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> Posted by Masrura Oishi, Tanjilut Tasnuba, and Isabel Whisson, BRAC

The following post was originally published on NextBillion.

It is part of Financial Inclusion Week, a week of global conversation on advancing financial inclusion. This year’s theme is keeping clients first in a digital world. Throughout the week participants will share their thoughts in events and webinars, on social media, and through blog posts. Add your voice to the conversation using #FinclusionWeek.

The integration of mobile money into microfinance operations is one of the most exciting yet challenging prospects facing microfinance providers today. Mobile money presents a fast, cost-efficient and flexible alternative delivery channel through which money can be transferred, loans can be repaid and savings can be deposited. Yet, globally, active usage of mobile money on a 90-day basis remains low, at around 33 percent.

BRAC has been gradually integrating mobile money into its microfinance operations since 2011. Among many of its microfinance clients, who are predominantly poor rural women, the prospect of transacting with money via mobile phone instead of cash at first seems suspicious and daunting. In seeking to promote responsible, confident and active use of its financial services, BRAC has introduced a number of initiatives. These have included investing heavily in client protection, customer service and financial education and developing mobile money use cases that made sense to the average microfinance client, such as using mobile money to pay deposits into monthly savings schemes.

As part of Financial Inclusion Week, which this year puts the spotlight on keeping clients first in a digital world, we spoke to one of BRAC’s clients about her experience using mobile money in microfinance. A client for more than 10 years, Maloti Rani Das has witnessed several key changes that have in turn changed her experience and view of microfinance. In a brief one-on-one interview, she took us through her journey with BRAC, from why she borrowed her first loan, her feelings when she first started using mobile money, and what has helped her become a confident user.

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> Posted by Isabel Whisson and Maria A. May, BRAC

Destructive and devastating, disasters threaten to rob communities of resources, households of livelihoods, and families of loved ones. Difficult to anticipate and inherently costly, is there hope of fostering resilience against them?

Certainly. This year at BRAC’s Frugal Innovation Forum, an annual congregation of development innovators, the conversation centered on “scaling resilience“. In responding to crises as diverse as Nepal’s earthquake, to Typhoon Haiyan, to the collapse of Rana Plaza, a common theme for solutions promoting resilience was to create systems in advance that enable immediate response and recovery.

Having access to financial services is key. According to Michael Kellogg of VisionFund International, “People know what they need following a disaster and are extraordinarily adaptable in identifying ways to meet those needs. Equipping them with money soon after the disaster enhances their capacity to quickly rebuild livelihoods and the economic recovery of the local market.”

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> 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.

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

Fifteen years ago in the microfinance space you may have been able to get away with understanding very little about your clients. Without much competition, MFIs could probably still make a decent profit by offering one product to all their clients using only one delivery channel. Thankfully, those days are gone.

The base of the pyramid is no longer a hidden or forgotten market segment. In fact, according to the recently-released 2014 Microfinance Banana Skins report, the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction. Overindebtedness once again tops the charts as the biggest perceived risk, perhaps indicating that many clients are now able to gain access to multiple services providers. In some areas, an excess of providers may now be crowding the market.

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> Posted by Eric Zuehlke, Web and Communications Director, CFI

Since launching microfinance activities in 1974, BRAC has grown to become one of the world’s largest financial services providers to the poor. BRAC’s microfinance operations, which include loans and savings, serve more than 5 million clients in eight countries. In 2012, BRAC started a financial education and client protection project that aims to help clients adopt financial behaviors that facilitate their well-being. Shameran Abed, Director of the BRAC Microfinance program, recently spoke with me to discuss BRAC’s work. Prior to joining BRAC, Abed served as an editorial writer at one of Bangladesh’s main English-language daily newspapers where he wrote primarily on politics. He also serves on the Board of Directors of bKash, a mobile financial services platform in Bangladesh.   

Eric: Can you talk about BRAC’s client protection work and what you learned from your project pilots in 2012 and 2013?

Shameran: We wanted to make sure that any clients coming into the BRAC microfinance program could be very well catered to. They should understand what our products are, what our terms are, what our rates are, and they should make an educated decision on whether they want to take our products. And if they do become our members then they should be treated well, treated with respect, and have access to information. I’m not saying that BRAC didn’t have all these things before two or three years ago, but we really wanted to double-down our efforts on these fronts. So that’s why we decided to do more work around client protection, client customer service, and financial education.

Eric: What do you think are the biggest risks facing microfinance clients?

Shameran: From a financial point of view, there are two or three risks that we’re particularly concerned about. One, of course, is something that’s been talked about a lot, the risk of overindebtedness. Bangladesh, although quite a mature microfinance market, is, in terms of overindebtedness, thankfully still quite low. But still I think overindebtedness is something that you always guard against because there is a lot of demand for credit and if microfinance institutions are not careful they can always have issues around overindebtedness of borrowers.

There are a lot of financial institutions nowadays that are kind of fly-by-night institutions that set up shop… Institutions that are typically unregulated. They come in, they offer products, they lure in clients, and then they disappear. I think around these issues the clients need more awareness, and these are some of the things our financial education components try to address.

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The huge potential for digital finance to reach the last mile of the financially excluded

> Posted by Peer Stein, Director, IFC Access to Finance Advisory 

The Financial Inclusion 2020 campaign at the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion is building a movement toward full financial inclusion by 2020. This blog series spotlights financial inclusion efforts around the globe, shares insights from the FI2020 consultative process and highlights findings from “Mapping the Invisible Market.”

Last week’s seminar on digital finance at the 2014 World Bank Group / IMF Spring Meetings convened innovators, private sector leaders, and government representatives to discuss the potential innovative business models and new technologies have in reaching and empowering the financially excluded poor and small businesses faster and with greater scale, while contributing significantly to the World Bank Group goal of universal access to finance by year 2020. The session highlighted the diversity of business models that use technology to reach the excluded market segment, showcased by innovators from bKash in Bangladesh, Airtel Money-Africa, and Berlin-based Mobisol operating in rural East Africa.

I’d like to share three key points that emerged from the forum.

First, multi-stakeholder collaboration is a must.

None of the featured innovators is a traditional bank or financial institution but each one realizes the importance of partnering with banks and other players in this dynamic space. For example, bKash was born from a fusion of BRAC Bank and Money in Motion, and continues to operate as a subsidiary of BRAC Bank, holding 80 percent of the mobile money market in Bangladesh. With such an adoption success within two and a half years, recording 90,000 digital money agents and 11.6 million registered users, in the words of Kamal Quadir, CEO, “bKash is now a Bengali verb [synonymous with ‘to send money’].” Chidi Okpala, Director of Airtel Money-Africa, a mobile money service with an active base of 5 million customers, reinforced that one of the factors of success in this diverse market is the need to position your mobile money service for stakeholder collaboration rather than competition. The real competitor is cash. Walt Macnee, president of the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth, emphasized the company’s connecting and collaborative role focused on ensuring interoperable platforms among a diversity of players.

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Kate McKee, Senior Advisor at CGAP, reflects on key issues raised during the FI2020 Global Forum’s panel discussion on ‘Why Financial Inclusion is More Important Than We Ever Knew,’ ending with an exciting prediction market from the panelists. 

Kate McKee moderating the panel “Why Financial Inclusion is More Important Than We Ever Knew,” alongside panelist Bill Gajda

In this panel, which began with an emphasis on behavioral economics opened by Sendhil Mullainathan, co-author of the recently-published book Scarcity (reviewed on this blog by CFI’s Sonja Kelly here), who focused on how the reality of scarcity translates into a “bandwidth tax” on people who constantly live in poverty. Research by Sendhil and others has documented how the constant worry and distraction of living with too little – what Sendhil and his co-author Eldar Shafir refer to as “tunneling,” with its intense focus on making ends meet day-to-day – ultimately, affects poor people’s ability to make good decisions. Basically, this growing body of research shows that when people are in a situation of scarcity, they are not as smart, not as able to resist temptation, and are less likely to be able to make and stick to a plan, as compared to themselves in a time of less scarcity.

This scarcity framework and evidence has potentially powerful consequences for financial inclusion. The panel that followed focused on how scarcity, the bandwidth tax, and tunneling affect the relevance, uptake, and usage of financial services by lower-income people. Tine Wollebekk (Vice President of Telenor Financial Services and Board Chair of Tameer Microfinance Bank, the sponsor of Easypaisa in Pakistan) and Kamal Quadir (Managing Director of bKash in Bangladesh) reflected on the experience of these two fast-growing mobile money service deployments, including insights about customers’ underlying demands and how the mobile wallets and other services are designed to meet them, how to make the offerings intuitive and simple, and how to earn trust from customers new to formal finance. Bill Gajda (Global Head of Strategic Partnerships, Visa) rounded out the panel by bringing in findings from deep consumer research that Visa has supported in additional developing countries, as well as experience with different business models and customer interfaces including cards.

Entry products need to be ‘in the tunnel’

One of the key insights was that the entry product needs to meet a really immediate need. It needs to be ‘in the tunnel’ of what the customer is focused on to meet their day-to-day needs. Obviously mobile telephony is firmly in the tunnel virtually everywhere in the developing world. Person-to-person money transfer has also passed the “tunnel test” of rapid uptake in an increasing number of markets – Kamal noted that he felt the company had reached an important tipping point when “bKash” had become a verb commonly used across Bangladesh. Tine made the point of needing excellent execution and recruiting the right kind of agents that customers will trust, in order for customers not to have extraneous worries that would prevent them from really being able to make decisions.

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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.

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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.