Which Game of Thrones Character Are You on the Financial Inclusion Board?

At long last, Game of Thrones (GoT) has returned to our world!

Showing us ways the realm can collide with our realities, the cast’s appearance on Conan at last year’s Comic-Con drew attention to care for refugees fleeing Syria with the IRC. So here’s an allegory global citizens can follow: “Game of Thrones: Financial Inclusion edition!”

To play this game, start by identifying which character best embodies your own industry or strategy. Here’s a rundown of all the actors that can alleviate poverty in various manners.

Banks = Lannisters. As the major incumbents with the most money and power, in both worlds they’re a strong ally, but better make sure your interests stay aligned. I’m not referring to the villainy or goodness of individual characters, but as a family house you have to admit the kingdom hasn’t run without them. And as with the rivals who take Tyrion in and listen to his counsel, wouldn’t you want such a seconded expert able to understand multiple perspectives and models?

Telcos = Dragon Queen. Inspiring a bold new future, telcos’ connectivity transcending location are represented by swift dragons with unparalleled (fire)power. Daenerys and the telcos are both busy amassing a vast network of agents as last-meter foot soldiers, upon which their success relies.

Mobile Money Agents = The Unsullied. These are the real foot soldiers who do most of the heavy lifting and dirty work, but not always with much profit, acclaim or fun. Originally viewed as enslaved guns for hire, their hidden potential lies in their unshackling to start creating new value in communities, whether that’s in running Meereen or facilitating value-added services needed to boost adoption.

How about the House of Stark…

Fintech = Bran. Fintech’s mass efficiency is analogous to this small but rising star who can attain wide reach through its special powers that tap into everyone’s strengths.

Social Enterprises = Arya. This young girl displays the plucky, determined, yet vulnerable power of staying nimble and adaptable while focusing on her goal. With the same spirit and advantage, up and coming social enterprise leaders might start on the fringe and be finding their path, but they have the potential to play key roles nobody else can.

Microfinance Institutions = Jon Snow. For both Jon and microfinance, it took a long time for their reputation to mature from bastard to leader. They experimented with different paths and got kicked around, but with noblest of intentions and support from believers, can rise again even stronger. Each is uniquely positioned with connections to mobilize commoners, leading with a style that empowers people.

As symbols revealing more abstract, collective dynamics, we can’t forget…

Base of the Pyramid’s (BoP) Informal Transactions = Free-Folk

The journey of wildings into the realm parallels financial sector’s shift away from vilifying informal practices of the BoP. Initially based on more distant glimpses, assistance often focused on convincing people on the other side of the poverty “wall” to behave like the cash-flow-flush by using foreign tools and customs. Just as the Free-Folk needed to be invited past barriers to participate within safety of formal context while maintaining their freedom, financial inclusion is learning how to craft more demand-based support with a better understanding of what really drives BoP choices or enhances value propositions to the point that it meets needs as they see best.

In the show, everyone acts both good and bad, but if there appears to be purely a villain, it would have to be…

Excluded Cash = Night King & White Walkers. Vast hordes demonstrate the walking death of cash without the lifeblood of productive capital, speed/efficiency of intermediation, or distributed risk when broader, diverse groups are pooled.

Which brings us to the moral of this tale… Following the power plays amongst territories is awfully engrossing, but fans know that on the other side of the “Great (Poverty) Wall” a far more dangerous army of the dead lurks, which will take cooperation to overcome. Just as the drama’s trajectory hints how enemies will have to fight side-by-side to tackle their shared menace, even so financial inclusion actors need to partner together to entice the vast majority of daily transactions left out of the formal economy. Real victory will come as we’re able to grow the size of the pie for everyone by adding greater value to the BoP instead of fighting only to preserve whatever fiefdom each one carves out.

We see glimpses of this hope in the real world. For instance, with its success widely beyond Kenya pending, mobile money’s promise as the still-too-rare “dragon glass” weapon in the fight against unproductive cash at risk under mattresses relies on telcos + agents + banks to create increasing value together. These collaborations as with M-Shwari m-savings/lending products have only just begun to diversify to address targeted market needs.

The same pioneer of VSLAs, CARE, was an early entrant to building links to banks or MFIs as well as with telcos. The savings group movement’s mobile wallets from Airtel Uganda + Grameen Foundation or Selcom + Aga Khan Foundation in Tanzania have been broadening and leading to apps providing more functions, like Chomoka. Food companies have begun working to digitize agricultural value chains with embedded financial products to include smallholder farmers, as seen in Connected Farmer Alliance with TechnoServe, USAID and Vodafone, or Mercy Corps’ Agrifin Accelerate facilitation with telcos, financial institutions, farmer networks, and technology innovators. All these approaches take multiple groups with broader vision to create new shared models delivering value that no single institution could build alone in order to draw in millions more excluded from the benefits of formal intermediation.

As usual, stay on guard. We’ve barely scratched the surface identifying roadblocks partnerships will need to manage to overcome, such as the humanitarian world’s cash programs in disasters lacking agents and liquidity to digitize, how India’s demonetization fueling Paytm’s expansion can keep trickling to more rural merchants and users as was done in this MFI/payments/fintech/NGO partnership, or Uganda’s talk of creating a shared agent network. Just as seen in GoT, alliances can be fragile and demand vigilant and wise nurturing with an eye toward the long run.

I hope GoT’s foreshadowing will keep reminding anyone targeting the BoP how threats lie less with each other so we’ll find creative ways to join forces if we have any hope of progress in the face of the army of dead/unproductive cash. Most of all remember if you dare ignore partnering with informal customers, for every Free-Folk’s need you might leave for dead along the road, it’ll only haunt you later when overall volumes languish as “cash remains king.” To make mass-adopted solutions, we’ll need to keep learning a lot more about BoP cash flow needs through emerging instruments like financial diaries (and digital versions) or mSurvey + M-Pesa’s consumer mobile wallet.

Of course, there is room for everyone from Varys (= consultants like BFA or MicroSave when you need wise advice); Grand Maesters (= think tank keepers & deployers of knowledge like CGAP or CFI); and Iron Bank (= UNCDF/IFC/DFID/USAID as the institutions you turn to when you need to pay for something as large as a whole fleet). Chime in if you don’t see yourself here or have a different take on this metaphor, and no matter your workplace, get ready to start working together more because #WinterIsHere .

To quote Sansa: “When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.”

A longer version of this post is featured on Chris’ LinkedIn, here.

After a decade in microfinance and returning from three years consulting throughout East Africa, Chris Wolff is founding a social enterprise with fintech, Shared Value Agents.

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