Toward an “Agent-Free” World

The following post draws observations from the just-released FI2020 Progress Report on Technology. See the full report to explore other topics.

Technology innovation is dramatically changing the financial services landscape—and quickly. No longer are simple 2G/SMS-based payments the talk of the financial inclusion community. Instead, a range of platforms and products and services promise that as we move into the future, the costs of providing services will be lower, and the base of the pyramid will be within reach for mainstream financial services providers.

The world in which these innovations are mainstreamed is one where the agent network concerns we have today will be gone. In the cash-lite or cash-free world that technology providers are seeking, there will, in fact, be few to no agents, as people will receive money electronically and spend it electronically without ever converting it to cash. When is the last time you went to a banking agent?

Consider the following innovations that allow important financial transactions to take place without a detour through cash. (For a more comprehensive list of innovations, see the FI2020 Progress Report on Technology.)

Low-Fee Remittances: In 2014, the global average cost for transferring remittances was 8 percent – a burden for low-income families who rely on remittance income. But this may soon change. Start-ups such as TransferWise, WorldRemit, and Azimo have mobile apps through which users can send remittances at fees as low as 1 percent. Companies like PayPal are increasing their global consumer base, and charge 3–4 percent on international transfers. Customers who were recently offered mobile cross-border remittances in West Africa responded by rapidly adopting the service. Orange Money offered transfers between its own customers across Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, and Senegal, while MTN and Airtel created a bilateral agreement to serve the Cote d’Ivoire–Burkina Faso corridor. With the emergence of these competing business models, established players such as Western Union and MoneyGram have reduced their fees. Cornelis Heesbeen, CEO of Auxfin, a remittance service, predicts that by 2020 there will be no fees for remittances. The big question is how and when the remittance industry will shift from one in which most transactions start and end in cash at a banking agent, to one in which most transfers are account to account.

Pay-As-You-Go Utilities: Large up-front costs make solar home systems too expensive for off-grid, low-income customers, unless they get a loan. To sidestep the need for credit, some companies are using pay-as-you-go leasing technology on top of mobile payments. For example, with M-Kopa in Kenya and Mobisol in Tanzania and Kenya, customers pay daily-use fees via M-Pesa. If payment is not received, the company can turn off the system remotely through the embedded pay-as-you-go device. According to CGAP, as of 2014 there were at least 25 companies selling solar systems with this technology in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And the technology is being tested for other utilities, too.

P2P Lending: P2P lending services have taken off and expanded rapidly, particularly in China, led by CreditEase, Lufax, China Rapid Finance, and DianRong. At the end of 2014 there were an estimated 1,575 P2P platforms operating in China, up from only 50 in 2011, and 103.6 billion yuan (US$16.7 billion) in outstanding loans issued via online platforms.

Online ROSCAs: An estimated 1.5 billion people globally participate in rotating savings and credit associations (ROSCAs). They provide a simple, informal method for people to save money and receive loans, although traditional ROSCAs can be unreliable and subject to management problems. Kitty10 is a mobile app that offers a possible remedy, allowing ROSCAs to manage their finances, maintain an electronic history of transactions, and easily make decisions (such as those dealing with loan amounts and repayment terms). It gives financial tips and can even build credit histories for members. Magadarsi is an Indian chit fund that uses the Internet to support ROSCA-like operations. Magadarsi allows users to sign up online and pay savings and loan installments through online banking on its website. This allows for much larger scale in membership.

These innovations exemplify the impressive progress that technology has made in the last few years—and will continue to make from now to 2020, when the financial inclusion industry is striving to achieve financial inclusion globally. Truly, of all of the lenses through which we explored progress made toward financial inclusion for the FI2020 Progress Report, technology was the most promising, and we gave it the highest score on progress (7/10).


Have you read?

Rating Progress on Financial Inclusion on a Scale of 1 to 10

The Twelve Days of Fintech

Fintech for FI2020: A Conversation on Aligning Technology and Partnerships for Financial Inclusion


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