Dreaming of Digital Goats

Written by Jesse Fripp

Recently, my wife and I supported a client of hers, a Malawian woman, victim of trafficking, to make a trip home to visit her family for the first time in fourteen years. Her mother and family are low-income farmers who live off-grid in a remote area of the country. Upon her arrival, she reported that they were so thrilled at her return and our support for her that they wanted to send back a prize goat for us, as an expression of their deep appreciation.

My wife and I were deeply touched by their gesture, knowing that in much of the world a goat is a key element of a low-income family’s investment portfolio – an accessible, secure, reliable and generally very productive asset.

A young boy in Kyrgyzstan holds his family's goat

A young boy in Kyrgyzstan holds his family’s goat

However, it reminded me that the goat (and other such instruments of value in the informal economy) is the primary competition to the true success of digital and mobile banking in achieving financial inclusion. In a low-income, emerging-market environment, a goat is a prized “liquid asset,” with a good outlook for return and security.

Contrast this with the opportunity to put precious cash savings into a seemingly ephemeral “mobile wallet” savings product. There, the hard-won cash the matron of the family hands over at the local kiosk disappears into a notation in a passbook or lightly printed receipt, where it will earn a return (if at all), only marginally better than inflation or sometimes even less. The asset cannot be seen or felt, and can sometimes be difficult to access on short notice.  Complex and opaque fees of the agent, the mobile operator, bank partners, and others eat away at the value of each transaction. And ultimately, there is limited social satisfaction, nothing to point to or be secretly envied by neighbors as a result of her efforts.

However, if that same farm matron invests her savings in a goat, she is reasonably assured of a few things. She can keep an eye on the goat on a daily basis. The goat can produce valuable dairy products for consumption and sale. The goat has the capacity to literally pay dividends by reproducing and making a host of kids (little goats, for you city-slickers) who can be sold, raised for dairy and/or meat. The goat keeps the weeds down, and entertains the children. Aggressive male goats are even decent “guard dogs.” A tribe of healthy goats indicates village status. And when push comes to shove, the family can sit down to a nourishing meal of goat stew.

So, the financial inclusion answer seems clear. Enclude’s Digital Channels & Linkages team is certainly working hard on this one, with partners in Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Nigeria and elsewhere.

Yes, a Digital Goat.

This electronic equivalent to real goat value could be an m-savings product explicitly presented in goat-value terms, benchmarking the return on a Kwacha invested in savings vs the risk-weighted average return of a goat – offering real return over time, linked to real objectives. Possibly even purchase of a pair of goats or other high-value household investments as the explicit marketing outcome.

Enclude’s current deployments in Ethiopia and India include a focus in the area of such out-of-the-box thinking around customer-centered products for smallhold farm households, as well as broader areas, such as incorporating partnerships with ag input providers to integrate payment and input distribution channels to provide a “one-stop” information, ordering, distribution and payment point for rural farmers. Not a goat, perhaps, but certainly feed for one.

And with the recent discussion by Bill Gates at Sibos (view a clip here) around the future of the financial sector, and mention of several specific examples of what this might look like, there may be more to explore. These include the potential of innovations like BitCoin (Gates also flagged long-time Enclude partner and client bKash as an example of what this future might look like). Does this open an opportunity to develop “GoatCoin” for rural emerging markets? Perhaps with a farmer-friendly customer interface and a national goat-based commodity index backing up value (a “Goat Standard,” so to speak). The farm matron might buy whole or partial “GoatCoins” on a periodic basis, which maintain and grow in value until she is ready to cash them out – either for currency or goats, perhaps. We will explore this type of innovation and others further in a future BBB blog.

Whatever the case, until we are able to offer a Digital Goat that can compete with the tangible value of a real goat, or the other informal payment and investment alternatives of the two-thirds of the world’s population that remains largely outside the formal economy, broad-based financial inclusion will remain elusive.

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: data.gov.md

Photo Credit: data.gov.md

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