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If digital financial services are so convenient and affordable, why are uptake and usage rates among individuals with lower incomes so low? Monique Cohen explores the mismatch between products and money management needs.

> Posted by Monique Cohen

This maxim governs much of our financial lives, rich or poor. Yet, we offer financial services to the unbanked and underbanked, largely ignoring it. The thinking around customer centrality as it affects financial services for the poor emphasizes appropriately responding to people’s needs and wants for financial services. But, as Kim Wilson pointed out, this is still not happening:

We have an agenda, which is this: please be our customer, have your needs, express them so long as they are about digital payments or failing that, using a bank account – a lot – and preferably, digitally. Else, we don’t give a damn. We don’t care about your archaic methods… We desperately want and need you to modernize, to become just like us. Otherwise we have no justification for all the work we do and all the money we spend.

Until now the perceived drivers of uptake of digital financial services (DFS) have been their assumed attributes of convenience, timeliness and affordability, relative to current formal and informal financial service offerings. However, with uptake and usage levels of only 30 percent for digital financial services, it is clear that this rationale falls short. Impediments to high usage continue to be overlooked.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion

Millions of American households use payday loans each year. The question of whether these lenders are legitimate or scams is complicated, Elisabeth Rhyne finds.

I recently browsed the website of CashNetUSA, a company that offers payday loans and related products in 38 states across the United States. The website was easy to read and presented the application process and the (very high) charges simply and clearly. But I wanted to know more. Is this company legitimate? Does it live up to its promises? Will I experience any problems along the way? More broadly, how can a consumer tell whether an online payday lender is trustworthy?

I had no peer or family member to ask about this, so I turned to online credit provider reviews and began a Google-based armchair investigation.

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Insights from new CFI Fellows research on integrating human touch in Kenya’s digital financial services landscape.

> Posted by Alexis Beggs Olsen, CFI Fellow

Mbugua, owner of a restaurant, a butchery, and a dry goods store in Nairobi, Kenya has actively used financial services to grow his businesses from the meager beginnings of a small stall selling boiled cow heads. He is currently juggling four digital loans and two microfinance loans. Whenever possible, Mbugua prefers to interact with his financers digitally to save time. Yet, like most of the Kenyans my research associate and I spoke with as part of our CFI Fellows research project, Mbugua considers in-person interaction to be critical at certain stages. “Face-to-face is tiresome. There’s a time factor,” he said. “But it’s 100 percent perfect. Your questions will be exhausted. And you can’t negotiate with the phone.”

Our research seeks to understand when and why customers prefer human over digital interfaces across their financial services customer journeys – and vice versa. We focused on value-added financial services, including loans, savings, and insurance, and we chose Kenya because of the country’s deep penetration and market maturity of mobile phone-based financial services. We conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with 104 respondents.

We discovered that a “centaur” solution—one that unites the strengths of both tech and human touch—offers the most promise for both customers and financial service providers (FSPs) targeting the base of the pyramid.

Digital interfaces outperform human interaction in a number of areas: digital services are often more convenient (once you learn how to use them), more predictable and consistent (with the exception of loan approvals and rejections, which are often opaque), and less stressful for customers during collections. However, most Kenyans – even those who already use low-touch digital products – prefer to interact with a person face-to-face at key stages in their customer journey. We found that while Kenyans are very comfortable conducting transactions digitally, other key aspects of the financial service customer journey are not adequately handled by digital means alone.

Like most of our respondents, Mbugua wants to interact directly with a person to accomplish three critical tasks:

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> Posted by Center Staff

Are you working to expand quality financial services access? The 2018 Harvard Business School – Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance is accepting applications for what will be another exceptional week of learning and exchange among world leaders in financial inclusion. The program will take place March 25-30, 2018 at the HBS campus in Boston, Massachusetts. We hope you’ll join us!

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> Posted by Ana Ruth Medina Arias, Lead Specialist for Latin America and the Caribbean, the Smart Campaign

“The risk is to regulate by anecdotes and not by evidence.” – Mariela Zaldivar, Deputy Superintendent, the Superintendency of Banking, Insurance and Private Pension Fund of Peru (SBS Peru)

In recent years, Peru has called for our attention not only for being at the top of the Global Microscope’s international country rankings for the most conducive environment for financial inclusion, but also for its historic collaborative effort to establish a fully-interoperable nationwide digital payments platform (Bim) to support the supply of financial services. But buckle up, there is more.

The country’s regulator, the Superintendency of Banking, Insurance and Private Pension Fund of Peru (SBS Peru), has taken client protection very seriously, and despite already having very robust systems (on grievance redress and dispute resolution, for example), it continues to lead with groundbreaking policy changes based on evidence and research to ensure that regulation is aligned with the needs and capabilities of the end client. The Smart Campaign is proud to have collaborated with the SBS on these policy changes.

Client Voices was a research project of the Smart Campaign that directly asked clients in four countries (Peru, Benin, Georgia and Pakistan) about their experiences with financial providers and what they thought constituted good and bad treatment. In Peru, the project was made possible through strong support from the SBS, which was involved from the very beginning, providing substantive inputs to all project phases. However, their engagement did not stop there. The SBS is also committed to implementing the client protection recommendations arising from the project.

Here is how the SBS turned the major findings of the research into an opportunity for policy improvement in the area of financial consumer protection.

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We discuss emerging consumer risks posed by nano-loans through the frame of the Client Protection Principles.

> Posted by Alex Rizzi, Senior Director, The Smart Campaign

As champions for financial inclusion, the Smart Campaign is excited about the potential of nano-loans—small value loans, delivered through mobile phones, with a large concentration of deployments in East Africa. Nano-loans are available nearly instantaneously, leverage non-traditional data for underwriting, and can be disbursed and collected with minimal human interaction. These tiny loans can help underserved customer segments access credit, as well as meet short-term liquidity crunches. But as consumer protection advocates, we also want to ensure that these loans are delivered with quality and respect, and do not cause harm to consumers.

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> Posted by Rupert Scofield, Chair of the Partnership for Responsible Financial Inclusion (PRFI)

A meeting of the Partnership for Responsible Financial Inclusion in September 2017 (pictured from left to right: Shameran Abed, Jesse Fripp, Steve Hollingworth, Maria Cavalcanti, Michael Schlein, Sharlene Brown, Rupert Scofield, and Robert Dunn. Not pictured: Christian Pennotti, Mary Ellen Iskenderian, and Michael Mithika)

In 2011, I joined the inaugural meeting of CEOs that led to the formation of the Microfinance CEO Working Group. Nearly seven years later, my colleagues and I have continued to enjoy the trust and collaboration made possible by sitting together and sharing our strategies, challenges, and opportunities. We have encouraged the sharing of information among key senior staff in seven departments such as risk management, social performance, and digital financial services, across our networks. This collective of senior managers, which we refer to as peer groups, find the conversations at their levels insightful and that they allow for greater efficiency at solving common problems. In some cases, members benefit from non-proprietary work and processes developed by another. In other cases, we are creating the solutions together. Today, we truly recognize that we are no longer a working group, but a strong partnership committed to advancing financial inclusion in a responsible manner. It is my pleasure to share our new name: Partnership for Responsible Financial Inclusion (PRFI).

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion

The following post was originally published on NextBillion and has been re-published with permission.

Two books published this year, The Financial Diaries, by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider, and The Unbanking of America, by Lisa Servon, take on the state of financial inclusion in the United States. Given the professional standing of their authors, we can expect that these books will contribute substantially to the body of knowledge on financial inclusion. What is perhaps more surprising is just how broadly important their messages are. Both books examine what is arguably the top economic challenge in America today – the crumbling of the economic foundation for many working-class and middle-class families – and they do so through the lens of financial services, a somewhat unusual but very revealing perspective.

The Financial Diaries: How American Families Cope in a World of Uncertainty focuses on the variability of income and expenses, which makes it hard for an increasing number of Americans to maintain a steady standard of living. The weekly and monthly extent of this volatility eluded most national statistics until the Diaries project, with its unique methodology, which was developed initially to study financial behavior in low-income countries. During a Diaries project, researchers record every financial transaction made by participating families each week for a year. This detailing yields intimate portraits of families’ financial lives at a level of magnification not previously available.

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> Posted by Lizzy Bolze, Project Specialist, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

Embed from Getty Images

The recent security breach of credit reporting agency Equifax exposed birth dates, social security numbers and credit card information of up to 143 million consumers. The hackers will likely sell this personal information which could result in financial and medical identity left, and fraudulent credit card activity and tax reporting, along with a slew of other activities. Earlier this week Equifax announced their CEO, Richard Smith will be retiring and could walk away with $18 million in pension benefits. The Massachusetts Attorney General, Maura Healey called it “the most brazen failure to protect consumer data we have ever seen.” As a result, the Federal Trade Commission, members of Congress and multiple states’ authorities are looking into criminal investigations. However, the burden of this breach will fall primarily on individual consumers to ensure they are protected, and only 10 percent of the potential 143 million affected have even checked the Equifax site to see if their information was compromised. (You can check to see if you may have been impacted here.)

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

Client of Akiba Bank in Tanzania

Around the world today, financial service providers, technology entrepreneurs and policy makers are engaged in building a financial system that reaches out to previously excluded people, such as lower income people, very small businesses, rural dwellers, and women. Although this work is carried out in the name of the consumer, all too often, scant attention is paid to the real needs and desires consumers and very small enterprise owners have.

With that in mind, here is a thought experiment. A thought experiment is an “exercise of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things.” The question for this experiment is this:

Imagine that consumers were the creators of the inclusive finance system. What would such a system look like?

What characteristics would emerge if the needs, desires and preferences of the target customers of financial inclusion were the driving force to shape their services? The observations here are drawn from consumer research conducted or commissioned by the Center for Financial Inclusion, including research in Peru, Pakistan, Georgia and Benin for the Client Voice project of the Smart Campaign, in Kenya and India for our project on financial health, in India and Mexico for our study of financial capability, and again in Kenya and India for two CFI Fellows’ projects on the role of human touch in the digital age. I offer ten propositions based on this research.

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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.