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

Are we cooking what the customer wants to eat?

This post is written by Nimrah Karim, SBI Associate Consultant based in Karachi, Pakistan.

Last week, a few SBI staff members visited Hala, a small town of 160,000 situated in the heart of Sindh, Pakistan. Our car weaved through narrow passages to reach the neighborhood of one of our focus group participants. We observed donkey carts navigating puddles, a herd of cows causing a traffic jam for rickshaws and pedestrians alike, and within alleyways, rows of small stores with male shopkeepers either tending to customers or chatting casually amongst themselves. As we traversed Hala’s winding backstreets—thriving with simple trade and services activities common to small, peri-urban towns —I reflected on the purpose of our visit. We were on our way to conduct focus group discussions (FGDs) with groups of women, to understand whether local recipients of one of the largest government cash transfer programs in the world could benefit from financial services offered by way of alternative distribution channels.

The FGD participants were beneficiaries of a grant of US $12 per month, disbursed by the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) to adult female members in Pakistan’s poorest households. BISP has used various implementing parties to deliver payments to beneficiaries. A majority of transfers have been disbursed via money order, dropped off by postmen to beneficiary households. BISP has also piloted alternative delivery mechanisms, including disbursement of funds through magnetic-stripe enabled smart cards, mobile phones, and branchless banking agents. To date, BISP has allocated cash transfers to 3.2 million families, with an aim to increase outreach by two-fold by the end of 2012.

Our research seeks to uncover whether there is a compelling value proposition to convert these one-way distribution flows into a financially inclusive account. The account in question would offer customers the ability to save and store funds safely and also afford them transactional capability—such as options for paying bills, making person-to-person fund transfers, and eventually, paying for merchandise and services through their account. A body of research on pioneering programs in Mexico, South Africa, India, and Brazil suggests that G2P payment recipients use financial services if available to them. In theory, it sounds perfect: G2P programs successfully reach millions of the poor and financially excluded through various channels. Why not go a step further and use these platforms to reach this very segment with financial services? Continue reading

Technology is only as good as the people who use it

This post is written by Veena Krishnamoorthy, an SBI Project Manager in India.

The last couple of years have seen a greater focus on reaching the underserved through the use of technology.  Alternate Delivery Channels (ADC) are considered a solution that will bring in efficiencies, bring scale and increase outreach at a relatively lower operational costs.  What we forget that ADC is nothing but a delivery mechanism!

When we talk about banking, we all know and realize that following systems, policies and procedures is extremely critical for success of banking.  While introducing a new delivery channel, such as mobile phones to provide access to savings or payment platforms, it is important that we do not forget to follow these basic rules.  It is important to bring in better control mechanisms to monitor and control the image of the bank.  The neighborhood kirana store (local retailer), which is where the banking agent is based, will become the new face of the bank.

For instance, during field visit of a partner bank branch, we were with an agent who was responsible for collecting savings.  The customer had a requirement of Rs. 200 that he wanted to withdraw from his savings account.  The field agent gave him the money without the customer signing a withdrawal slip.  The field agent was trying to keep his customer happy.  He did not realize the implications of that simple transaction and the impact on banking.  If the bank had given sufficient training and also ensured that the agent understood the implication of each transaction, then this would not have happened.

Let us not assume that the agents know what banking is or what the bank’s policies and procedures are.   This is where it is extremely critical to have a well documented policies and procedures manual for an ADC platform, a guideline and a rule book or a Bible, which can be used as reference by field staff as well as an agent.  Technology will help only if there are well trained and knowledgeable agents.  It is also important to ensure that a fraud and risk mitigation strategy and control mechanisms are in place well so that the agent does not have to worry about risks and issues.  This helps in building the agent’s confidence when he is sure that if he follows the guidelines, he will be able to serve his clientele better and thus increase his credibility.

To successfully bank beyond branches, there is a need to have well documented polices and guidelines, and a well trained agent network.  Like Warren Buffet said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it.”

The Psychology of Pricing

This post is written by Debbie Watkins, SBI’s Resident Advisor in Dhaka, Bangladesh

A customer’s propensity to acquire or use a product is in part driven by pricing – combined with convenience, trust and accessibility. ADC implementations around the world have experimented with a number of different pricing options, which (hopefully!) have been calculated using a combination of different factors, including pricing of competitive products in their market, relative convenience and accessibility over the formal or informal channels people are using right now.

The important part of this sentence is “are using right now.” If you remember back in my second article, “Adding constituent value,” I stated that it must be remembered that whatever you’re offering is not “new” to them; it’s an alternative to what they’re using already, and you have to improve on that. I also mentioned that low-income people are pretty savvy when it comes to determining the true value of something, and if your pricing doesn’t cut it, they’ll just vote with their feet.

Pricing can also motivate people to behave in different ways. Here are a few possible scenarios to consider:

-          Flat pricing encourages fewer, larger transactions. This can result in liquidity problems for agents if they are dealing with infrequent but significant deposits or withdrawals. It also may mean the client is keeping the money in cash under the mattress until they have a lump sum to send, and the sender is then withdrawing the whole amount in one go and keeping it under THEIR mattress. Continue reading

The Future of Microfinance in the New Era of Technology-Enabled Alternative Delivery Channels

SBI led a workshop at the annual SEEP conference in Washington, DC earlier this month titled “The Future of Microfinance in the New Era of Technology-Enabled Alternative Delivery Channels.”

The workshop addressed the changing realities of how microfinance institutions must consider and approach their “market,” especially with the development of technology-enabled alternative delivery channels (ADCs).  The workshop outlined the latest developments in ADCs and sought to come to an understanding of the future possibilities for MFIs.  The speakers, which included Jesse Fripp, Vice President at ShoreBank International, Jim Hokans, Director at Bankable Frontier Associates, Ryan Favley, Manager of ADC Strategy at ShoreBank International, and Syed Mohsin Ahmed, CEO of Pakistan Microfinance Network, addressed the issues around regulation and the enabling environment related to MFIs, discussed the changing market and both the challenges with technology, commercial models, and new product dynamics based on existing experiences with branchless banking.

The workshop also included a discussion with participants on current trends, considerations, and future prospects for the MFI industry in the context of ADCs.  The speakers cautioned MFIs to take time and fully understand the industry, whether the MFI would be able to sustainably benefit from ADCs, and whether it was in line with their strategy.  Technology-enabled ADCs are a promising and exciting prospect for MFIs, given the right conditions for both the institution and the market in which they operate.