Time to Work Together? Corporations and NGOs have a ways to go with Mobile Financial Services

> Posted by Michael Quesnell, Senior Manager, Sustainability, Nokia
This post is part of the Center for Financial Inclusion’s Expert Exchange: Building A Movement Toward Financial Inclusion by 2020, cultivating conversation around the goal of reaching full financial inclusion by 2020. For further questions about this series, write to Sonja E. Kelly, Fellow, Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion.
It was just a year ago that I was sitting on the floor of a tiny local community building in a small village about 90 minutes outside of Ahmedabad, India listening to 30 women tell me what they wanted from mobile technology. These women, all leaders with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), were on their game despite the fact that my agenda was to get insights into a financial literacy application I was helping design. They were shrewd, insightful, and knew exactly what they wanted and needed to improve their important rural work in microfinance and membership services…I was about to get schooled.
Unfortunately for many of my corporate colleagues these encounters are all too rare. Oh, we all use various qualitative and ethnographic techniques in design but that is usually where the dialogue stops. The go-to-market (GTM) wonks usually take over once the technology is built and then tried and true practices are put into place. These almost never include NGOs as channel partners or lead stakeholders in connecting to the audience we intend to serve.
The commercial promise of mbanking was that it was supposed to scale well, avoiding the infrastructure and teacher readiness challenges of mlearning and the litigious potential of mhealth. Yet in looking at the mobile financial services landscape, the successful technologies—commercially profitable and socially meaningful—are limited for the most part to a few local markets. M-Pesa, always a poster-child of success, though doing well in Kenya, has had a very mixed spillover effect on other African markets (See Jake Kendall’s Bank vs. Mobile Led Markets post over at CGAP). Other local examples exist in Latin America and Asia where a financial institution was able to extend its client base and reach into new communities through mobile technology. The problem here is that if solutions go country by country the outcome globally will be very uneven and interoperability will be unattainable.
As we wrestle with the global – local questions, the difficulties of the unbanked still exist. The poor continue to face incomes that are low, irregular, and unpredictable.  Helping poor households manage money on a day-to-day basis, build savings over the long term, and borrow for all uses is still very much present. The women of SEWA still have to risk carrying around microfinance payments and membership dues in their bags, putting them in harm’s way on a daily basis.
So although the opportunity for global commercial players hasn’t lessened, the approach to reach consumers in the BOP (Bottom of the Pyramid) segment needs to embrace a more holistic GTM approach that includes NGOs (MFIs, relief organizations, etc.) in the final execution of the service. This is a theme that has been mentioned a number of times in this forum, but, speaking from my commercial perspective, I can tell you that cooperation is more difficult than it sounds.
Once partners find one another, they must define the shared value so that everyone has skin in the game and can reach returns that make sense for their constituencies. Practically, as commercial players, with technology in mind, we will have to give up some of our arrogance and limited understanding of the behavioral change we are asking consumers to make. Often this stems from a tolerance to fail up (so popular among West Coast tech startups) without accounting for the impact on consumers who have much to lose. The microfinance NGO leader who spends countless hours talking to clients in their homes and communities is in a very good position to provide a due diligence reality check on our product ambitions. In turn, NGO leaders will need to surrender some of their exclusivity claim on stakeholders so that companies will continue to innovate and invest in meaningful product development for the people they aspire to serve. At times this could mean that companies will need a direct link to consumers without NGO “middleware” in order to create new products for unmet social needs.  In both cases an agreement negotiated in good faith can provide a working framework for a successful collaboration. Clearly I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, so predicting where commercial and NGO players will end up on behalf of consumers is beyond my ability. I will say there is a lot at stake to jointly get it together. The mobile financial service ecosystem is very stilted and only services a few to full capacity. I am optimistic, eternally, yet as Star Wars Master Yoda said, “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”
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As a Senior Manager for Nokia’s Sustainability group, Michael Quesnell has been responsible for developing a portfolio of regional and global investments that deliver social and business benefit through non-profit and government sectors. In this role the overall ambition was to improve stakeholder quality of life through mobile technology for development while increasing the likelihood for commercial success. Michael is an experienced corporate relations and sustainability leader focused on creating commercial value through solving social challenges. He is effective in aligning business and social opportunities resulting in improved access to new markets, creating new products for unmet social needs, and driving brand differentiators. His leadership background includes corporate, educational, and non-profit industries.
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