A Mobile Money App That Helps Poor Customers Strategize
The financial inclusion community has often provided financial literacy programs to poor customers in the hope that they will encourage people to use new financial services. While these programs can be useful, it is important to remember that many poor people already have coping strategies for their survival and growth. They already smooth their incomes, save for specific goals and rely on their social networks for financial support in times of need. More important than literacy is whether providers are designing financial services — especially digital financial services — that are relevant to these customers and enable them to apply their existing strategies more effectively.
While in Delhi, India, last summer, I met a woman named Kiran whose story illustrates how this can be done. Kiran is a domestic helper who earns $180 per month by working at five houses and offices. She is saving for three big expenses: weddings for her two daughters and a two-room addition to her house. She has prioritized her goals (her eldest daughter’s wedding being her top priority right now) and developed a timeline and savings strategy for each goal.
To meet these goals, Kiran has decided to save with one of her trusted employers. Instead of collecting her pay, she simply keeps money with her employer and plans to withdraw it as a lump sum when her eldest daughter’s wedding comes. It is not only trust that has led her to save with this employer. The employer has lent Kiran small sums in the past, which she has diligently repaid. Kiran knows she can count on this employer to fill minor savings gaps in the future, and she wants to cultivate the relationship.
Digital financial services could make it easier for Kiran to meet her savings goals and open doors to services like credit and insurance. After listening to Kiran, it may be tempting to conclude that the solution to her challenge is a product designed specifically for her present needs (i.e., accounts to help her save for weddings). But highly tailored products have limited appeal and can become less useful when a customer’s goals or circumstances change. A better approach would be to offer Kiran a flexible tool that she can adapt to her goals and strategies over time. What if, for example, she could assign colors or pictures to multiple savings accounts linked to her goals, signifying each one’s purpose and urgency and imbuing it with a personal meaning? What if she could give her sister, who lives in another city, approval rights on her withdrawals so that she would be less tempted to dip into her savings? Over time, might her savings behavior generate enough data to help her obtain emergency credit from second-degree connections on Facebook?
CGAP and a team of researchers from Dalberg and Moonraft Innovation Labs took these ideas forward to prototype a mobile money app that allows customers to create customized subwallets. We built features that allow customers to create their own image-based savings wallets, give their contacts specific rights to their accounts and automate regular transactions, such as remittances to their families. In “Money, Decisions, and Control,” we explore how providers can build apps and other tools that a wide range of customers can use to implement their own financial strategies.
A prototype of a mobile money app showing image-based savings. Source: Money, Decisions, and Control
Overall, we find that there are three key principles for taking a customer-centric approach to digital financial services and helping low-income people apply their existing financial strategies.
Build tools, not products. When financial products are highly customized, they do not have broad appeal. Alternatively, providers can offer tools that have built in flexibility like image-based savings or calendar-based savings (where money is available for withdrawal on a future date decided by the customer) and that have many applications. When customers use our prototype to send a payment to a contact, for example, they are asked whether they expect the recipient to repay. If the customer says yes, the app allows the customer to classify the payment as a short-term loan and remind the friend to repay at a set time.
Focus on relevance over simplicity. It is a fallacy that poor customers cannot grasp the concept of digital currency. Rather, they are not sure the services are suited to their needs. For example, Kiran was happy saving her way and did not see much value in switching to a simple savings account. A more relevant savings tool would allow her to set targets, reach her goals at her own pace and build a credit score to access cash if she fell short.
Recognize that finance is personal and variable. Providers should give customers the ability to connect financial services to their most important relationships, strategies and goals. For example, a digital financial service could connect to customers’ Google Maps, Facebook accounts and calendars to better link the service to their frequented locations, trusted friends and planned events. But providers should make it possible for customers to change these connections to suit their needs.
By applying these principles to financial tools, providers can reach a level of customer engagement that goes beyond making digital payments. They can help low-income customers to implement their coping strategies and improve their financial lives.
CGAP Working Paper: Money, Decisions, and Control
CGAP Perspectives Paper: Customer Empowerment in Finance