Smallholder households are the engine that drives Zimbabwe’s economy. But even in a country where 67% of the population reside in the rural areas (Zimstat, 2012) and mainly depend on agriculture as a major source of their livelihoods, financial service providers have, to a large extent, failed to reach this important client segment.
Recognizing the importance of serving smallholder families, Econet Wireless Ltd is investing in financial products and services that overcome the numerous challenges that they face, including limited access to banking services, information, markets, and insurance.
It is these four broad challenges that have informed Econet’s approach to serving smallholder families, culminating in the creation of our EcoFarmer suite of products. EcoFarmer, a division of Econet Wireless Zimbabwe, has eschewed the traditional payments-first approach to bringing digital financial services to smallholders by instead focusing on providing services that drive early adoption. Our theory is that by addressing the major pain points of different players in the agricultural sector, Econet can build a digital ecosystem that lays the foundation for the introduction of a broad array of mobile-enabled financial services.
EcoFarmer offers affordable crop insurance, farming tips, and market prices to over 260,000 smallholder users. But even as EcoFarmer’s agronomic advisory information services have grown in popularity, these users have been reluctant to adopt broader mobile financial services such as EcoCash$ave and EcoCashLoan. Faced with this mixed success, our team has begun to grapple with how best to package and market our products in a way that enables smallholders to reap the most benefits from all that Econet has to offer.
Still, as we begin to consider ways to improve EcoFarmer, we realize that our success depends on developing a deeper understanding of the lives, needs, and desires of smallholder families. This means moving away from top-down product development approaches, and towards a more client-centric methodology that emphasizes design from the bottom-up.
In order to accomplish this, Econet is joining with CGAP, Mercy Corps, and the design firm IDEO.org to embark on its first human-centered approach to product design.
Human-centered design (HCD), while no panacea, offers one approach to developing products that better meet smallholder demand. By working closely with our smallholder clients to understand what product features they value most, as well as what types of marketing messages resonate with them, we believe that we can reposition EcoFarmer as an integrated product that addresses many of smallholders’ financial needs and desires. At the very least, the insights derived from this process will enhance Econet’s understanding of how best to design for this important client-segment.
As we embark on this exciting project, it remains unclear precisely where HCD will lead us. Perhaps we will emerge from the design process with a groundbreaking new mobile financial product. But the outcome could also be as simple as tweaking and repackaging our existing products to better reflect smallholders’ needs. While the end result is anyone’s guess, we realize that anything that helps us to reach and serve our smallholder families is not only good for Econet, but good for Zimbabwe as well.
I hope there will be lots of dialogue with other stakeholders that are working on similar concepts i.e. trying to find solutions for smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe. Its a timely project given what the DFID funded project seeks to do with Rural Finance......
Econet's offering is a good example of how micro insurance products can be combined with other services to provide a valuable 'package' of services that target the needs of a specific customer segment.