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New report from CFI Fellows Program on effective agent banking

> Posted by Shreya Chatterjee and Misha Sharma, Senior Research Associate and Project Manager, IFMR LEAD

India’s financial services industry is poised for a digital revolution. From payment banks to India Stack to the recent expansion of mobile financial services, policy makers and financial service providers are energetically pursuing digitization of financial services. But the country still has a tremendous way to go. Roughly half the population has low digital literacy, and adoption of digital financial services (DFS) is skewed towards higher income population segments. For example, only 9 percent of those with lower education levels are online, as compared to 38 percent for those with higher education levels.

As CFI Fellows, we explored how frontline banking agents can advance the adoption of DFS by helping first-time DFS users become comfortable transacting in new ways. We evaluated the factors currently shaping the adoption of DFS by emerging consumers in India and assessed how well agents are playing their crucial role in helping customers successfully transition to digital platforms.

In the blog post we wrote at the outset of our project, we pointed out that there are benefits and drawbacks to deploying human touch in digital financial services, and that an optimal mix of human and technology-enabled customer touchpoints needs to be achieved. Over-reliance on banking agents could cause overdependence on the part of customers, possibly eliminating potential cost savings unlocked by technology. But banking agents may also present great benefits, including in assisting with product adoption, facilitating transactions, resolving problems, building trust, and supporting customers’ transitions to more advanced services.

However, not all agent banking services are created equal, and in India we observe a wide range of models in action. In our research we studied three types of agents, each with a different profile and relationship to their parent organization. We wanted to answer these questions:
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> 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.

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> Posted by Shreya Chatterjee, Senior Research Associate and Misha Sharma, Project Manager, IFMR LEAD

Group of people waiting to make their transactions at Padma’s house

It was almost three in the afternoon when we arrived at Padma’s house in the sleepy village of Katpadi in Tamil Nadu. In a state where 55 percent of women in rural areas don’t participate in the labor force, Padma is the only business correspondent (BC) in her village, working for the sole bank in the area. In 2006, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) passed guidelines that allowed banks to employ third party agents, using decentralized technology to provide banking services in rural and remote areas.

Padma works 12 hours a day, providing localized basic banking services to her immediate community. As a business correspondent, she helps customers open bank accounts, deposit and withdraw cash often linked to government schemes, link Aadhaar IDs with banking accounts, and even pay utility bills.

As part of our CFI Fellowship study on effective human touch in India’s digital age, we made a visit to Padma’s village to understand her work process as a business correspondent, the challenges she faces in her work, and how she perceives her customers’ readiness to move from cash based to digital financial services channels. There are pockets in India of staggering innovation and adoption of digital financial services. But they aren’t widespread, and the optimal mix of human touch versus digitized customer experiences remains elusive. Our CFI Fellowship project aims to better understand the barriers impeding digital financial services and how human touch can help to overcome these obstacles and improve client outcomes more broadly.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

Path to Bhutan’s top government offices

Path to Bhutan’s top government offices

In 2014, the Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan (RMA), the country’s central bank, made a commitment under the Alliance for Financial Inclusion’s Maya Declaration to develop a national financial inclusion strategy. It backed the overall pledge with specific commitments detailing the main pieces of the strategy. Since then, it has diligently put these pieces into place. Over the past three years, the RMA created regulations for microfinance organizations (deposit-taking and non-deposit taking) and agent banking. It set up a mobile payments system, a credit bureau and a collateral registry. This is an impressive set of accomplishments for a country starting from a relatively blank slate in these areas.

But is it enough? I wonder whether these initiatives will spark the provision of financial services that contribute to the inclusive economic growth Bhutan is seeking.

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> Posted by Lisa Kienzle and Gigi Gatti, Grameen Foundation

Nanays will use the Panalo system to conduct transactions for clients and provide them with receipts.

Women make great digital financial service (DFS) agents: they are often savvy at managing liquidity, effective at building trust, and perhaps most importantly, they are more effective at onboarding other women into DFS than men. This makes the recruitment and training of women agents an important strategy for closing the gender gaps in digital financial services and technology, and for ultimately ensuring universal financial inclusion.

Men in developing markets still outpace women in account ownership by 9 percent. The technology gap is even larger – women are 14 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than men. Given the growing emphasis on digital solutions to drive financial inclusion, this technology gap could further widen the financial services gender divide if not explicitly taken into account in the design of digital solutions. Women agents are a crucial element of that design.

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> Posted by Jason Loughnane, Special Projects Manager, DAWN

In 2011, a SIM card in Myanmar cost $1,500 and mobile phones were used by less than 5 percent of the population. Following the entry of two foreign mobile operators in 2011, the price of a SIM card dropped to $1.50. Today, over 90 percent of the country’s population has a cell phone, and over 80 percent of those users have smartphones. And yet, only 6 percent of the population uses a formal financial institution, making the country ripe for adoption of mobile financial services.

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> Posted by Kathleen Yaworsky, Lead Specialist, Channels & Technology, Accion, and Alexandra Rizzi, Deputy Director, the Smart Campaign

Hi, I’d like to send money to my mother in Bihar. Can you help me?

Sure, I’ll help you do that here. Here’s what you’ll need…

A similar scene unfolded across 80 small merchant agent locations (business correspondents or customer service points, as they’re called in India) as the Smart Campaign conducted mystery shopping research to uncover and understand the client protection risks in the provision of financial services at agent network outlets.

Agent networks play a critical role in increasing financial access by helping financial service providers broaden their reach beyond branches, but in order for an agent network to succeed, the client must trust the agent and be able to perform transactions with confidence. The current rapid growth in agent networks is driven by a push to build out the infrastructure and increase access points. Future growth will require quality from the services delivered through that infrastructure. That’s why it is critical to identify and address potential risks early on.

Complicating the identification and mitigation of client protection risks are several common characteristics of agent banking, including limited agent control over product design and pricing, and the part-time nature and lack of employee status of agents.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

When it comes to financial inclusion, as is true in many sectors these days, sexy start-ups and disruptive innovators often occupy the spotlight. But away from the glare, traditional banks are getting on with the work and making an enormous difference. In The Business of Financial Inclusion: Insights from Banks in Emerging Markets, produced in a partnership between the Institute of International Finance (IIF) and CFI, we explore how banks are innovating to include new customers.

Given the headlines, it may be a surprise to hear that even today the overwhelming majority of new accounts are opened at formal financial institutions, not mobile money outlets. Thanks to the Global Findex, we know that over 720 million adults accessed formal financial services for the first time between 2011 and 2014, 90 percent of these new accounts were opened at formal financial institutions. Of the 720 million total new accounts, only 54 million used mobile money as their primary account.

How are banks expanding customer outreach?

Through in-depth interviews, leaders from 24 national, regional, and global banks told us about the opportunities and challenges they face while reaching the unbanked and underbanked. Each bank has its own particular story. In the aggregate, their stories give insight into how banks are evolving to meet people where they are and serve population segments that have been traditionally excluded.

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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Director, CFI

What are the biggest unanswered questions in financial inclusion? This isn’t rhetorical—we want your opinion.

In preparation for selecting three CFI Fellows for 2016-2017, we are developing a short list of questions whose answers would drive financial inclusion forward.

Our Research Fellows Program is an initiative intended to tackle the biggest questions in financial inclusion—in order for the industry to take action in new areas and in new ways. The current cohort of fellows is finalizing research ranging from big data to small enterprises to technology infrastructure to G2P payments.

The questions we put forward for this next cohort will only be relevant if they are essential to the financial inclusion community. So we’re coming to you (yes, you!) for your input.

To get the conversation started, here are some of the questions on our working list. Let us know below in the comments which you think are compelling, and please take the liberty of adding your own.
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> Posted by Barney de Jongh, Acting Group Head of MFS, Ooredoo Group

It’s amusing to see that whenever we take a new mobile money service to market the same old sales mistake is made over and over again. The only difference is the local lingo in which it has been conveyed.

So if you were in a duka in 2010 in Kigamboni, Dar es Salaam, close to the ferry, or if you were in a farmasi in 2014 in Sukabumi, West Java, close to a busy market, chances are you would have heard mobile money sales people tell the same narrative to shop owners. “This new service called mobile money will soon be printing you money. All you have to do is a few registrations, a few cash-ins and a few cash-outs. Now see, for month one, you already have Tsh 100k / IDR 700k (US$ 50) in your pocket. By month six it will be US$ 300 equivalent and by month 12 easily US$ 600 equivalent. Look at your airtime sales results. Look at all the customers outside your shops. This will be a piece of cake. We will train you, we will even give you the equipment, a log book, branding – and voila, you are in business.”

Do our beaverish sales agents stop to do a 360 degree look (ok more like a 270 degree look) around the store? Does the trained eye look at not only the content of the stock on the shelves, but also at the total estimated value of the stock? Does it glance up to see the slow moving items at the top of the shelves? Before even speaking to the owner, does the sales agent do a calculation to see if the total estimated value of the stock even puts the shop owner in a position to have the minimum investment for upfront e-money purchase? What about minimum liquidity levels? Does the shop even have fast enough rotating stock?

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Credit Suisse is a founding sponsor of the Center for Financial Inclusion. The Credit Suisse Group Foundation looks to its philanthropic partners to foster research, innovation and constructive dialogue in order to spread best practices and develop new solutions for financial inclusion.


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.