the borderlands of economic strata and demographics.

The current formal financial ecosystem is not designed to address the needs of the informal and unorganized sectors. And this is the iron that post demonetization analysis shows was not struck while it was hot enough to enable the broader change in culture and behaviour to stick once currency was back in circulation.

Lessons from the Informal Economy: Managing on Irregular Payments in the Gig Economy

Last week, an unusual report was released in Great Britain. Lloyds Banking Group (LBG), together with the Resolution Foundation, addressed the question of earnings volatility in the UK, a first for a developed country with a formal economy. Their research and analysis made use of anonymised transaction data from over seven million LBG accounts. That is, technically speaking, the financially included in the erstwhile first world.

To their surprise, accustomed as they were to only considering income changes on an annual basis, three-quarters of all workers did not receive the same paycheck from month to month – the problem being most acute for low-paid workers in the gig economy or on zero-hours contracts.

As the Guardian, when reporting on the household financial management behaviour of gig economy workers discovers:

The Resolution Foundation found that for those on the lowest annual incomes, the average monthly fluctuation in pay was £180 – which can make the difference between paying the rent or feeding the family.

As my research over the past decade, on the financial management behaviour of the lower income demographic (also known in older publications as the Bottom or Base of the Pyramid) in the informal and rural economies of developing countries has found, irregular and unpredictable cash flows from a variety of sources is the norm.

What is different here, however, are the coping mechanisms.

Many are forced to turn to crippling payday loans or high-cost credit cards to make it through to the end of the month

In the developed country context such as the UK, gig economy and lower income workers have no recourse to customary and established coping mechanisms that can be seen across the developed world, from rural Philippines to upcountry Kenya.

Seasonality in rural regions, closely intertwined with the natural year and its direct impact on farming activities is a recognized and known fact of life. Incomes are seen to change by as much as 50% between the high and the low seasons. And, among urban traders and merchants, festivals and harvests mean peak consumer activity, and everyone prepares for the rush.

Knowing this, the informal economic ecosystem leverages social networks and trusted relationships to carry them through hard times and the low seasons; looking forward to the peak sales periods and the harvests to cover the difference. Numerous risk mitigation behaviours and coping mechanisms are established within households, customized to rural and urban contexts, as well as the context of the primary income source. These were the same coping mechanisms heard to be in use among India’s informal sector when hit by the liquidity crunch of the demonetization of 2016.

Just the way you can purchase one single cigarette or a 100 grams of shredded cabbage, depending on what you have in your pocket, you can find ways to adapt your daily lifestyle to your income in the flexible, negotiable, and reciprocal people’s economy of the Global South. The informal economy’s commercial operating environment is designed to maintain the dignity of their customer base.

These options are not available in the UK, or other developed and advanced nations of the Global North. Thus, gig economy workers forced to manage on unpredictable and irregular income streams from a variety of sources in the formal economy struggle to afford their groceries and expenses. In fact, I’d be curious to know if prepaid mobile subscribers (pay as you go) are increasing in proportion to the precariousness of employment and volatility of income discovered by the analysts at Lloyds.

If, as the researchers at the Centre for Global Development have found, the gig economy and the informal economy are the present, and the future of work in Africa, then there are lessons from the established customs and coping mechanisms which can inform beneficial solutions and tools for the developed world, for the UK, and for the Global North.

It’s time we recognized the truth about the future of work in Africa: it isn’t in the growth of full-time formal sector jobs. The future of work will be people working multiple gigs with “somewhat formal” entities. This is already true, and it will be for the foreseeable future.

This is true for the whole world now, not just Africa. And, it will change the way we think of platform design, payment plans, as well as policy frameworks, for our near and emerging future.

Chinese investments in African tech will transform the fintech landscape

A recent article brought to my attention this report on the pattern of funding experienced by fintech startups in East Africa and India with rather damning results. 90 percent of the capital invested by “Silicon Valley-style” investors went to startups, technically in East Africa, with one or more North American or European founders.

These results put an entirely different spin on more recent articles on the rise of African fintech and the millions of dollars raised by startups in Africa. Village Capital, too, has been making an effort to promote their recommendations for structural change in the ecosystem in order to enable the emergence of hundreds more fintech and DFS (digital financial services) startups deemed necessary to transform the economic landscape in Africa.

But the challenge, as framed by this snippet from the report, will remain, as it “reflects deep cultural trends in American life”, of bias, stereotyping, and inbred prejudice. So called “first world” technology such as artificial intelligence is already dealing with the problem.

China’s interest in African tech, particularly trade related such as in commerce and payments, is being noticed

Simultaneously, and recently, I came across this op-ed for the WEF making the case for why the tech sector is China’s next big investment target in Africa.

Given China’s position as a leading and rapidly accelerating technological superpower in the world, making strides especially in the fields of logistics (smart cars, drones, e-commerce) and energy (solar panels, smart metering, etc), it makes sense that the most logical industry for the next stage of Sino-Africa collaboration is technology.

But that’s not fintechs and DFS startups, you say, comparing these apples to the Village Capital’s report on oranges?

Perhaps this is why Alibaba Group, the unparalleled pioneer of e-commerce and payments in China, has started to show an interest in Africa. Not only did they collaborate with UNCTAD on the eFounders programme to train over 100 African entrepreneurs in the next couple of years, they recently announced a fund of $10 million to invest on the continent over the next 10 years. Furthermore, Alibaba’s subsidiary Ant Financial has signed a partnership with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the IFC to promote digital financial inclusion. While these are preliminary steps, we are hopeful for more serious commercial involvement in Africa from a company with a $500 billion market cap.

DFS, DFI, what’s the difference between digital financial services for financial inclusion and digital financial inclusion? The target is clear. And been noticed from the other side, as this rival opinion piece in the Financial Times shows, albeit with a greater sense of urgency and panic in the tone and style. It may also explain why Village Capital woke up this week to trumpet the results of their analysis on funding patterns from over a year ago. From the FT:

The Trump administration has made a perceived global rivalry with China the centre of US foreign policy. This competitive stance has coloured the view of African countries in Washington and a tale of Chinese mercantilism in the region has come to dominate the narrative, under which China greedily demands privileged access to Africa’s natural resources in exchange for no-strings-attached infrastructure financing.

But that story is outdated and fails to capture an emergent area of true competition — that among US and Chinese tech giants.

Given what we’ve seen in the Village Capital report linked in the first paragraph, will Chinese funding patterns be any different? Two key factors are being highlighted by both sides:

Read On…

Primer on African Fintech: Myths, Misconceptions, Opportunities, Hotspots and Roadblocks

As we prepare to start work for our third African fintech client, I thought it was time to quickly and briefly introduce the opportunity space and clear up some misunderstandings around fintech in Africa.

  • The first point is the common confusion between Fintech and financial inclusion. Investopedia’s definition of Fintech says financial inclusion, that is, affordable and accessible financial services to the underserved and unbanked is only one of the many areas fintech is actively addressing. While technology helps provide cheaper solutions for emerging markets such as those on the African continent, all fintech cannot be said to be equivalent to financial inclusion.
  • This leads us to a clarification on what exactly is Fintech. I prefer to quote Investopedia since the entry in Wikipedia defines it as the industry itself. “Fintech is a portmanteau of financial technology that describes an emerging financial services sector in the 21st century. Originally, the term applied to technology applied to the back-end of established consumer and trade financial institutions. Since the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the term has expanded to include any technological innovation in the financial sector, including innovations in financial literacy and education, retail banking, investment and even crypto-currencies.
  • Thus, while financial inclusion is a key untapped opportunity space for fintech innovation of all kinds, there are numerous other opportunities along the entire value chain of financial service provision both B2B and B2C, including intermediary services, which are ripe for disruption in the African context.
  • Beyond the conventional preference for disruption of the existing context, there are as many if not more opportunities for meeting the unmet needs of African businesses and consumers. History, geography, economics and conventional wisdom have together combined to create a vacuum of solutions and services that address the unique circumstances of the African operating environment which still tends to be heavily cash dependent and is described commonly as “informal”. And this commercial environment has lagged in custom designed tools and services for small business productivity or household enterprise management.
  • Hotspots: Kenya overwhelming leads in mindshare as the leading fintech innovation market on the continent, and grabs the lion’s share of investments in East Africa. However, the GSMA’s latest report implies West Africa is rapidly catching up, and may outspend East Africa. The WAEMU region is a hidden hotspot, and Ghana leads the anglophone countries.
  • The largest market opportunity, by population, remains a challenge however, for a variety of reasons including policy and regulation. Nigeria’s payments innovators have made a name for themselves but their domestic market has not felt the impact of their efforts. Even mobile money, introduced more than 5 years ago, has only achieved 1% penetration. On the other hand, it took India years and years before digital payments reached visibly transformational critical mass. There’s hope.
  • Lastly, Chinese investment has just entered the African fintech space, talking up financial inclusion – a clear sign of its economic importance for the future development of trade and industry.

Why is the Kenyan mobile loan industry facing just a digital version of India’s MFI problems?

When you make fast, easy, short term loans available on the phone to anyone with a need for quick money, why is it a surprise when high levels of consumer debt are the result?

A recent survey by financial inclusion giants like FSD and CGAP discovers that low income Kenyans have not been helped by the plethora of easy access mobile loans introduced in the market in the name of financial inclusion and ‘access to finance’.

“The rise of the digital credit market has raised concerns about the risk of excessive borrowing and over-indebtedness among lower-income households. Digital loans are easy to obtain, short-term, carry a high interest rate and are available from numerous bank and non-banking institutions,” states the report

The same pattern of behaviour is emerging as did in India during the peak of the MFI small loan boom almost a decade or so ago. People are borrowing from one loan to pay off the other, and livelihoods are hurting while some face challenges putting food on the table. The year 2017 might have been economically challenging for Kenya, but the design of repayment plans are also a factor.

“Digital credit is not reaching everyone and remains ill-suited for most of the population, such as farmers and casual workers, whose livelihoods are characterized by irregular cash flows,” says the phone survey.

The attractiveness of the market opportunity however is such that new loans served through the mobile phone are still being launched every other month in Kenya. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that programmes meant to benefit the lower income population don’t end simply perpetuating the same problems seen before, albeit as profitably?

How informal financial services can lower the barriers to formal financial inclusion

Around 2 and a half years ago, I was on a short visit to Abidjan, the capital of Cote D’Ivoire as a guest of the African Development Bank. They were holding an innovation weekend for young women and men in the Francophone West African region who were interested in becoming entrepreneurs.

David O. Capo Chichi, who used to work back then for MTN, a major telco very kindly took me around the informal markets on his day off and we got to talking to market women about their financial management habits. One interesting behaviour linking the informal with the formal came to light.

An established spice seller told us she had a savings account at the bank, but accessing the bank’s services were a huge barrier – the opening times ate into her business hours and the long wait times meant loss of income from potential customers. At the same time, because she was dependent on cash income from daily sales, it was more convenient for her to put a portion of money aside on a daily basis. So what she was doing was paying a tontine collector for the service of showing up at her shop everyday and collecting her small amount of cash set aside for savings. He would hold it safely for her for a month and then she would take the total saved up amount back from him, take the day off work and go deposit it in her bank account. That was the only way she could have the flexibility and negotiability that budgeting on her irregular cash flow required and still access the benefits of a secure safe interest earning savings account at the bank.

Now today I came across this article describing a pilot program in Benin where the private susu (small small) or tontinier, such as that used by the lady in Cote D’Ivoire, have been formalized into a more secure and insured service for the same demographic of informal market women and traders. There’s even a digital component that updates the accounts via the mobile phone.

“The reality is that we can’t be everywhere, and the Susu collectors are near the population. We have to work with them and find the best business model to get them into the formal system.”

Now, this exact same model being piloted by the MFI in Benin may not apply in exactly the same way elsewhere, depending on the conditions prevalent in the operating environment, but its clear that the structures and systems in place at the formal institution can be made more flexible and negotiable – given a “human face” – by working together with the pre-existing informal financial services already in operation.

This behaviour also resembles that seen among the informal cross border traders at the Uganda/Kenya borderland. Teresia who sells clothes under a tree has established a trusted relationship with her mobile money agent. He shows up at closing time to help her transfer her cash into mPesa, thus securing it for her and saving her both time and effort through this personalized service. Though she said she had an account at the bank, it lies dormant, for the same reasons given by the spice seller in Abidjan – “Who can afford to close shop during the day to spend hours at the bank?”

Innovations aimed at increasing inclusion for financial services need not always contain a digital component for them to make a difference for the customer, and lower the barriers to adoption and usage. All it takes is a deeper understanding of the challenges and constraints of the end user in the context of their day to day life.

Formalization is no panacea for micro-entrepreneurs, a liminal space is necessary for growth

Yesterday, my bank sent back a client’s payment though I’d presented the invoice and other paperwork. I’m a registered micro-business in the highly formal economy of Finland, and the bank I’ve been with since 2009 has upped their internal regulations after a spate of bad publicity surrounding the Panama papers. I’ve been caught in the middle of changing rules though the kind young man sitting with me at the bank did tell me I was neither alone in this nor was it rare among their customers. They’re going through changes.

We talked a little about the work I do among women entrepreneurs in the informal economies of East Africa, and he pointed out that Finland was a very difficult operating environment for startups and entrepreneurs. They recognize this. He observed that my experiences at this formal end of the spectrum could only help me with my work on the other end. I had to agree, though I left the bank empty handed, having been turned down by their corporate banking side as well.

Still, I haven’t come here to moan about my banking troubles so much as to point out that the young man was right. Neither end of the spectrum of formal and informal is healthy for a rapidly evolving newly born business or micro venture. Too little support and growth is slow and painful; too much regulations and you fall off the wagon everytime your business changes or their rules evolve.

What is needed and rarely articulated is a grey area between formal and informal – a liminal space if you will. One that allows for change and acknowledges the experimentation and iteration that is the natural part of the development process. A common cliche is to liken a young or small business (my small business is 12 years old) to a growing child who might sometimes have to burn a finger on a match to learn about fire.

What perhaps is needed is to codify this ambiguous moment or period and discover ways to fit that within the formal structures of a highly developed society, as well as adapt it as a stepping stone in the unstructured informal underdeveloped locale. These bridges need not be identical in details so much as concept – that an entrepreneurial venture’s nature is such that it needs room to move and grow unhampered whilst still receiving the support and facilities that it requires.

There’s hope yet for me, allegedly. The bank has set up a startup unit and I’ll call them today to see if there’s anything that can be done. Else I’ll have to look around for another bank. In the meantime, the taxes still have to be paid and the remittance problem solved. Wish me luck!

2017 is the Year Mobile Service Operators Became Banks

South African business headlines read MTN takes on Vodacom for title of Africa’s biggest digital bank and usher in a whole new era for banking and finance on the mobile platform. Having watched this space impatiently for more than a decade, seeing this was a landmark worth noting.

The number of mobile-money customers in the region (Africa) is growing rapidly, having surpassed the number of traditional bank accounts in 2015 to reach 277 million by the end of last year, according to GSMA. ~ Moneyweb, 3rd November 2017

Here’s a curated selection of my journey watching the phone become a bank:

Photograph of Nairobi billboard taken January 2016 by Niti Bhan

Blowin’ in the Wind – perspective, May 2007

A User Centered Approach to Banking the Unbanked in Rural India (PDF, entire process) – January 2007

Pondering the Mobile Innovation Divide – perspective, December 2007

African Potential meets Indian Experience – perspective, May 2008

The Telco and the Bottom of the Pyramid – perspective, January 2009

Systems Thinking Applied To Why M-Pesa’s Economic Impact and Wealth Creation Lessons Affects the Entire Ecosystem – Afrinnovator, March 2012

What is The Prepaid Economy anyway? – 14.7.14, in response to Michael Kimani

Banking Opportunities in Africa – The Banker’s Association of South Africa, 2014

A bank meets a telco – how mobile banking is changing the landscape of financial services in Africa – The Prepaid Economy: African Edition, January 2016