Country focus: Market trends and opportunities for digital financial services in Ethiopia

This post is written by Shital Shah, Enclude’s Global Strategy Group Coordinator. 

Photo Credit: Nienke Stam

Photo Credit: Nienke Stam

While Kenya’s mobile money success story continues to garner attention and showcase the promise of digital financial services, a different story lives right next door. In Ethiopia, a contrasting situation exists, given the nation’s history, geography, and infrastructure. The landlocked country has the second largest population in Africa, with most people living in rural areas in an economy driven by agriculture. A large portion of the adult population remains unbanked. In a country with a population of over 80 million, 45 million are of working age and 34 million are under the age of 14. However, 92%-95% of the adult population does not have access to financial services, despite the presence of 18 commercial banks and over 30 microfinance institutions.

In short, daily transactions are expensive and inconvenient for most Ethiopians. While neighbouring countries in East Africa are engaged in mass market efforts toward the digitization of financial services, Ethiopia still grapples with basic infrastructure issues that make building the “rails” of a digital platform challenging. Physical, electronic and financial infrastructure is weak and still developing in most parts of the country, especially in rural areas. At the same time, given the current state of financial services in the country, the need for a more efficient, reliable option is pressing.

Ethiopia is on the cusp of becoming an attractive market for mobile financial services. Its infrastructure is indeed weak, but improving at impressive rates, indicating that the “rails” necessary to build a mobile financial services platform will be largely in place in the coming years. Mobile network coverage is low – under 30% – but increasing rapidly as the state-run monopoly telecom provider, Ethio Telecom, aggressively builds out its network. Financial infrastructure, including ATMs and bank branches, is also still under development, leading to a heavy dependency on cash. Continue reading

Banking beyond conventional branches for financial inclusion

Photo credit: bKash

Photo credit: bKash

This post is written by Debbie Watkins, Head Implementation, Alternative Delivery Channels at SBI (Zeist/Washington), and reposted from Upsides. 

Banks in emerging and developing countries are increasingly recognising the potential of the low-income market segment. However, setting up and running a bank branch is an expensive business. This is where branchless banking comes in. Read the first article in an insightful series of three on how banking beyond conventional branches creates financial inclusion for all.

Low-income and rural populations are often inherently ‘bankable’ – they save for a wide range of different purposes, source both short- and long-term credit for capital purchases and business building, and demonstrate (often very sophisticated) financial management skills. The fact that most of their financial interactions are with informal channels is due to a number of reasons: banks may be far away from their homes or workplaces; may not be open during the hours they are not working; or may have prohibitively high minimum balances or monthly fees.

Logistical problems
Banks are increasingly recognising the potential of the low-income market segment. However, setting up and running a bank branch is an expensive business. The net cost to a bank of conducting a single over-the-counter transaction can be more than $1, and understandably banks are somewhat reluctant to have their branches full of clients conducting small transactions – the cost/benefit ratio just does not make sense. Establishing branches in rural areas also causes significant logistical problems – ensuring the branch always has sufficient cash on hand (but not too much), connecting the branch to centralised banking systems, and of course the fact that one branch covering what may be a catchment area of many square kilometres will still result in it being out of the logistical reach of a large number of people. Continue reading

Expanding the Boundaries of Mobile Banking: Reaching the Rural Poor

This post is written by Lee Babcock, Managing Director, Mobile Strategy for ACDI/VOCA.

Photo credit: ACDI/VOCA

Photo credit: ACDI/VOCA

I work at the intersection of mobile banking and the rural poor. For nearly 50 years my organization, ACDI/VOCA, has created market linkages for smallholder farmers to reduce poverty and expand economic opportunities. The people we work with are not usually near a city and they have few resources, often making only a subsistence living off of their crops. But increasingly, they do have a mobile phone.

For a development practitioner, the proliferation of cell phones among the rural poor is a golden ticket, a new infrastructure directly into households at the base of the pyramid. Even beyond mobile finance, cellphones can provide solutions at every link along the agricultural value chain—e-vouchers, credit scoring, SMS broadcasts of weather and prices and much more—to help lift smallholders out of poverty.

The rural poor are a huge and untapped market. ACDI/VOCA’s research on mobile finance for agriculture and our mobile banking projects are helping build this rapidly emerging body of knowledge. In Indonesia, for example, we’ve brought together a commercial bank, input suppliers (e.g., seeds and fertilizer) and a large cocoa buyer to help cocoa farmers access high-quality inputs while mitigating credit risk for the bank. The bank distributes the loan to the input supplier so the farmer can buy inputs. At harvest, the farmer delivers cocoa to the large cocoa buyer, and when accounts are reconciled, the profit is electronically transferred to the mobile wallet account the farmer has with the bank.   Continue reading

Successful interoperability: Maintaining a long-term view

This post is written by Ali Gross, SBI Senior Business Analyst.

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

To encourage the development of more agent and branchless banking networks, donors and policymakers are emphasizing interoperability and institution-agnostic platforms, as opposed to a bank or MFI opting to roll out its own agent network.  They often stress the importance of avoiding duplication of efforts and of promoting interoperability as a way to increase efficiency and scale as well as customer access and convenience.

However, despite these efforts, financial institutions want to develop their own agent networks in their efforts to implement alternative delivery channels. The financial institution rationalizes that this will result in increased control over profit and agent quality and lower risk of losing existing customers to the competition.  Often, what financial institutions fail to account for is not only the amount of time, money and effort required to roll out an agent network, but also what is best for the customer.  For instance, in the U.S., most customers would prefer access to an interoperable switch that allows a Wells Fargo client, for example, to withdraw from a Bank of America ATM.  Would clients in emerging markets not prefer the ability to visit one agent that represents a variety of financial institutions resulting in greater flexibility and less confusion about which agents they can visit?  As increasing client choice and convenience of accessing financial services becomes increasingly important, the question becomes, how can financial institutions begin to look at interoperability in a way that is mutually beneficial, rather than solely competitive?  Continue reading

Effective Agent Networks in Alternative Delivery Channels: A Practitioner Perspective

SBI Lunch and Learn on Jan 25, 2013

SBI Lunch and Learn on Jan 25, 2013

Last week, SBI hosted a “lunch and learn” in its DC office on “Effective Agent Networks” featuring SBI Agent Network Lead Gerald (Gerry) Rasugu.  Gerry Rasugu currently leads the Agent Network Group within SBI’s global Alternative Delivery Channels practice.  Gerry has a wealth of experience in the branchless banking arena, notably from the world acclaimed M-PESA where he pioneered set-up and management of the agent network in Kenya that drives the leading national m-money payment system in the world.

Gerry is also experienced in designing and building agent networks supporting financial inclusion in Uganda, Fiji Islands, India, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, and Pakistan.  In Bangladesh he supported the design and build of the bKash agent network, the leading mobile financial services initiative in the country, which is already showing great promise in its 2nd year of deployment, with over 20,000 active agents.

Gerry has worked globally with various partners including Vodafone, MTN, Orange Telecom, GSMA and other various financial institutions. He has strong experience in Sales and Distribution across East Africa, Asia and the Pacific region. He has interacted with various regulatory bodies to help formulate relevant policies for mobile financial services. Gerry has also recently published an agent training document specifically targeting financial services agents.

To watch and listen to Gerry’s presentation, please click here.

Mobile banking and microfinance: Lessons from Pakistan

This post is written by Afsheen Shakoor, SBI-Pakistan Resident Advisor for an MFI branchless banking project. This post also appears on SBI’s blog.

Photo credit: ASASAH

Photo credit: ASASAH


It’s one of the greatest requests and laments of Pakistan’s microfinance clients. In surveys and informal interviews, clients say they want closer offices and quicker meetings. In this environment, little wonder that microfinance institutions (MFIs) are experimenting with mobile banking. But is mobile banking really the answer to clients’ prayers?

Well, maybe.

With mobile banking, instead of going to a branch office to make repayments, clients pay through designated agents of the partner bank or MFI. These agents may be local shopkeepers, pharmacists, or mobile retailers, and are ideally closer to the client than the MFI branch.

But in the case of Pakistan, agents haven’t been closer to the clients. Instead, they’ve clustered near the MFI and bank branches. So the gains in terms of speed and convenience have been modest, averaging as little as ten rupees. Continue reading

Better Than Cash?: Reflections on “The Journey Toward Cash Lite” from a Practitioner

This post is written by Jesse Fripp, SBI Vice President.

In October 2012, at a gala event in New York City, the Better Than Cash Alliance was officially launched. With a stated objective to “make the transition from cash to digital payments to achieve the shared goals of empowering people and growing emerging economies,” BTCA represents an important step forward in developing a unified industry voice for the effective deployment of new disruptive technologies. A major emphasis of the initiative is on expanding the universe of government and donor to person cash transfer programs (government to person, or G2P) as a means to enhance efficiencies, increase transparency, and ensure security and minimization of “leakage” through the use of new delivery channel technologies. While the emphasis of the BTCA’s efforts are on policy-makers and the macroeconomic advantages of a “cash lite” society, a big question still remains: is cash lite really “better than cash” for consumers?

In “The Journey Toward Cash Lite” a white paper developed by Bankable Frontier Associates for BTCA, the authors helpfully break down both the opportunity and challenge of achieving a cash lite economy for multiple groups of economic actors – government, donors, businesses, and individuals. However, there are two key areas of the conversation that merit more focused consideration – namely, the assumption that increased use of e-payments equates to financial sector “deepening” and the pivotal place assigned to the issue of “trust” as the major barrier to consumer uptake at scale. Continue reading