For low-income women, digital financial inclusion offers an opportunity to upend entrenched gender inequalities by entering spheres from which they have been otherwise excluded. Financial services delivered via mobile phone can bridge the last-mile gap, bringing financial tools and services directly to women where they work and live. However, women are underrepresented customers of digital financial providers and platforms. Well-established impediments such as cost, literacy, and normative barriers (that shape the way people behave and expect others to behave) prevent low-income women from using such services at the same rate as men. These demand-side constraints, combined with a dearth of sex-disaggregated customer data, leave most fintech firms without a clear picture of women’s wants and needs for digital financial tools. As such, most mass-market tools are not designed with women in mind.
Demand-side constraints and a dearth of sex-disaggregated customer data leave most fintech firms without a clear picture of women’s wants and needs for digital financial tools.
It’s not just digital financial inclusion: Fewer women than men have access to formal bank accounts and mobile technology. Globally, 65 percent of women, compared with 72 percent of men, have bank accounts, while 197 million fewer women own a phone than men, according to the GSMA Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019. Regional variations make these gaps more striking. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, home to many promising emerging market fintech innovations, the mobile gender gap is 15 percent, while in South Asia (including Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh) the gap is 28 percent. Further, access to formal bank accounts is extremely low across Africa. For example, the gender gap in account ownership in Kenya, according to the table below, looks to be only about 8 percentage points. However, the gap widens when adults with only a mobile money account are disaggregated from formal bank accounts and mobile money accounts. Around 65 percent of men in Kenya have both a formal bank account and mobile money account, while only 50 percent of women do. Interestingly, the gender gap in adults with only a mobile money account is reversed; more women than men have only a mobile money account, likely because the barriers to entry are lower than for a formal bank account. This trend can be seen throughout Africa.
Given the gender gaps in bank account ownership and mobile technology, it is not difficult to see why many fintech firms do not have visibility on how to better serve women. With fewer women users, and little to no sex-disaggregated data around how women’s use of and needs for these products differ from men’s, it can be difficult to identify low-income women’s needs and preferences. Excluding women is often unintentional — “gender-blind” design is thought of as an inclusive strategy. If “bias” is not baked into the design, the thinking goes, then anyone who wants to use the product can. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Gender-blind product and platform design strategies allow products to flow in the way they always have: into the hands of those who are already in the marketplace and who make the decisions about who else can benefit from or access these products. A “gender-intelligent” or “gender-aware” approach, on the other hand, seeks to overcome women’s specific constraints through data-driven design based on market research in order to create distinct customer value. And the numbers in the table demonstrate that men disproportionately benefit from bank accounts and mobile technology.
We show the potential of gender-aware design, and how to design for specific needs and constraints of women, while accounting for the norms that define their lives.
This brief examines design principles employed by two fintechs, Paycode and Extramile, working in Sub-Saharan Africa. We show the potential of gender-aware design, and how to design for specific needs and constraints of women, while accounting for the norms that define their lives. These two examples provide insights into why intentionally focusing on women can bring benefits to this largely untapped market and how fintechs can design products that meet women’s needs. Only by improving women’s meaningful use of financial services through concerted efforts to close the gender gaps will low-income communities and households begin to see potential economic benefits from inclusion, benefits that will also flow back to the providers that serve them. It is vital that fintechs move away from gender-blind or -neutral strategies toward gender-aware and even transformative strategies that bake in access pathways for potential customers with limited knowledge or physical mobility. Gender-blind design is not gender-neutral.
Fintechs in Sub-Saharan Africa and a Gender-Blind Approach
According to data collected by Inclusive Fintech 50 (IF50) — a competition founded by MetLife Foundation and Visa, with support from Accion and IFC, and additional funding from Jersey Overseas Aid & Comic Relief — only six of the 403 fintech applicants claimed women as their target customers. Most applicants selected “rural households,” “MSMEs,” or “low-income individuals” as their target market. This belies the fact that all of these fintechs reach women — for many of the IF50 winners, women make up nearly 50 percent of their customers. Indeed, women make up a large proportion, if not the majority, among those market segments.
This trend continues among the IF50 fintechs focused on the African continent. Of the 2020 winners in Africa, the product and livelihood focus ranged from mobile banking, water and utility payments, mobile-based crop insurance, and a range of credit and savings products directed at low-income populations. For example, OKO secures the income of farmers of unirrigated farms in Mali and Uganda through a mobile-based crop insurance that automatically compensates them if they suffer from adverse weather.
Within the profile descriptions of the 15 IF50 winners based in or delivering services in Africa, their customer segments were primarily described as “unbanked,” “underserved,” or “low-income.” A few mentioned women, but most called out their customers by their lack of access to financial services. Only three out of the 15 mention women in their key problem statement, while eight mention “unbanked” populations. Identifying women as their target market is not a requirement, even if women make up nearly half of their customers. But by calling out their target customers in terms of livelihood rather than by gender, these fintechs may assume that every “unbanked” person or MSME has the same level of access to their products. This is rarely, if ever, the case.
If these fintechs do not see women as their target market, how do they reach so many women? Gender-blind product design does not translate into complete exclusion — but it does mean that a product is more likely to reach and work well for certain segments of customers, namely men. Gender-blind design can be seen in mass-market items like car seatbelts and mobile phones as well as digital financial tools such as chatbots with basic financial literacy information or a mobile wallet. In some cases, targeting certain livelihood segments may lead fintechs to see where their design is ill-suited for their women customers and make adjustments. In 2019, UNCDF hosted a design sprint in Zambia for fintechs seeking to increase their female customers — the finalists all designed and modified their products after interacting with women customers. In other cases, women may in fact be a central target segment, but aspects of a woman’s life, such as normative constraints (like care responsibilities or intra-household decision-making), and thus the product doesn’t achieve desired inclusion or impact.