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As soon as we solve the 6,000 languages problem

The following post is from Kas Kalba, President of Kalba International, Inc., a global telecom consultancy. It’s drawn largely from Kalba’s forthcoming book Mobiles We Don’t Know. In this post Kalba discusses three key obstacles impeding the proliferation of smartphones. To learn about how limited network coverage is hindering the utility of smartphones, check out CFI Fellow Leon Perlman’s recent report.    

Major languages by number of native speakers (click to enlarge)

When a highly reputable publication announces “Almost two-thirds of the human population is connected to the internet by smartphones,” it signals how loose our assumptions about technology adoption have become. This estimate, which implies roughly 5 billion users compared to the total global population of 7.5 billion, is not even close. The actual number is about 2 billion, when counting individual smartphone users—not the same as smartphones sold to date. So why is the smartphone still not in the hands of 5.5 billion potential users—or 4.5 billion if we discount a billion as under age?

If adoption of smartphones progresses at the same pace as the initial adoption of mobile phones, connecting 3 more billion people to smartphones could take 10 or more years. Even this rate would leave 2.5 billion of us without smartphones.

Based on Kalba International’s work in Africa, Asia and Latin America, we think there are three factors involved—the language gap, the income gap, and the recharging gap. This is in addition to extending internet coverage to many areas without it.

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> Posted by Ross Tasker, COO, Nobuntu

A worker prunes trees

A worker prunes trees

Imagine an elderly lady in her late seventies, who lives in a township in South Africa. Her income is very little, some US$120 a month in assistance from the government, and her body is old and sore – she is now too old to work. With no savings to draw upon, and no other sources of income, she struggles to afford medication for her chronic ailments. Two of her three children are unemployed, and her grandchildren are hungry and unable to pay the taxi fare to get to their school. This position isn’t atypical in South Africa. There are hundreds of thousands of older adults in the country (8 percent of the total population). Making matters worse, there is a distinct lack of a formal savings culture in the country. Imagine the impossible financial decisions faced by so many elderly South Africans on a daily basis.

There are various reasons for the shortage of savings in South Africa. One of which is the legacy of structural exclusion along racial lines that the pre-democratic regime left behind. During this time, a large part of the population was denied access to basic services and human rights, let alone access to any meaningful financial services.

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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 Jeffrey Riecke, Senior Communications Specialist, CFI

Phones are making everything more convenient, but are they also reducing costs? That depends on which service and whose wallet you’re talking about. If it’s the consumer’s mobile money wallet, well, the verdict is still out. In a CGAP paper published last year, Rafe Mazer and Philip Rowen lamented that pricing transparency practices in mobile money services are wholly inadequate across payments, credit, and other product lines. They assert an urgent need for standards and policy to impose better practices on mobile money providers. It’s critical to know how prices are tabulated and what fees are incurred – for the betterment of customers and the industry.

In Kenya, arguably the world’s most robust and dynamic mobile money market, we’ve seen a few recent steps in the right direction.

As of May 2017, per a directive issued by the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK), telcos and financial institutions providing mobile money services were required to ensure that their users are informed via real-time notifications of the price of their transactions – after they are initiated by the user, but before the transactions are completed and money is transferred. This order by the CAK was permitted to be carried out in stages: first, mobile money providers were asked to let users know the price of their money transfers and bill payments after their transactions occurred; then, providers were required to provide pre-transaction pricing for these two services; and finally, this pre-transaction price disclosure was extended to “value-added” mobile money services like micro-loans and micro-insurance. The new rule applies to mobile money services offered through apps, USSD codes, and SIM toolkits.

You might not think that getting notified about relatively small fees is a big deal. After all, mobile money services in Kenya like M-Pesa are used so often that users probably have a strong grasp on pricing. But this is unclear. When CGAP queried mobile money users in Kenya on M-Pesa pricing changes in 2014, despite claiming to be aware of current pricing figures, many respondents in fact were not.

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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 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 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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> Posted by Antoine Navarro, Blaine Stephens and Nikhil Gehani, MIX

Enabled by technology and fueled by the desire to improve business outcomes, over 60 percent of financial service providers (FSPs) are serving clients through ATMs, mobile money, agent networks, and other channels outside of branches, according to a recent global survey by MIX. While FSPs continue to deploy these alternative delivery channels (ADCs), assessing their performance presents a challenge. Even though many FSPs are developing internal metrics to track performance, basic information like number of transaction failures is largely unavailable outside the institution. And even when such information is available to external parties, comparisons against the market are hampered by a lack of standard metrics in the industry.

With the right reporting systems and processes in place, FSPs can compare internal channel performance to optimize their channel mix. FSPs have told us they need visibility onto the rest of the market to benchmark their performance against peers, inform managerial decisions and improve actual results. MIX’s recently published report, “Measuring the Performance of Alternative Delivery Channels” aims to do just that. Through research supported by The MasterCard Foundation, IFC’s Partnership for Financial Inclusion and UNCDF’s MicroLead program, we were able to engage with a number of FSPs in sub-Saharan Africa to develop and refine a set of standard metrics. We also created initial benchmarks based on the data collected from these institutions, which are published in the report. It is our hope that FSPs around the world will begin collecting and reporting on these metrics so market actors will have a common reference point for ADC performance measurement and comparison.

What was found? You’ll have to read the report to get the full scope, but here are a few high-level takeaways.

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> Posted by Allyse McGrath, Specialist, CFI 

Join us in accelerating financial inclusion conversations globally!

We are excited to announce the third annual Financial Inclusion Week, an initiative to drive the global conversation around financial inclusion. In 2015 and 2016, over 70 partner organizations brought together thousands of people worldwide to discuss the most pressing actions needed to advance financial inclusion globally. In 2017, from October 30 to November 3, we will continue the conversations from last year and engage an even wider community of stakeholders to explore this year’s theme: New Products, New Partnerships, New Potential.

Around the world, digital channels are revolutionizing the way that customers access financial products and transforming the landscape of the financial inclusion industry. Financial service providers are harnessing an array of new technologies, data, and schools of thought to re-configure their products and how they offer them. New providers, including fintech startups, are entering the inclusive finance fold and legacy providers are increasingly partnering with them to expand service offerings and reach previously under-served customer segments. These new products and new partnerships bring great potential for creating a more inclusive global financial ecosystem. However, they may also bring new problems – such as issues surrounding data security, transparency on mobile platforms, and discrimination in alternative credit scoring. During Financial Inclusion Week 2017, partner organizations around the globe will hold conversations focused on how new products and partnerships are advancing 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.