> Posted by Carol Caruso, Senior Vice President, Channels & Technology, Accion

Providing micro financial services is often a costly endeavor. As practiced in most places today, it involves many manual processes which limit the potential for scaling up and expose vulnerability to poor service, errors, and fraud. Furthermore, as telco operators and fintech companies bring services to customers through new distribution mechanisms, microfinance banks (MFBs) need to explore innovative ways to competitively deliver their services. Hence, it is promising to see a rise in the use of tablets, smartphones, and other devices housing applications that digitize field operations. Digital field applications (DFAs) offer MFBs a way to take advantage of technology to solve some of these challenges. Globally MFBs have deployed DFAs in a wide variety of ways. For example, loan officers equipped with DFAs can process loan applications and answer client inquiries in the field, eliminating paper forms, digitizing data, and saving time and money for organizations and their clients. Bringing financial services out to clients can achieve a much-needed personal touch and can even increase the richness of the client interaction. For example, client education and consumer protection awareness can be more effective when digital messages are delivered by a field staff member. DFAs can also improve credit operations. When assessing loan applications and risks, field officers can operate more efficiently if digitally equipped.

In order for MFBs to successfully leverage these tools, both for their and their clients’ benefit, they must understand their business case, and incorporate best practices for implementation that have been derived from lessons learned by others. There is no shortage of pilots that have been halted due to challenges arising from lack of experience and understanding – despite hardware availability or subsidies.

With this in mind, Accion’s Channels & Technology group have published a case study aiming to provide some clarity on the impact of DFA use by examining the business case, implementation process, and effects for three MFBs: Ujjivan Financial Services in India, Musoni Kenya, and Opportunity Bank Serbia (OBS). Our case study presents a consolidated review of the findings from the three MFBs, with an accompanying Excel-based business case toolkit, available for MFBs to examine the potential impact a DFA might have on their business. Individual cases presenting the findings from each institution are also available – here, here, and here.

DFAs Are a Sound Investment

When we analyzed the business case – reviewing capital and operational expenditures, cost savings, and revenues earned – we concluded that an MFB could reasonably expect to achieve breakeven between 12 to 24 months after implementing a DFA. Furthermore, although the primary motivation for implementing DFAs was in most cases to improve loan processing efficiency, all three institutions experienced a variety of benefits that went well beyond their core objective.

Key results included:

  • Average loan officer case load increased by 134 percent at Ujjivan
  • Loan application turnaround time (TAT) decreased from 72 to 6 hours at Musoni
  • A new digital credit scorecard delivered a credit-decision in the field for 80 percent of targeted loans at OBS

Additionally, the institutions realized a range of adjacent benefits, including enhanced credit scoring and Social Performance Monitoring (SPM) capabilities, improved enforcement of controls and policies, and a reputation as market innovators.

During the study we also explored client impact and found that clients benefited from increased convenience due to a faster loan application process with fewer KYC documents required, or were notified more quickly if they were not qualified.

Lessons Learned

In studying which elements were essential for successful implementation, strong change management capability was crucial. Several key activities emerged as best practices:

  • A clear understanding of the institution’s requirements coupled with strategic business process reengineering ensured the solution was designed optimally to meet their needs.
  • Close cooperation between MFB staff and the solution provider during planning and piloting also proved critical for successful integration and take-up, as testing with end-users revealed pain points that could be redesigned to enhance usability. Furthermore, this collaborative approach helped cultivate project champions among internal staff, an important part of organizational change management.
  • All three MFBs approved contextually appropriate modifications to their DFA solutions, rather than opting for out-of-the-box functionality. For example, the decision to operate in offline mode required robust back-end integration, data storage, and CBS security, but allowed loan officers to perform certain functions in areas of low connectivity.

Overall, results from the case study were very promising, and we hope that more studies will compliment these findings. Equally important is to hear from a wider set of MFBs about their use of DFAs, and the related impact, challenges, and lessons learned.

If you have DFA experience, please share your thoughts in the comments section below and join the conversation!

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