As mSTAR’s project in Bangladesh comes to a close this fall, mSTAR/Bangladesh staff write on their perspectives from four 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 Ataur Rahman, mSTAR/Bangladesh Project Lead
For the past four years in Bangladesh, the mSTAR project has worked to completely transform USAID implementing partner (IP) payment streams. When we first started project operations in Bangladesh in 2013, we found that almost all project expenditures in Bangladesh at the field level were being done in cash. This is not that surprising. Cash is the most widely accepted form of payment across Bangladesh. InterMedia’s Financial Inclusion Insights found that 67 percent of Bangladeshis have yet to adopt DFS. But cash is risky and can be expensive, in terms of travel and staff costs needed to transport it around. Our job was to help show IPs the benefit of digitizing those transactions and supporting them to do so.
To date, mSTAR/Bangladesh has helped enroll over 24, 000 individuals—a majority of whom are women—into digital financial service accounts and helped USAID IPs and their beneficiaries transact just over US $2 million digitally. Since transitioning to digital payments, IPs like WorldFish realized annual savings of US $19,150 and reduced the administrative burden on technical staff by 600 days annually. Another IP, Dnet, saved the equivalent of 20 full-time staff per year in reduced administrative tasks while realizing an annual benefit of around US $60,900.
Here’s how we’ve transitioned these IPs and saved them valuable time and money.
The first step we take when digitizing payment streams is fully assessing the need or use of payments by understanding the beneficiaries of a project and the project itself. Through direct conversations with project staff and beneficiaries, we have found that while most program staff own mobile phones and are aware of mobile money, most don’t use it. Those who are adoptees only use basic products and services, such as personal transfers. This is because they are often broadly unaware of the intricacies of digital financial services (DFS), such as mobile financial services and agent banking products, and therefore lack trust in them.
Our conversations with projects made it clear that awareness is key. By increasing DFS-specific knowledge, we find that projects immediately recognize the benefits and are keen to adopt. 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. To this end, the mSTAR team in Bangladesh has focused its energy on increasing DFS-specific awareness among USAID-funded project staff and beneficiaries.
We provided hands-on training directly and through partner organizations to interested projects to promote DFS products among groups that previously had little access to such information. Group work in workshops and discussions identified potential gaps and established methods to overcome challenges. These workshops targeted each level of an IP, from project leads and finance staff, to program staff, frontline managers and beneficiaries, so that we could tackle every link in the IP value chain.
We found that it is important to include all levels of staff in the process to grapple with challenges throughout the management structure. A top-down approach often excludes practical field realities from the conversation, although DFS can’t be implemented without interest and buy-in from top management.
At mSTAR/Bangladesh, we have found that knowledge is power. An informed person is more likely to adopt DFS as 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 those who may find it difficult to differentiate between myths and facts. In our first year and a half, mSTAR/Bangladesh primarily reached out only to development projects but with time, we began to engage with donor agencies, DFS providers and regulators to identify gaps and to come up with realistic solutions. mSTAR/Bangladesh believes that access to formal financial services is not a luxury but a basic need for all—and awareness raising is one of the tools that can help inform stakeholders of the ways forward to achieving this goal.
Ataur Rahman has been the project team lead for mSTAR in Bangladesh since its second week of implementation in October 2013. Prior to joining mSTAR, he was the head of outreach at Dnet for the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) Bangladesh Initiative where he helped to design and implement mobile value added services and pilot the use of mobile money within the program. Before that he worked for the Bangladeshi government’s Access to Information (A2I) program led by Prime Minister’s Office funded by UNDP and the Bangladesh Telecentre Network (BTN), a collision of ICT4D initiatives secretariats.