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> Posted by Kyle Burgess, Executive Director and Editor in Chief, Consumers Research

From cash to digital currency

Image Credit: FamZoo Staff. No alterations made. CC BY-SA 2.0

Digital currencies, such as Bitcoin and its underlying blockchain protocol, introduce a technical platform for a new global payment infrastructure that has the potential to level the playing field for the 2.5 billion people across the globe who are unbanked or underbanked. The immutable and distributed nature of digital currencies and a number of the platforms built on top of blockchain protocols can provide improved security, efficiency, affordability, privacy, and transparency in financial transactions, as well as a whole host of other transfers of value or information. Furthermore, thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices, blockchain-based digital currencies can even remove the middleman, and serve as a bank in your pocket. However, fully removing a third party intermediary comes with significant risks, as there’s no one to call if you lose your private key (which functions as your password), break your hardware wallet (which acts as your digital vault), or want to dispute a payment because the goods you purchased are damaged (because digital currency transactions are irreversible). Like any other product, consumer protection must be at the forefront of the development and implementation of digital currency and blockchain-based financial services.

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> Posted by Tess Johnson, Project Associate, CFI

Farmer standing in green field and using touch screen mobile phone.

Photo credit: Xavier Arnau

Despite the excitement about moving mobile financial services (MFS) to a richer smartphone-based environment, we still have a long way to go before many customers at the base of the pyramid can reap the full benefits of these technologies. CFI Fellow Leon Perlman diligently identified many of the key obstacles for more inclusive MFS, including the lack of infrastructure to support the higher-speed mobile connectivity critical for MFS transactions; the plethora of substandard and/or cost-prohibitive smartphones in developing countries; and pervasive security vulnerabilities that threaten MFS transactions, to name a few.

There are some bright spots in Leon’s report, however, and we think it’s important to acknowledge them.

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> Posted by Todd A. Watkins, Paul DiLeo, Anna Kanze, and Ira Lieberman

Fintech is a shiny attractor for impact investors. Emerging financial technologies shimmer with disruptive potential for the delivery of a wide array of financial, educational, health, and social services for the poor. While microfinance still makes up a major share of impact investing portfolios, many investors appear to have moved on to fintech, the next wave of creative destruction. Rather than be toppled by it, microfinance institutions (MFIs) look to ride that wave too, to extend reach, reduce costs and prices, improve and deepen client services, and improve risk management.

Fintech, whether new digital services or proprietary software used to evaluate and underwrite credit, brings glittery potential for MFIs, no question. But in fairy tales unicorns glitter too. Are MFIs chasing something equally illusory? Microfinance has decades of success growing and strengthening a high-touch business model. As growth slows, should MFIs now abandon that approach and use high-tech to go low-touch for cost efficiency? If MFIs stay their course, will they be overtaken by new entrants with new models, like Chinese online peer-to-peer lender Yirendai, which went IPO on the New York Stock Exchange last year? Or instead, will MFIs find innovative high-tech ways to further leverage their deep relationships with clients and understanding of client needs?

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> Posted by Danielle Piskadlo, Director, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

Ant Financial, the Chinese inclusive finance powerhouse founded by Alibaba Group, and Euronet Worldwide, a U.S. giant in the money transfer game, are in a bidding war over MoneyGram. Financially, this makes sense as the global remittance market is estimated at about US$600B and MoneyGram commands a market share of roughly 13 percent of the world’s largest remittance route, from the U.S. to Mexico.

When two large companies compete to acquire another large company you might hear about it on CNN Money and promptly move on to other thoughts. But this particular news struck me because it touches on three of the (many) insights about the future of financial inclusion that I took away from attending this year’s Harvard Business School – Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance just last month.

Big players will increasingly drive the financial inclusion sector moving forward while, in the past, only small companies served the financial needs of the low end market. Microfinance has shown the poor to be a commercially viable customer segment, and as competition heats up, many big financial players are looking for ways to better tap into the commercial potential of new clients at the base of the pyramid. These big players have the deep pockets to innovate, experiment, and take the risks required to figure out how best to serve the billions of people still financially excluded. In addition to Alibaba’s Ant Financial, China’s WeChat, the social messaging app which connects over 800 million people, now allows for money transfers.

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> Posted by Sabine Spohn, Senior Investment Specialist, Private Sector Operations Department, Asian Development Bank

The following post was originally published on the Asian Development Bank blog.

In late 2016, many presumed Indian microfinance institutions would be adversely affected by India’s sudden demonetization law. Surprisingly, events unfolded quite differently to expectations.

On November 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the withdrawal from circulation of all Rs500 and Rs1,000 bank notes in a bid to combat black money and curtail the use of counterfeit cash. The objective was also to slowly introduce the country’s population to a digital economy. The action was driven by good intentions, although it initially caused many disruptions in the economy.

In India, where ADB’s Private Sector Operations Department has been carrying out the Microfinance Risk Participation and Guarantee Program since 2012, many of our partner microfinance institutions temporarily stopped lending to low-income people as they were not clear how those loans would get repaid – in particular in rural areas. In the first few days and weeks, collection rates dropped to as little as 10-20 percent.

Five months after demonetization, the uncertainty has started to fade.

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> Posted by Ira W. Lieberman, Todd A. Watkins, and Anna Kanze

We’ve identified the problem: Microfinance is no longer sexy. It’s old news. It can’t deliver “impact,” and its effect on alleviating poverty was oversold and has underwhelmed. It’s well and good to offer working capital loans, but at the end of the day, the poor need education, health care, water for drinking and irrigation, roofs, and electricity together with a wide variety of financial services. It’s time for investors seeking real innovation to move on to the next big thing that will transform the lives of poor people and save our planet. Never mind microfinance’s decades-long track record of listening to the poor and underserved clients and effectively developing products and services based on their needs.

Of course, we issue these statements with considerable sarcasm. But, all joking aside, industry trends and shifting sentiments are presenting investors with a real question: Should they abandon the reliable and successful platforms and infrastructure that microfinance institutions (MFIs) have built? In turn, MFIs are saddled with the question of whether to stick to what they know best, or instead, to use their platforms to deliver expanded product offerings that increase access to other essential services.

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> Posted by Patrick Traynor, Associate Professor, the University of Florida

CFI Fellow Patrick Traynor, an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) at the University of Florida, is launching his research effort on the security of data in mobile lending applications.

Mobile phones and networks are transforming the world of financial inclusion. However, we know that we cannot simply “copy and paste” traditional financing mechanisms into this mobile context and expect widespread inclusion. For example, the traditionally-excluded often lack the standard data lenders use to underwrite credit decisions (such as government audited tax forms, formal pay stubs, property deeds, and so forth). A plethora of companies are attempting to measure creditworthiness using alternative data – including the data trail created through mobile money applications. Alternative data for underwriting holds the potential to dramatically expand access to credit if successful, but it also poses new challenges.

For instance, how secure is data used in digital credit?

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> Posted by Paul DiLeo, Todd A. Watkins, and Anna Kanze

Discussion of impact investing has grown increasingly heated. There’s a conference nearly every week. Several weekly clipping services­—even a daily one—share news of the latest investments and conversions: 100% for impact! New benchmarks! New sectors! Perpetual motion! What fuel is creating this heat? The cold conviction that someday soon, all investing will be impact investing!

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe worried about losing its gravitational pull, a debate waxes and wanes over whether microfinance should be disqualified as an impact investment, either because its subsidized, non-profit origins magnetically repel VCs or because randomized controlled trials find that the average benefit to clients of microcredit is modest.

Which is ironic, because microfinance and its sister star, financial inclusion, remain the largest impact sectors in annual investor surveys.

This hyperactivity and incoherence can only mean one thing: the term “impact investing” has achieved its financial industry apotheosis: it means whatever we need it to mean. It’s a gaseous cloud that shapeshifts depending on who’s looking.

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> Posted by Robert Stone, Project Director, Savings at the Frontier

In his excellent debunking of the myth that technology solves everything, Geek Heresy, Kentaro Toyama argues that “technology’s primary effect is to amplify human forces… Even in a world of abundant technology, there is no social change without change in people.” That means a change in their capabilities, in the broadest sense, as defined by Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winning economist and philosopher. In Sen’s work, especially in The Idea of Justice, he argues that justice requires people to have the freedom to do what they would choose to do if they could, if they had the capability to choose.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

What a marvel it is that a couple living in a remote region of the world, despite limited education and financial means, could use their cell phones to receive money from their children in the capital city! Like many techno-wonders of our world, the mobile financial services people all over the world use operate atop a complex set of distinct technologies zipped together. A host of systems work beneath every successful transaction, each driven by and subject to forces specific to that system, not all of which prioritize mobile money. It’s not a wonder, then, when things sometimes fall apart.

CFI Fellow Leon Perlman has the technical chops to unpack these systems, and this is exactly what he has done in his research for us. He went to 12 countries and tested multiple mobile financial services, the main handset brands available, and their component hardware and software. CFI just released his report, Technology Inequality: Opportunities and Challenges for Mobile Financial Services, and I recommend it to the technology savvy and novice alike.

I suggest using Perlman’s work as a mobile money technology primer. For example, do you understand the difference between Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD), SIM Application Toolkit (STK) and Java-based applets used in mobile financial services? I didn’t. Now I know that each technology has its own merits and shortcomings, and that in the dynamic telecoms market the relevance of each is continually shifting. Leon’s paper explains these interface technologies, along with handset features and mobile signaling technologies—and more important, how they work together, or sometimes don’t. Along the way, readers are introduced to the many companies and government bodies involved: telecoms regulators, banking authorities, competition regulators, MNOs, handset manufacturers, operating system providers, user interface designers and financial institutions. These organizations have a wide range of objectives, interests and constraints, making it challenging to bring all the requirements together into a functional operation and viable business model.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog, except where otherwise noted, are those of the authors and guest bloggers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Financial Inclusion or its affiliates.