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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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> Posted by Virginia Moore, Communications Director, CFI

Last week, the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion (CFI) participated in LendIt USA, an annual conference that brings together leaders and startups in fintech, lending, and venture capital to discuss trends, innovations, and the future of the industry.

So, what were we doing there? We attended to help introduce what we do to this audience of over 5,000 people, partnering with LendIt organizers to launch its very first financial inclusion track. CFI managing director Elisabeth Rhyne spoke on a panel about responsible credit along with representatives from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Marketplace Lending Association, LendStreet, and AEO. Championing the Smart Campaign and consumer protections, Beth brought a global perspective on what responsible credit looks like in practice. She also debated the elephant in the room—or as she put it, “the dead cat on the table:” interest rates. Our director of research Sonja Kelly also moderated a lively session on how smartphones in emerging markets are expanding access to credit with executives from Branch, Cignifi, Juvo, and PayJoy. We’ll have more on these sessions soon.

It was exciting and satisfying to see so much interest in financial inclusion from conference attendees who may not readily know the definition of financial inclusion, appreciate its value, or recognize how they’re contributing to it.

What Is the Value of Financial Inclusion to Fintech and Investor Communities?

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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Director of Research, CFI

One of the most surprising unveilings at the recent  Mobile World Congress was the Nokia 3310, a reboot of a 17 year-old feature phone that stands out as intentionally basic amidst a dizzying world of smartphone bells and whistles. This phone boasts no cinema-quality camera, no super-fast internet, and no Candy Crush. In exchange, it offers a month-long battery life, a simplified user interface, and a price point of $49.

To me, this phone is a signal to emerging markets that the mobile industry has not forgotten that much of the world—about 37 percent of people in developing markets and 24 percent of people in developed markets, according to GSMA—will still not be using a smartphone by 2020. These populations are not making the shift for reasons like cost, battery life, and connectivity limitations. For them, the Nokia 3310 is a promising announcement.

In his research on the technology infrastructure surrounding digital financial services, CFI Fellow Leon Perlman points out that while feature phones are not disappearing any time soon, the choices for feature phones and options for people who need them repaired are shrinking. Perlman’s research, which will come out later this spring, underscores the need for the mobile industry to continue to provide valuable infrastructure to people who have not switched to smartphones. He cites the continued prevalence of USSD-based mobile money interfaces, which feature phones can utilize and which do not require internet connection, as a major incentive for continued investment in technology infrastructure for feature phones. If people cannot safely and effectively access their mobile wallets without switching to shiny new smartphones, mobile money will cease to be as inclusive as it claims to be.

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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Director of Research, CFI

(click to enlarge)

This week at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Verizon announced that it’s unveiling new 5G wireless connectivity for its mobile customers. More “G”s are not a surprising announcement, as mobile networks strut their speed at this annual event like body builders at a weightlifting competition. For those unfamiliar with what exactly 5G means, the network will provide speeds of a gigabit per second and faster, but only in a select group of cities in high income economies.

As we celebrate global innovation, we can also take a moment to highlight those who continue to have limited to no connectivity—with implications for global development. While 5G revs up, an astounding number of people are left out of mobile connectivity and therefore mobile money—even in countries known for their digital financial services uptake.

Our CFI Fellow Leon Perlman examines this phenomenon in his upcoming report. As a sneak preview, in his report Leon shows connectivity maps in a select group of emerging markets, such as the one above. Take this example of Tanzania, a market with growing mobile money usage. In this market, mobile network coverage misses large swaths of rural areas toward the center of the country. Certainly, those areas have lower population densities than other areas, but they are home to many people. The mobile financial services ecosystem depends on connectivity infrastructure that provides reliable and sufficiently high-speed data transmission. Lacking that, people in rural areas are left out in large numbers. In the map above, the blue splotches indicate mobile network coverage, and the dots are where mobile money agents are located.

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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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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.