More than Human ATMs: The Potential of Empowered Agents

11 October 2017

With more and more providers pushing to reduce reliance on over-the-counter transactions, third-party agents can seem like just another cash-in/cash-out point, akin to human ATMs. But a recent CGAP-supported pilot conducted by agricultural input retailer myAgro in Senegal demonstrates the vital role that these human touchpoints play in making digital financial services more personal, responsive and user-friendly.

Over the past year, myAgro Senegal has embarked on an ambitious experiment to test its hypothesis that empowered agents can drive greater value for smallholders who use digital financial services. The idea to devolve more responsibility to agents grew out of a product design collaboration with CGAP and Dalberg’s Design Impact Group. Encouraged by the results of a 2016 pilot, myAgro has aggressively rolled out what it calls the “mobile vendor model.” This new approach to customer service leverages smartphone technology to convert myAgro’s network of third-party agents, known as “vendors,” from passive points of sale into more engaged participants in myAgro’s mission to improve farmers’ livelihoods.

A newly recruited MyAgro vendor (agent)

A newly recruited vendor who participates in the mobile vendor model (Photo Credit: Elyse Marr)

A new and bigger role for agents

myAgro, which sells packages of fertilizer and agricultural training through a mobile layaway system, has traditionally relied on full-time, salaried staff to manage the bulk of its operations. These staff travel from village to village promoting myAgro, enrolling new customers, providing general support and encouraging customers to contribute to their layaway accounts. The role of myAgro's network of village-based vendors (agents) has been limited to selling the scratch cards that farmers use to add value to their layaway accounts, for a small commission. This model is costly for myAgro and can be inconvenient for customers. A single myAgro staff member may be responsible for four villages and more than 300 farmers, meaning that they typically have only one opportunity per week to visit villages and interact with customers.  

By contrast, myAgro vendors that participate in the mobile vendor model not only sell scratch cards, but they also take on many of the responsibilities previously reserved for full-time staff. With the help of smartphone-based tools, mobile vendors market myAgro inputs, enroll customers, help them select the right package for their farms, monitor their progress toward layaway goals, encourage layaway contributions and provide on-demand support. Each vendor is equipped with a smartphone that includes apps for customer marketing, training, enrollment and financial planning. The phones are preloaded with recorded training sessions and testimonials, and they are preset to receive myAgro notifications and reminders to help vendors manage customers.

Customers appreciate the more personal touch

Unlike full-time staff, these vendors live and work in the same villages as their customers. Many are farmers and myAgro customers themselves. This means that, in villages with mobile vendors, customers no longer need to wait for myAgro staff to visit. It also means that their neighbors are the face of myAgro, which makes the service more personal and familiar.

“Working as a mobile vendor allows me to have a very good relationship with the farmers, especially because we live in the same community,” remarked Fatoumata, a mobile vendor working in the Tambacounda region in Eastern Senegal. “I have direct contact with them so I know their families, and I visit them at home often. The contact I have with farmers teaches me to really listen well and have patience.”

Shifting responsibility from staff to vendors has also motivated these vendors to increase sales in their village, with up to 30 percent more clients and payments per village than in myAgro’s regular vendor model. Some of this can be attributed to the change in how customers are being enrolled for myAgro packages. As Country Director Michelle Kirby explained, “We’ve found that whoever enrolls the client owns the relationship.”

This deeper relationship with the customer is borne out in anecdotes about vendors who visit their neighbors’ homes to share a cup of tea, trade the latest village gossip and motivate customers to make payments that will get them one step closer to obtaining the fertilizer and training they need at planting time. “The mobile vendor is always around. I will meet him tonight when we gather to have tea and tomorrow when we meet to have tea and so on,” observed one myAgro customer.

Growth in enrollment and sales, and in customers meeting goals

Early results of the shift to more empowered vendors have been promising. In addition to increasing enrollments and sales, the mobile vendors have made it possible for myAgro staff to supervise more villages and farmers. In 2017, the myAgro staff who managed mobile vendors in Senegal were responsible for an average of 441 farmers in five villages, whereas staff in the traditional program averaged 314 farmers in four villages.

But even more important was the surprising rise in package completion rates for farmers working with mobile vendors. In villages with mobile vendors, 75 percent of farmers achieved their layaway goals. Only 69 percent achieved their goals in villages that were still using the old model.

“Our part-time, commissioned staff may actually be more effective than our full-time staff,” remarked myAgro Founder and Executive Director Anushka Ratnayake. She notes that one reason behind the success of the new mobile vendor model is that “farmers want a personalized service that matches their schedule and livelihoods. Vendors who can visit their homes, meet them on a Sunday or are working side by side with them on market day provide that kind of personalized service.”

Devolving more responsibility to third-party agents has another exciting benefit: cost-savings. During the pilot, the mobile vendor model achieved 20 percent savings in operational expenditures, largely by increasing the ratio of customers to full-time myAgro staff.

High hopes for future growth and savings

Given these results, myAgro plans to implement the model across all its operations in Senegal and hopes to grow its customer base from approximately 12,000 this year to 25,000 farmers in 2018. Program savings at scale are expected to be as high as 40 percent. And with vendors taking more responsibility for day-to-day interactions with customers, myAgro staff will be able to spend more of their time on quality control and high-impact activities like agricultural training.

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