Can dialogue lead to DFS uptake? – PERSPECTIVES FROM MSTAR/BANGLADESH

As mSTAR’s project in Bangladesh comes to a close this fall, mSTAR/Bangladesh staff write on their perspectives from three years of a successful project, where mSTAR/Bangladesh helped enroll over 24,000 individuals—most of whom are women—into digital financial service accounts and helped USAID IPs and beneficiaries transact around $1.83 million digitally. The activity brought two new financial products to market with Bank Asia and IFIC Bank, including micro-credit to farmers with lower interest rates and more favorable repayment terms than any other alternative on the market today. Through this effort, mSTAR/Bangladesh facilitated loan disbursement to 795 farmers. Both banks are interested in scaling up these efforts.  

By Tasnuba Sinha, mSTAR/Bangladesh Digital Financial Services Associate

In a world where we want to make an impact across borders, cultures, viewpoints and motivations, dialogues such as stakeholders’ meetings, conferences, formal network gatherings and seminars play an integral role. Dialogues like these allow for networking and relationship building, for role models to inspire next generation change makers, and for the exchange of experiences.

mSTAR/Bangladesh recognizes the potential and the importance of dialogue facilitation and has organized 11 dialogue facilitation programs in Bangladesh over the past four years. I have been fortunate enough to be a part of mSTAR/Bangladesh and have organized numerous events over the past 11 months including Mobile Money Consultative Group meetings, a Financial Inclusion Week Event and an Agricultural Value Chain Insights: Opportunities in Bangladesh report launching event.

In the last few years, our team at mSTAR/Bangladesh has built a strong local and international network of representatives from development organizations, donor agencies, digital financial services (DFS) providers, mobile network operators, technology solution providers, insurance companies and regulatory bodies – people who are doers and makers, who believe what we believe: that Bangladesh has all the potential in the world. Without this community, our work in supporting acceleration and adoption of digital payments would not be possible.

The first Mobile Money Consultative Group (MMCG) meeting was first held in August 2014 and ever since then, it has successfully created a community of passionate individuals who believe in the benefits of using digital financial services and ultimately building an inclusive digital ecosystem where all segments of society have access to formal financial services, particularly those at the bottom of the pyramid. MMCG provided a platform for change makers to come together and discuss challenges and innovative solutions. Held quarterly, the MMCG has been covering various issues from the importance of financial literacy to the need for innovation in mobile financial services products. Furthermore, several digital financial service providers have expressed many times during the meetings that they see all the challenges as an opportunity for them to develop their products in such a way that the challenges can be eliminated. Most importantly, our team believes in promoting collaboration, trust and community – the tenets of a strong digital financial ecosystem and after successfully conducting nine MMCG meetings, we can say that is what we have attained.

Another major event that mSTAR/Bangladesh (mSTAR/B) has hosted that I am particularly proud of is the Financial Inclusion Week event in October 2016. Aligning with the global theme ‘Keeping Clients First in a Digital World,’ mSTAR/B hosed an event entitled ‘Increasing the Uptake of Formal Financial Services through a Client-Centric Approach.’ The event successfully explored how different actors, from development organizations, to financial service providers, to government programs, have supported the development, promotion and uptake of digital financial services in Bangladesh. mSTAR/B was one of the very few organizations who took part in this global conversation. The modality of the workshop was designed in such a way that it provided the participants to perform a lively, interactive discussion where they explored scenarios reflecting existing needs, barriers to accessing formal financial services in Bangladesh and the actions and steps required to further accelerate financial inclusion.

The core purpose behind hosting any dialogue facilitation is to help people connect. Dialogues give organizations opportunities to see what other people are working on and understand challenges, and the need to develop new innovative products that would benefit all segments of the population. For us, that was the main objective. We aimed to provide such platforms that would help a development organization connect with a DFS provider or other development organization and inspire individuals to think of building the ecosystem through collaboration.

Tasnuba Sinha has been with mSTAR/Bangladesh since August 2016. During that time, she organized five events promoting dialogue facilitation. She has always been passionate about working in the development sector and graduated with a degree in Economics. Prior to mSTAR/Bangladesh, Tasnuba worked at a tech startup in Bangladesh.

More Awareness-Raising Activities Are Needed to Increase Use of DFS – Perspectives from mSTAR/Bangladesh

As mSTAR’s project in Bangladesh comes to a close this fall, mSTAR/Bangladesh staff write about their perspectives from three years of a successful project, where mSTAR/Bangladesh helped enroll over 24,000 individuals—most of whom are women—into digital financial service accounts and helped USAID IPs and beneficiaries transact around $1.83 million digitally. The activity brought two new financial products to market with Bank Asia and IFIC Bank, including micro-credit to farmers with lower interest rates and more favorable repayment terms than any other alternative on the market today. Through this effort, mSTAR/Bangladesh facilitated loan disbursement to 795 farmers. Both banks are interested in scaling up these efforts.  

By Kazi Amit Imran, mSTAR/Bangladesh Communications Specialist

“We do not have any scope to adopt digital financial services in our project” – this is exactly how many development projects react when they hear about digital financial services (DFS) for the first time. Even though USAID has mandated the use of digital payments as the default method for its implementing partners since 2014, lack of technical knowledge and misunderstanding about what is required to use DFS still holds back many projects. One of the key components holding back DFS adoption is lack of awareness, both among the general population and development organizations whose programs support them. This is in part why many Bangladeshis—and development organizations—are unaware of and often hesitant to try DFS products.

The reality in Bangladesh is that the majority of the rural population still uses cash to make financial transactions. This segment is often broadly unaware of the intricacies of DFS products, and therefore can lack trust in them. While some organizations are trying to increase the uptake of DFS by increasing their knowledge and capacity to use DFS products, more effort and engagement is required. Even years after their introduction to Bangladesh, many people are still unaware of DFS, such as mobile financial services and agent banking products.

The importance of increasing DFS-specific knowledge is crucial for spurring adoption, and the benefits that come from having access to formal financial services. Over the past four years, the mSTAR activity in Bangladesh has focused on increasing DFS-specific awareness among USAID-funded project staff and beneficiaries, particularly through publications, blog posts, videos, and other multimedia content. We developed different kinds learning documents targeting different audiences including project leads, finance staff, program staff, frontline managers and beneficiaries. mSTAR/Bangladesh’s approach to awareness raising was very much focused on tailoring content to appeal to and meet the needs of specific audiences.

Early on, many USAID-funded implementing partners (IPs) were hesitant to use DFS often due to a lack of awareness and capacity, although with technical support from mSTAR/Bangladesh that began to change. By documenting and sharing the learnings from these early adopters, we were able to convince other USAID IPs to consider the potential benefits of DFS to help them enhance operational efficiency and better achieve their development objectives.

Though it varies from context to context, we’ve found that sharing success stories of beneficiaries and infographics, in particular, have had a dramatic impact on influencing IPs to consider DFS. The success stories validate the benefits and the changes that DFS adoption brings about to individuals’ lives, as well as to IPs at an organizational level. The infographics, meanwhile, helped them to very easily visualize the benefits from transitioning to DFS, such as this one, which captured the impact using DFS had on achieving project objectives. Meanwhile, our infosheets have brought about price transparency in the DFS market in Bangladesh for the first time. Prior to our creation of the first Mobile Money Infosheet in 2014, it was not possible to find information on corporate pricing on any of the mobile financial service (MFS) providers websites. Once we started putting their prices and service offerings side by side, they took notice. bKash, for example, the country’s largest MFS provider waived their disbursement fees for all USAID projects and also reduced their cash out fees for recipients of payments from USAID projects from 1.85 percent to 1 percent.

At mSTAR/Bangladesh, we have seen that an informed person is more likely to adopt DFS compared to a person who is unaware of DFS and its potential. This reflects the need to better promote DFS products and their associated benefits in a language that can be easily understood by the intended audience.

You can view all of our learning documents online here.

Kazi Amit Imran served as the Communications Specialist for mSTAR/Bangladesh from May 2014 to May 2017. Prior to this he served as a Communications Manager at BRAC. He has a masters degree in development studies and business administration.

Why We Need to Advance Digital Financial Services for Factory Workers

By Majidul Haque

‘We want to be paid in cash! We are very much happy with the way we are receiving our salaries. We don’t need any banking system or MFS account!’

I heard this from most of the attendees in a town hall meeting I was holding with ready-made garment (RMG) workers in Bangladesh. As a Technical Lead for digital financial services at FHI 360, at the time I was writing a guide for BSR’s HERfinance project on how garment workers could use mobile financial services (MFS). Through the town hall meetings I could better understand workers’ opinions on using MFS instead of cash to receive wages.

Their plea for cash was natural. Cash has a real-life feel that comes from seeing, touching and counting notes, as Mr. Chhavi Ghuliani, Associate Director at BSR, notes in his article ‘Why is cash a problem?’. Digital channels, on the other hand, are intangible.

It might be appropriate to say that these unbanked workers’ preference is to always have something physical, as it ensures direct access to their money. Building trust in MFS might grow slowly unless they can practically feel or see its actual benefits. Therefore, raising awareness of the benefits of MFS among workers can play a vital role in digitizing salary payments.

After I explicitly explained the benefits of using MFS to the group of workers, they replied positively about accepting their wages digitally.

It might be appropriate to say that these unbanked workers’ preference is to always have something physical, as it ensures direct access to their money.

The RMG sector in Bangladesh has significant influence on the Bangladeshi economy in terms of employment, production and foreign exchange earnings. The industry employs over four million people, most of whom are unbanked. In Bangladesh, 90 percent of wages are paid through cash and RMG factories are no different in that regard.

In Bangladesh, 90 percent of wages are paid through cash and RMG factories are no different in that regard.

However, paying salaries in cash brings several concerns to both RMG factories and their workers. Factories face the risk of theft or fraud in the shipment and distribution of cash and the amount of time and resources required to process disbursements is significant. Workers, as well, face the risk of losing their cash through theft while traveling home from factories. Cash can also discourage maintaining savings, which are essential to enabling individuals to adapt to future demand and shocks. Women workers, who represent more than 80% of the total RMG workers in Bangladesh, face even greater risks as they often have little or no control over their money if it is in cash. In many parts of Bangladesh, women are likely to be more economically dependent on men or other family members for their survival due to their limited earnings, the male dominated culture and lower education. In addition, according to research done by the Financial Inclusion Insights (FII) program, less than half of women in Bangladesh have access to formal financial services and even fewer women have a registered account. As a result, they usually handover their cash to a male relative to store.

Given the limitations with cash, the high mobile penetration rate, and the rapid growth of MFS in Bangladesh, MFS has the potential to be one of the best solutions to digitize salary payments—not to mention that it can also serve as a powerful catalyst to bridge the financial inclusion gap of RMG workers. Digitizing salary payments can bring more efficiency and transparency to payroll systems by ensuring access to formal financial services for both men and women. In addition, women can also have more control over their salaries and influence over household financial decision making.

To help the RMG sector capitalize on this opportunity, FHI 360 and BSR recently published a manual titled ‘Digitizing Worker Salary Payments: A Manual for Ready-made Garment Factories.’ This manual provides a blueprint for ready-made garment factories in Bangladesh, and the organizations supporting them, who are interested in using mobile financial services to make salary payments to their workers. It includes background information on MFS, the possible benefits and challenges, and useful tips and checklists for implementing MFS salary payments.

 

Md. Majidul Haque is the technical lead – digital financial services (DFS) for the USAID Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research (mSTAR) activity implemented by FHI 360 in Bangladesh. He has just under a decade of experience in telecom, banking and international development organizations, with a focus on new business, product development, project management and action research related to DFS, financial inclusion, e-commerce, payment gateways and value-added services (VAS). He has also been a key technical advisor on DFS to BSR’s HERfinance program, supporting the digitization of payments to female garment workers in Bangladesh. Throughout his career, Majidul has successfully introduced DFS to a wide range of segments, including smallholder farmers, local government officers, community health workers, ultra-poor women, slum dwellers, and ready-made garment workers. He worked with eight different RMG factories to roll-out MFS to more than 6,000 workers for salary disbursement.

Mobile Money Helps Farmers Grow Their Businesses in Bangladesh

This is the first of a three-week blog series on digital financial services for agriculture. This series showcases mSTAR and the Digital Development for Feed the Future team’s recently released interactive online resource and instructional videos, made to complement The Guide to the Use of Digital Financial Services in Agriculture. The online resource breaks down the steps of how to use digital financial services in agriculture.


Mobile money can transform the reach and success of a USAID project.

By offering a secure way to store money and access financial services, mobile money has the potential to increase the efficiency of programs and significantly improve the resilience of smallholder farmers.

Carrying cash in the field can be precarious for development workers and beneficiaries alike, as many USAID missions and partners know. In Bangladesh, “there is a security risk and safety risk,” says a representative from WorldFish, a non-profit that works with Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative. Cash can be lost, or worse, stolen. But until recently, cash was the only form of payment—it’s how farmers paid for agricultural inputs and how buyers paid for agricultural products. “There was no other channel,” explains Josh Woodard, Regional ICT & Digital Finance Advisor at FHI 360.

Mobile money has emerged as an obvious solution to the risk of carrying cash. While access to banks is limited for rural agricultural communities, access to mobile phones is not. In June 2016, for example, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission reported 131.4 million mobile phone subscriptions in Bangladesh. This makes up around 83% of Bangladesh’s population. With this, mobile money has seen massive growth in Bangladesh. It has “opened an opportunity to eliminate or vastly reduce the amount of cash transactions,” Josh says.

Josh leads the Bangladesh office for the FHI 360-led and USAID-funded Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research project (mSTAR).  In addition to reducing the risk of staff carrying cash, USAID and mSTAR saw the impact mobile money could have in achieving the goals of USAID agricultural programs in the country. To start, mSTAR assessed where and how mobile money could be applied in project value chains. They conducted value chain studies and provided technical assistance, training staff and building capacity.

“Since mSTAR started activities in Bangladesh in September 2013,” Josh says, “we have been able to work with USAID to digitize payments for 10 Feed the Future activities.” Farmers now have access to financial products, many for the first time. Without money stolen or lost, and with the ability to store and manage money, farmers can reinvest more in their farms, in turn increasing the amount of food they can produce, and their profits. All this leads to stronger, and safer, communities.

Watch the video below to see how USAID and mSTAR implemented mobile money in Bangladesh and worked with implementing partners to successfully impact beneficiary farmers.

As the Bangladesh example shows, digital financial services have the potential to strengthen Feed the Future projects around the globe. USAID is here to help missions and partners identify specific challenges in value chains and integrate digital financial services into those corresponding challenges.

To learn more about how to implement digital financial services in Feed the Future projects, walk through the steps of the online Guide to the Use of Digital Financial Services in Agriculture. If you have specific questions or feedback, contact digitaldevelopment@usaid.gov

Liberian Health Care Workers Transition to Mobile Money

By Erica Bustinza, mSTAR/Liberia Project Manager

Meet Kou, a health worker in rural Nimba County, Liberia. During the Ebola crisis, Kou took action to combat the disease, going door-to-door in her community to stop its spread. The relentless determination of Kou and her peers to rise each morning and fight back against the illness helped bring the epidemic to a halt.

Despite facing life-threatening risks performing her daily work duties, Kou wasn’t able to access her pay. To pick up her salary she had to travel a far distance from her rural community to the bank, but travel was restricted due to quarantines and was risky because of the prevalence of Ebola and difficult road conditions. While many of her peers protested the lack of pay through boycotts, Kou continued working towards saving her country.

To increase efficiency of payments, FHI 360’s Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research (mSTAR) Project, funded by USAID, is working with Liberia’s Ministry of Health (MOH) to offer mobile money salary payments. This gives health workers the option to receive their salaries from mobile money agents who are often closer and more convenient than banks.

Kou spends a shocking amount of her salary on collecting her salary. Her monthly net income is LD 14,300 (USD $146) of which she spends LD 800 on transportation to the bank to retrieve her salary. At the bank she is frequently told that the bank “system is down” and is forced to wait until the money is accessible, sometimes for several days. During this time not only is Kou missing work, but she’s also racking up costs. She spends LD 100 round trip to her relative’s house where she can sleep, LD 150 on food and LD 100 on a phone card to inform her family of the delay. At the bank, Kou waits in line for four hours and then pays LD 300 in bribes to finally pick up her salary. When she receives the cash it is LD 13,200 (USD $135) instead of the LD 14,300 that she expected. The bank can only offer the explanation that this is what was deposited and Kou has no access to a paystub explaining the additional deductions. After spending another LD 800 to return home, Kou is left with LD 10,950, only 77% of her salary.

mSTAR first worked with Liberia’s Ministry of Education to roll-out mobile money salary payments for teachers. The mSTAR team faced questions and challenges during the rollout, such as cash availability (liquidity) and participant targeting. When mSTAR began to plan for rolling out MOH salary payments the team did not assume that the challenges for health workers would mirror those in education. To gain a clear understanding of health payment systems, use of mobile technology, and health worker attitudes and trust in the government, mSTAR and the MOH completed two related analyses: Liberian Health Workers and Mobile Money: An Ethnography and A Contextual Analysis of Payment Disbursements for Liberian Health Workers. The ethnography describes the experiences and attitudes of health workers in Liberia with regards to mobile phone usage and salary disbursement, while the Contextual Analysis explores the cultural, social and environmental context of payment disbursements. The research was done by the mSTAR team and 10 researchers across five counties who conducted direct observation, focus group discussions and key informant interviews.

Some of the findings confirmed what was already known – that health workers spend a relatively large portion of their salaries and a significant amount of time away from their jobs and families to collect monthly pay. The reports confirmed widely held assumptions, like the lack of trust health workers felt towards their employer because of inconsistent deductions and unreliable frequency of payments.

The reports also unearthed new, surprising findings that will impact the project’s roll out. For example, a majority of health workers that participated in the study already use mobile money. They are sending remittances to family for child care, school fees and as unexpected expenses arise. In some cases, mobile money is even used to pay bills or pay the school for fees directly.

Kou doesn’t like the current system through which she receives her salary, but she is still skeptical of the new and unfamiliar mobile money system. mSTAR’s comprehensive look at Kou’s and her peers’ patterns allows mSTAR’s team to frame mobile money in a context Kou understands and build trust in the system by relating it to health workers’ current needs.

With this targeted method, Kou will better understand the system and will be more likely to enroll in mobile money payments, which will enable her to collect her salary while avoiding unnecessary travel away from home and expenses. Most importantly, the mobile money approach helps keep Kou safe, and in the rare occurrence where traveling becomes dangerous again in Liberia, Kou will be able to receive her salary and continue caring for her community.

Erica Bustinza is the Project Manager overseeing mSTAR activities in Liberia. She has worked in development for over 10 years in various geographic regions and sectors, primarily focused on access to finance, economic development and technology integration.

Photo credit: CDC Global

Financial Inclusion Forum Call for Proposals Now Open!

 

We are looking for session ideas, stories, case studies, reports, and key learnings from programming. Session ideas should distill insights, evidence, and emerging best practices into actionable recommendations/approaches for practitioners to carry forward into their programming. Click here to learn more.

December 1-2, 2016 the U.S. Department of the Treasury and USAID will host the 2016 Financial Inclusion Forum by convening a diverse group of leaders from the U.S. and foreign governments, financial institutions and other corporations, and nonprofits to chart a recommended approach to financial inclusion during the next administration. For the second  year in a row, mSTAR is thrilled to support the Treasury and USAID at the forum. Building on the successes of the 2015 Financial Inclusion Forum, the 2016 event will be a two-day convening focused on evidence, best practices, and emerging trends around four key themes: enabling environment, agriculture & power, education & health, and humanitarian assistance & resilience.

In a brief interview, Shailee Adinolfi, digital finance expert, technical advisor for mSTAR, and key coordinator for the Financial Inclusion Forum shares what she’s looking forward to at this year’s Financial Inclusion Forum and what makes for a winning session submission.

Q: Last year’s Financial Inclusion Forum featured private and public sector participants like United States Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew, JPMorgan Chase, PayPal, Intuit, Accion, Gates Foundation, and the Coca-Cola Foundation. What were the highlights?

Shailee Adinolfi (SA): Two high-level outcomes from last year’s forum were 1) a deeper-level dialogue between the public and private sector in ways to achieve financial inclusion through working together in specific areas, such as testing innovations, and 2) increased coordination within the U.S. Government on both domestic and international policy and programming.

Q: What are you most excited for this year?

SA: This year, I’m most excited to learn ways in which USAID implementing partners, like FHI 360, can support achievement of the sustainable development goals through our financial inclusion programs.

ShaileeQuote1.jpg

Q: What are you looking for in a call for proposal submission?

SA: I’m looking for approaches that have demonstrated impact over time and can be scaled to achieve greater financial inclusion, as well as innovations that are showing early signs of success, but require more testing and research.

To learn more about the 2016 Financial Inclusion Forum and submit a proposal, click here. Follow the conversation on Twitter with @mSTAR_Project and #FIF2016. 

mSTAR’s First Podcast! Josh Woodard Talks What to Expect at Financial Inclusion Week 2016

More than two-thirds of Bangladeshis lack a formal financial account. This means that more often than not, they rely on cash, which can be both risky and costly. “You’re potentially just a natural disaster away from all of your cash savings in your house being wiped away,” Josh Woodard, technical advisor for mSTAR’s Bangladesh team, says.

[Please note that FHI refers to FHI 360 in this podcast.]

However, in Bangladesh, there’s a clear opportunity to address this. The country is pretty much entirely covered by mobile networks and more than half of the population owns a mobile phone. This combination makes digital financial services a perfect way to break down barriers to financial inclusion.

Over the past three years, the mSTAR/Bangladesh team has directly assisted eight USAID implementing partners in transitioning to digital payments, and they’ve seen tremendous success. As of June 2016, four of the implementing partners have made around US $1.51 million in digital transactions, all of which were previously done using cash. Most of those transactions were made to individuals who were previously unbanked or underbanked.

To continue this success and further the conversation on increasing financial inclusion, mSTAR’s Bangladesh team is joining BRAC, CARE International, Ecobank Foundation and other leading organizations as a partner in this year’s Financial Inclusion Week, hosted by the Center for Financial Inclusion. Financial Inclusion Week is a global conversation exploring the most important steps to full financial inclusion. This year’s theme is keeping clients first in a digital world.

mSTAR/Bangladesh’s conversation will focus on how different actors, from financial service providers to government programs, can support the development, promotion, and uptake of digital financial services that are aligned to the needs, capacities, and aspirations of the financially excluded in Bangladesh.

Josh Woodard, mSTAR’s Regional ICT and Digital Finance Advisor, describes the innovative ways mSTAR/Bangladesh is focusing on clients to advance financial inclusion in this first episode of Digital Development Leaders, a podcast by mSTAR and FHI 360’s TechLab.

Take a listen to Josh explain how mSTAR/Bangladesh is staying ahead of trends, focusing on clients, and innovating to increase financial inclusion. Please note that “FHI” is said in the podcast and is meant to refer to “FHI 360.” 

Josh was also interviewed recently by the Aid and International Development Forum (AIDF) about emerging trends in technology, check it out below.

To learn more about Financial Inclusion Week follow @mSTAR_Project and the hashtag #finclusionweek on Twitter.