> Posted by Grace P. Sengupta, Assistant Manager, BRAC Social Innovation Lab, and Maria A. May, Senior Program Manager, BRAC Social Innovation Lab and BRAC Microfinance Research and Development Unit

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Bangladesh is a fast-growing mobile money market. With bKash, the second-largest mobile money provider in the world, industry growth in the country has reached impressive heights. Between January 2013 and February of this year, the number of mobile money clients in Bangladesh increased five-fold to 25 million users, with the number of monthly transactions increasing from 10 million to 77 million.

Yet many have found that much of the mobile money usage in Bangladesh is still over the counter – that is, many people who use mobile money rely on an agent to complete their transactions for them. There is strong speculation that the current mobile money interfaces are just too complicated for the average rural, low literacy user.

Last year, BRAC, our Bangladesh-based organization, decided to try going (nearly) cashless in a very rural, very remote branch run by our Integrated Development Programme (IDP). Many of the institution’s financial transactions, such as giving staff mobile allowances, paying extension workers, and collecting loan installments (for clients who opted-in), were digitized.

The biggest feat of this effort was driving mobile money adoption among a population hugely underrepresented in the sector. Despite many challenges—no electricity, no agents, seasonal flooding, and much more—we found that after a few months of use, many poor women with very low literacy had mastered bKash. The results even surprised us!

What’s the explanation? It’s clear that our frontline staff deserve a lot of credit for helping users understand mobile money’s potential benefits and patiently teaching them the system. They are trusted by the local community, so people listen to their suggestions. Among their efforts, they ran courtyard sessions on mobile money – even going back to “1, 2, 3” when they realized that some people lacked basic numeracy. And they recruited an agent and helped him get the necessary paperwork set up. Their commitment to success is hard to duplicate, but it can be crucial to the unbanked taking-up digital financial services.

This (nearly) cashless branch was one of seven pilots incorporating mobile money launched by BRAC last year as part of its Innovation Fund for Mobile Money, supported by the Gates Foundation. This year, the program received funding to scale up its activities to another branch that’s even more remote. I went to attend a training for these branch staff, and was struck by five really creative ways that they are drumming up the staff excitement that’s pivotal for mobile money success.

1. It was all about mobile money—including the team names! Twenty-six participants were divided into four groups, named: cash in, cash out, send money, and payments. Not coincidentally, these are the services of bKash. Most of our project staff were not initially clear about how bKash operates. This activity helped them understand the services and on top of that, they learned how they can simplify the menu and best explain the services to clients.

2. The entire mobile money experience was incorporated—from on-the-spot wallet opening to troubleshooting. For an average rural woman, customer care by phone is really complicated. She may not know her national ID number or transaction history or pin code. Usually, our project staff are able to guide the clients through such problems but sometimes it is not possible for them to provide the technical solutions. A local bKash agent arrived at the training and opened new wallets for those that didn’t have them. He explained the technical details to the staff, answering a list of questions which came directly from the field, as well as the problems posed by the project staff.

From left to right: a list of problems identified by the participants; a participant asking a question to the bKash agent; the agent addressing the problem of a participant; a participant opening a wallet with the help of the agent.

3. It was competitive! There was a race to “send money” the fastest. Participants actually sent money to each other’s phones using their bKash wallets. For some of them, it was their very first experience of sending money through bKash.

Ala-Uddin of BRAC Poultry and Livestock and Lakshmi Rani Das of BRAC Health, Nutrition and Population sending money to each other using their bKash accounts.

4. Common challenges were simulated through case studies. The four groups were given four case studies on common mobile money problems to gain a bigger appreciation and mastery for what they will be doing. The four explained their case studies to the larger group and provided possible solutions for each problem.

Participants discussing their respective cases and presenting them in front of the rest of the group.

5. Role playing helped staff see multiple perspectives. To succeed in any financial services project, along with motivating staff, you have to motivate the clients. In this activity, the participants actually practiced how they will motivate the clients so that they feel interested in using bKash. They wrote a script of a short drama and performed it, playing different roles.

Participants presenting their short drama by playing different roles

Participants presenting their short dramas.

Jasmin Akter and Lovely Begam, BRAC, sharing their thoughts with one of the trainers.

Jasmin Akter and Lovely Begam of BRAC sharing their thoughts with one of the trainers.

Some insights from the training day

“I previously thought there must be some cost for providing bills and payments through bKash. But today after the training I realized there are no additional fees for cash-ins.” – Md. Sabrin Momtaz, Branch Manager, Selimbazar, Noakhali

“We never believed that apart from making phone calls we could do so much with our phones. Transaction through mobile money is very useful. For example, we can buy air credit using our bKash wallets. We are hopeful that we can motivate the clients to use bKash by referring to our advantages.” – Jasmin Akter and Lovely Begam, Facilitators, Health, Nutrition and Population Programme

Grace P. Sengupta is an assistant manager for BRAC’s Social Innovation Lab in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Maria A. May is a senior program manager for BRAC’s Social Innovation Lab and the Microfinance Research and Development Unit in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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