> Posted by Merene Botsio, Financial Inclusion 2020 Project Coordinator, CFI

Before I proceed, I need to warn you that this game tends to be highly addictive, especially if you have a deeply curious and solution-oriented mind.

My roommate Nomsa and I discovered 3rd World Farmer in the spring semester of our senior year at Wellesley, while doing research for our Development Economics class. What started off as a quest by two Pan-Africanist women to understand the idea behind a game that had a hodgepodge of African names turned out to be an eye-opening encounter with a relatively new concept that I have now become very familiar with – financial inclusion.

The game simulates “one of the real-world mechanisms that cause and sustain poverty in 3rd world countries,” and it delivers this very realistically. As a player, you are asked to manage a rural African farm. In addition to the farmer, his wife, and two children, who are all in perfect health at the inception of the game, you are also given a hut, land, and $50 in seed capital. This isn’t a lot of money as tools and grains are expensive (a scythe costs $35, corn $12, peanuts $18, and cotton $22). A tractor, a harvester, a well, a barn, and other farming resources are all far above your means. The exorbitant cost of insurance, education, healthcare, and telecommunication facilities renders these resources inaccessible until much later in the game. Often, your family dies before you reach this point.

As an African, who often finds herself highly possessive and sometimes even defensive about the continent, I was ready to point out the flaws and exaggerations in the game. As I played, I optimistically pushed these thoughts aside, assuring myself that things are improving on the continent. But each time I did so, I was reminded, based on previous encounters with many financially excluded persons, that the situation presented in this game, as dire as it may sometimes seem, is the stark reality for many Africans in rural areas.

It doesn’t take long to get engrossed in this game, and to feel as frustrated as the farmer. You are soon faced with extremely difficult choices such as sending your children to the city to work to avoid suffering from hunger. You must choose between buying a tractor, or a dose of medicine for your family – if you can afford either. Your woes are compounded by external shocks such as bad harvests and fluctuations in market prices, which drive investments to zero, and farm raids by rebel or government forces during times of conflict. More often than not, bearing more children to serve as farmhands appears to be the most logical choice.

According to a World Bank Policy Research Working Paper on Financial Inclusion in Africa, less than a quarter of adults in Sub-Saharan Africa have an account with a formal institution, and many use informal methods to save and borrow. Nearly 40 percent of adults reported saving or setting aside money in the past 12 months. More than half of those surveyed mentioned informal methods, including saving in kind or under the mattress. On the issue of credit, 47 percent of adults reported borrowing money from formal and informal sources, mostly from family and friends. As for insurance, only three percent of adults in Africa reported having personally paid for health insurance and only six percent of those who work in farming, forestry, or fishing industries reported having purchased crop, rainfall, or livestock insurance in the past 12 months.

At this juncture, one would possibly pause to enquire why I transitioned from the game to the above-mentioned figures. My answer is simple: they point to a market opportunity. The game offered little risk management for my farmer. In cases where I lost money, I didn’t have a financial services provider to ask for credit; neither did I have any saved funds to fall back on. I had no health insurance when a family member was sick, no savings plans for my children’s education, and each time my farm burnt, the market fluctuated, or I was raided, I was reminded of my need for insurance, which was far too expensive.

I am excited about the recent growth in the financial and technology sectors in Africa, especially through mobile money, microcredit, microinsurance, and microsavings initiatives. However, I know there are still many people whose needs are not being met. It is of the essence to create an environment in which people who can use financial services have access to a broad range of quality services they need at an affordable price, delivered by a range of providers, and with high regard for their personhood. That is the agenda that we here at the Center for Financial Inclusion’s Financial Inclusion 2020 campaign aim to promote, in partnership with key players in the financial, policy, technology, and related sectors.

If the families in 3rd World Farmer were genuinely financially included, it would be a lot easier to win the game.

For more information, sign up for updates from the Financial Inclusion 2020 campaign.

Image Credit: 3rd World Farmer

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