> Posted by Lauren Hendricks, Executive Vice President, and Christian Loupeda, Senior Director Financial Inclusion, Grameen Foundation  

This is the second post in a three-part series that explores the role of digital financial services in expanding women’s control over their financial lives. You can read the first post here.

For poor, rural communities “field force” workers such as mobile money agents or government agricultural extension officers can be lifelines to services and information that bring rural residents greater control over their financial lives and help them increase their incomes and gain a connection to the larger world. But, for women, rather than a bridge, field force workers too often end up being one more hurdle on the way to access resources.

Across the developing world, almost all agricultural extension services lack female participation. Women, on average, comprise 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries and account for an estimated two-thirds of the world’s 600 million poor livestock keepers. Yet only 15 percent of the world’s agriculture extension agents are women, and only 5 percent of women farmers benefit from extension services–despite the fact that women play a significant role in farming activities from production all the way to commercialization. Similarly, for mobile money agents, GSMA reports that among its members that report on gender, only 23 percent of agents and 37 percent of customers are female.

As Lisa Kienzle mentioned in her post in this series on digital financial services for women, Grameen Foundation has found that a woman often benefits from being able to work with a trusted agent who can directly help her understand and use the services available. That’s why we have helped to develop women as banking agents in the Philippines. We created an independent network of female financial agents who work out of their neighborhood sari-sari (variety) shops. The all-female network now includes 862 trained agents, who bring digital financial services to more than 66,000 low-income clients. Recruiting female agents benefits the end clients, but also the female entreprenuers who become agents who typically see an increase in their own income of at least 20-to-30 percent.

In Burkina Faso, we assisted a partner microfinance institution, Réseau des Caisses Populaires du Burkina (RCPB) in training its female community agents to be financial agents. Previously, these women specialized in the promotion and formation of savings groups. Along with the training, they are equipped with smart phones to provide deposit and withdrawal services for the savings group members. The transactions link back to RCPB’s new digital transaction platform. RCPB is pilot-testing a network of 40 agents in selected communities, leveraging their intimate understanding of savings groups operations and of the financial needs of the women members.

Contact with a female field force worker can help female clients in multiple ways. In Malawi, Zoona reports that female agents help clients stick with a provider and more actively use their accounts. This makes sense. Female agents tend to be more patient and willing to help customers with transactions and women in many markets report that they are more comfortable sharing their personal information with female agents. In Burkina Faso, when asked why she became a financial agent, one agent replied that she was proud to help support her sisters. Evidence shows that female mobile money users tend to need to complete more successful transactions in order to become regular mobile money users. Therefore, having an agent who is willing to assist in the learning process and demystify the service can be the difference between an active user and one who lets her account become dormant out of frustration or humiliation.

There are similar benefits for women farmers working with female extension workers. For example, one study in Nigeria found that women farmers who had females for extension agents had relatively higher levels of awareness, adoption and technical knowledge of recommended practices, as well as greater satisfaction with the quality of agents’ services and credibility. However, some clients remain skeptical of female extension agents and sometimes lack confidence in their abilities. A study in Malawi found that while smallholder farmers who had a female extension agent had higher agricultural yields, farmers perceived female agents as less capable and were less likely to pay attention to their messages.

In some instances, social norms hinder women’s freedom to interact with agents. In many cultures the constraints on interactions between men and women limits women’s ability to receive services from men. In 2015, GSMA published new research calculating that the gender gap in mobile money access was 14 percent in low and middle income countries and as high as 38 percent in South Asia, and that a major contributing factor was “the social norms around how women and men make financial decisions in a household, the ‘appropriateness’ of men and women interacting with sales agents of the opposite sex, and community perceptions of male and female roles.”

Female agents can help to overcome such social barriers, and in doing so, help women gain more control over their financial lives. In Somaliland, the hiring of female agents removed a significant barrier to women, who otherwise couldn’t open an account with a male agent. In addition, female agents are a source of inspiration for their peers who may feel empowered to play leadership roles in their communities.

It is important, however, that female agents be incorporated into mainstream field force networks, rather than sidelined into the “female-only” category. This is true even in markets like Somaliland where clients are quite segregated by gender. If they are to bring the maximum benefit to their clients in the field, women agents need to receive the same training and market engagement as male agents. In agricultural extension models of female-only agents targeting only women farmers, those farmers tend to be sidelined into traditional crops, with a focus more on subsistence and nutrition rather than on access to markets and integration into commercial value chains.

More research is needed into the impacts of female agents on women clients. It can be challenging to hire women as field force workers, given that women may have lower literacy and numeracy skills than men, and may have less ability to invest in becoming an agent. To attract more female applicants, agricultural enterprises and mobile network operators need to invest more in dedicated recruitment and training opportunities for women. In order to justify this additional investment, businesses and/or donors need the evidence that this investment will result in greater outreach and benefit for female customers and their communities. If successful that investment could have significant benefits. In the mobile space alone, closing the gender gap is an estimated $170 billion market opportunity.

Have you read?

Will the Crowd Support More Women Agents?

Why Women in SMEs Lean Out

G2P and Gender: When Will Pakistani Women Be Able to Withdraw Their Own Money?