The Social Frontier of Financial Inclusion

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What is the frontier of financial inclusion? Of course, there is a geographical frontier: people in rural areas are more often excluded from the financial system. There’s also a technological frontier: while digital technology has greatly expanded the reach of financial services, those on the other side of the digital divide are being left behind. But there’s also a social frontier: often in the form of social norms that dictate who can – and can’t – use financial services.

In this episode, we hear from Women’s Micro Bank, a women-owned bank in Papua New Guinea that pushed geographical and technological boundaries in its attempts to expand women’s access to banking services but ran into its biggest challenges at the social frontier.  

This is the first episode in CGAP's new podcast, Inclusive Finance Frontiers

Featured Voices

Jill Pijui, Head Trainer, Center for Excellence in Financial Inclusion (CEFI) in Papua New Guinea 
Gunanidhi Das, CEO, Women’s Micro Bank (Mama Bank) 
Gina Gelena, Mama Bank agent 
Elle Pele, Mama Bank customer  
Katie Highet, CGAP Consultant

Special thanks to Serah Sipani, CGAP consultant based in Papua New Guinea, for her help in leading interviews with Women’s Micro Bank agents and customers.  


Yasmin Bin-Humam: Hello and welcome to Inclusive Finance Frontiers presented by CGAP, a global partnership that works to advance the lives of people living in poverty through inclusive finance. I'm your host, Yasmin Bin-Humam, and I'm a financial sector specialist at CGAP. I'm here with my co-host, Sai Krishna Kumaraswamy. Hi, Sai.

Sai Krishna Kumaraswamy: Hi, Yasmin.

Yasmin: Sai, today we're talking about a topic that I've personally been working on for a few years at CGAP now, and it's very near and dear to my heart. We know that there's a geographical frontier. People in rural areas are more likely to be excluded than people in urban areas. We know that there's a technological frontier, there's a digital divide. Many people still don't have access to cell phones or the internet, but there is a third frontier. What do you think that might be?

Sai Krishna Kumaraswamy: What could that be? The societal?

Yasmin Bin-Humam: The societal, absolutely. It's the social frontier. And social norms have a strong influence on women's financial inclusion. Social norms govern everything from the way we dress to who we interact with in public, and even relationships between husbands and wives in the home. Social norms are these collectively held beliefs and expectations for how individuals should behave. We are going to explore how these play out in a few different contexts for financial service access. Is this something that sounds familiar to you?

Sai Krishna Kumaraswamy: Sure it does. In my research, I've seen contexts where women cannot borrow money from financial institutions without the consent of their husbands or fathers. There are societies where women cannot participate in economic activity, or even if they do, they don't have a say in how the money spent within the household.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: Right. It's a lot to do with power dynamics and actually, the social frontier and the technological frontier are quite closely linked because something as simple as a woman owning a cell phone can be governed by social norms. If people might think that she has loose morals or she's doing something nefarious, if she's seen out in public with cell phone. Sai, in this episode, we are going to learn about Women's Micro Bank recently rebranded to Mama Bank. It's a women-owned bank in Papua New Guinea that has tried to meaningfully push the frontiers of women's financial inclusion in Papua New Guinea by working with social norms, and we'll also hear from the Center for Excellence in Financial Inclusion or the CEFI that is successfully using different kinds of training programs to help overcome women's lack of financial knowledge. Are you ready to hear from our interviewee, Sai?

Sai Krishna Kumaraswamy: Absolutely.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: We know that in many parts of the world, many restrictive gender norms stand in the way of financial inclusion. Global evidence shows that this plays out in many ways. Katie Highet is a financial services specialist at CGAP and a thematic lead at FinEquity, a global community of practice, convened by CGAP, that works to empower women through financial inclusion. Katie explains some of the trends witnessed around the world.

Katie Highet:  Social norms take many forms, within financial services. So, it could be around movement and access. It could be around digital literacy, digital financial literacy. It could be around mobile phone ownership when it comes to technology and really it's about, you know, community or communally held beliefs around how women should or should not behave with digital financial services.

Is she able to travel to get signal? She able to leave a village to get signal for her mobile phone in order to, to carry out a transaction. Has she been able to attend school to the degree that she is literate, which in turn enables her to navigate a mobile phone? Does the community look down on woman's mobile phone ownership. If the community does look down on my woman's mobile phone ownership, is she comfortable owning a mobile phone? Is she allowed to own a mobile phone?

Yasmin Bin-Humam: Situated to the east of Asia just above Australia, Papua New Guinea has a diverse geography of highlands, waterways, and islands – there are more than 600 - and a largely rural population. Normative practices around women’s privacy, control, and social obligations compound the geographical, and economic factors that hinder financial inclusion for women

Katie Highet: We have about 87% of the population living rurally. The infrastructure is quite poor, so only around 13% of the population have regular access to electricity. There are very few roads that link up the country. Mobile penetration in Papa New Guinea is low, it sits at somewhere between 25 to 35%. So it's largely prepaid, it's largely, basic phones. So smartphones are prevalent in urban centers. But as most of the population is rurally based, that's not as relevant.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: In addition to those challenges, PNG has extremely high levels of gender-based violence. According to the UN, 60% of women and girls aged 15-49 in PNG have experienced some form of physical sexual violence. These problems are exacerbated by the rural environment with women needing to travel long distances to get from town to town and to cities, which makes it more difficult to report cases of violence to the police. Also, women’s income generation can sometimes lead to this violence – and so, savings, credit, and payment mechanisms must be designed to mitigate such potential negative fallout.

Jill Pijui, head of training for the Center for Excellence in Financial Inclusion, says that Papua New Guinea has deeply embedded cultural beliefs about who gets a role in in decision-making.

Jill Pijui: In PNG, in all, because we have more than 812 languages, and we have more than 1000 tribes. So, in those modern 1000 tribes, in each of them, there are male dominated society. If you go to each community, we have what we call houseman. Houseman is a meeting place for only men.

So you see it started all back at their home. So they were taught no woman is allowed to enter this house man. This house man is all the discussions from the chief in the village leads, from the leaders in the village, gathering all men and young boys to talk to them about issues affecting the village about anything and the community's intending to involve. So in more or less, it has taught them and shaped them to think the way they do and behave in that way, they do relating to women. So women's now did coming to gender roles. So women now they see them as you can be mothers and you can be wife, you can be the one that cooks and clean, that's all you do. You have nothing to say a do regarding decision-making, because they were thought that in that houseman. This mentality, it takes a really long times for it to fade away. It needs more awareness on gender roles and mainly gender roles is good, but the importance of both men and women in decision making should be also emphasized clearly.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: With all of these complicated factors at play, a bank called the Women’s Micro Bank, which more recently became known as Mama Bank, is striving to address these gender norms when trying to advance women’s financial inclusion. This women-founded bank is the first micro bank for women in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific region. Gunanidhi Das, CEO for Mama Bank, says that when the bank was founded in 2006, the intention was to provide financial inclusion services to the women of Papua New Guinea, referred to by Gunanidhi as the ‘mamas’ – a common colloquial term.

Gunanidhi Das: From 2006 to 2014, it was under a foundation called PNG Women Business foundation and bringing all the customers our members under that foundation to become the shareholders of the bank. And in 2014, through GO PNG and bank of PNG, we got our license. And from there Women’s Micro Bank evolved.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: They use the term “mama” to describe women all ages and circumstances.

Gunanidhi Das: Mama is actually all the strata of women, starting from a baby child when they born, then we have a product and we incentivize the girl child at the beginning, that we give passbook for them for free. The parents can start saving for going to the college and she has a good amount of money.

She can decide whether that money is going to be used part the further studies or going for the business. It's like that type of opportunity we are giving to one girl child to the 60, 70 years women. So, for us, we have different products for all age of the population.

From the day one, we are looking at how we can serve them. So that we can bring the unbanked population, to the banking, when we are doing so we looked at the savings product, which is transactional savings and the demand driven investment savings product in the product side. At the same time in the loan side, we have the, particularly the micro finance loans, which is comes under the group mechanism all over the world works in, and at the same time, we also ventured into the Agri-finance and at the same time SME and personal loans.

More importantly, we believe we are actually working with the informal sector and rural sector. And the financial inclusion on the knowledge is a too poor in this country. As of now only 37% are the bankable, and motive, more likely actually they are in the urban setup, so what we do, actually, we go out and give financial literacy training program. And then after, business development training program to all the mamas, all the mothers, all the women, so that not only opening the account, but how they can use those accounts.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: As Gunanidhi says, currently about 37% of the population is bankable. And there’s a perception that a large percentage of the remaining population is “unbankable”. But he feels that the definition of who is ‘bankable’ comes down to the approach that banks are taking, which is having the customers come to them, and charging high fees.

Gunanidhi Das: The bank is not going to their doorstep or nearby and the people have to come a distance for doing banking, just to do a banking and then cost of doing banking is too much. So for example, you know, a mama, a mother is coming to do a hundred dollar banking and she has to spend $20 per just doing that banking. Then there is no incentive on that then why mama will come to do banking. So that is major factor, and at the same time, when she's coming she has to wait for a whole day almost two to three hours in a queue to do that banking.

That means for doing just a hundred-dollar banking, see her to spend the whole day, she has to come out from her daily life, daily workings, daily entrepreneurship and try to do this banking. And more importantly, when it comes to the bank, they keep their money, we bankers actually try to rip out that money from their savings, instead of giving the incentive to them. So, then there is no incentive to the mamas and always, we blame those customers saying that they are not doing banking with us. They are not bankable. The bank, the government has to look at how we are trying to reach out to them rather than this would come to us.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: So, it’s possible for everyone—including women—to be bankable… If the bank is doing the work on the ground to reach out to customers: being mindful of their ‘time poverty’, a term used to reflect women’s household responsibilities that men often do not equally shoulder, being mindful of costing for their transaction amounts given the smaller scales of their businesses and their desire to make frequent deposits and withdrawals; and being mindful of other challenges. Given norms around family entitlements and male status, Mama Bank had to contend with the phenomenon of male family members taking out women's funds without their consent.

Gunanidhi Das: It was a real question for me then how we are going to empower the woman rather than just using the women to do the banking. Most of them are illiterate and they are unable to write or do the signature. What they do normally either they give a simple signature, which is just like a cross or a tick or something like that.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: They may also use just a simple password that is easy to discover. The men are able to use their passwords or, in some cases, sign for women to access women’s funds without their permission.

Gunanidhi Das: In 2016/17, we were finding this very prevalent, and the mamas were coming and complaining somebody has stolen this money and then we really dig down and find it out that it's none other than their family members. And then it comes back to us, we are not able to safeguard their money and it was really affecting our banking service and the trust.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: It was a huge problem. To become the bank of choice for women and protect their interests, Mama Bank needed to find ways to help empower their customers. And grant them the financial privacy and control of their own funds that they were demanding. They had to focus on “KYC” or “know your customer” – meaning, what are specific needs of this population and how can the Mama Bank meet those needs?

Gunanidhi Das: It was an opportunity for us to know how we can strengthen our KYC. And at the same time, more importantly, how we can really empower the women of Papua New Guinea. We came up with the solution that how we can go out to the rural area, and a semi-urban area with the low-cost model, because doing banking in Papua New Guinea with a brand set of a bricks and mortar business is too expensive, with the security in place. And so many other things is required and the bank of PNG looks for the capital to be in all those things actually makes difficult for a bank to you know tap into every part of the country. The solution we came with we call it a Mama Bank Access Point.

We just used simple technology, tablet with internet enabled and then with the biometric enterprise device, and a Bluetooth printer and that's where we go. And we, we can do banking in any place. We opened up six Mama Bank location in different part of the country where actually we were already having the customer base who are unable to do banking or the area where the customers, we are our mamas were eager to do banking.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: Rather than a full bank branch with all the infrastructure needed to sustain it, the Mama Access Point offers an easier alternative. It’s staffed by just three people – two who do the transactions, and one who travels to clients, raises their awareness, and educates them.

Gunanidhi Das: So, it was a mini branch. We were able to give all the services and products, what we are offering, but everything was very low, like, you know, the volume was low and the per example, like, you know, when we talk about the credit products. We give credit product, but it starts with a hundred dollars, $200, not like big amount of money.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: Mama Bank customer, Elle Pele, is a food seller at Gordon’s Market, one of the largest produce markets located in Port Moresby. She started banking with Mama Bank when she saw other women at the market using the bank’s services.

Elle Pele: I opened an account with Mama Bank a long time ago. But did not deposit any money. Until now, here in Gordon’s, this new Gordon’s market… I knew every woman here has created an account and has started doing banking with the bank. But in particular, we did not know how to manage money. Mama Bank helped to deposit some money and helped us to get a loan.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: Elle didn’t need the help of anyone to set up an account and use the bank’s services, allowing her to maintain her privacy.

Elle Pele: I did everything by myself. No one assisted me. Mama Bank is good because I myself can deposit and withdraw money. I do not need anyone’s help. Mama Bank is a very convenient bank.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: Gina Gelena works for the Mama Bank as a Mama Access Point agent. She says that she’s inspired by the women she’s been able to serve working at the access point.

Gina Gelena: We usually set customers that come in. The first thing we do is giving them the customer services. We explain to them our product and services. Then, we assist them to open new accounts. The thing that motivated me is the mothers, how the mothers work selling in the markets, how they earn money. It’s different from how we work. We work for two weeks and then we get paid for. But these mothers, they wake up early in the morning and they do sales. Every day they have money in their hands, so this is the motivation, I want to help them do savings. Most of them are in the informal sector so they don’t know financial banking. So, if we are there, we can help them to do financial banking, we can help them to do savings, we can help them grow their businesses, give let’s say… teach them how to save.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: Perhaps even more important than access, the WMB needed to develop a way to provide financial protection for women and more control over their funds. Their solution? Biometric fingerprint technology.

Gina Gelena: For withdrawal purposes, we only use biometrics. Biometrics is the fingerprint we always use when mothers come to do the withdrawal. We use the teller that connects to this one and we just get the fingerprint to do the withdrawal.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: There was some resistance at first about giving fingerprints due to thriving superstitions in Papa New Guinea. But the women’s desire for control of their money quickly superseded any superstitions.

Gunanidhi Das: That was a real milestone, a milestone for Mama Bank I will proudly say that they are now confident enough that nobody can take out their money without their consent. The biometric enabled is very simple that, you know anybody can report it to anyone's account, but when it comes to the withdrawal, we enable the biometric and only the registered biomimetic will work to take out that money.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: Gina Gelena says that previously vulnerable women are well-protected from men who might try to access their funds:

Gina Gelena: Yes, they are not able to transact on the women’s account because that’s the woman account and she’s the only person to sign and she is the only person accessible to the account, using biometrics.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: As a customer, Elle Pele, finds the system is simple and convenient to use.

Elle Pele: With fingerprints. They don’t ask for an ID card, or some kind of password or such questions. The fingerprint system helped me.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: The pent-up demand that was suppressed due to women’s lack of id documents, lack of time, and lack of financial control is evident. The biometric solution has led to substantial growth in WMB’s customer base.

Gunanidhi Das: From 8,000 in 2018, I can proudly say we are at 85,000 customer base. We came up with a very innovative product to them, rather than just, you know, saying that you just come and experience your banking services, but we are here that, that awareness we went to, you know, give them, and then that confidence and they were actually eager to do banking.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: As a result of accessible Mama Access Points, mamas are now accepting digital payments instead of cash that they then deposit. Katie Highet says that the WMB’s biometric access point solution is just one part of an ongoing effort at transformation. In the short run, this solution is something of a workaround. In the long run, the goal is continue supporting women who push normative boundaries. The route to lasting change for women will come from changing the mindset of men and communities writ large.

Katie Highet: It's not about doing one thing. You've got to take the long game of looking at transformation and how we can shift these norms. Mama Bank is a great example because you know that they are addressing a specific challenge. And that women are less likely to be literate, which means they can't sign their name, which means their accounts are at greater risk.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: Many also have no legal identification such as a birth certificate. It’s a common problem in the developing world. The World Bank estimates that 1 billion people around the globe face challenges in proving who they are. Women in particular are most affected by a lack of identification.

Katie Highet: This biometric solution really helps navigate that issue where they need to be present in order to make a transaction with their account. Very few people in Papua New Guinea have a formal identity. They estimate it's around 80% without any formal identity.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: In some cases, the market leader can vouch for the identity of women.

Gunanidhi Das: The village head can sign, identify the customer, or church leader can identify the customer or a doctor or a lawyer, and all those people can, because they understand that that is the reality in the ground. So, we take that opportunity. We go to those people to identify, let's say, for example, in the market, we recently opened up our Mama Bank Access Point where most of them are, they don't have any form of KYC. But we use the market management to give them identity, because they have given a space for them to you know do the business.

Katie Highet: Representation and visibility is very important. As women see other women, as daughters see mothers transacting and having some autonomy over their financial resources, that can be incredibly powerful. I think it's really important to note that, you know, social norms as with any barriers to women's financial inclusion are not siloed. They don't work in isolation.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: While this is a step in the right direction, women continue to face norm-related challenges in their financial journeys that cannot be addressed with Mama Access Points alone.

Katie Highet: While this is creating a workaround or for identity, you know, there are still issues about say getting to a Mama access point, a woman needs to be able to move around freely in order to, to then use this biometric device.

They need to feel assured that if they do withdraw cash, or their husband, someone in their household does know that they have saved some money. They're not going to be coerced to withdraw that money through threat or violence. There are multiple other pieces of the puzzle that need to be addressed, and they're not as simple as a biometric solution, but that doesn't make the biometric solution less powerful. It just needs to be seen in a broader context where it is not the sort of the only issue, but it is a lever too. It is a single lever.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: All over the world, there are strongly held societal beliefs about women working and their ability to make financial decisions, that need to be addressed to make any real progress in financial inclusion.

Katie Highet: Even if a man may be, you know, a husband is comfortable with his wife having a mobile phone and sees the benefit of it, the community might not look positively on this. the rumor mill of, oh, well, this person is not a good woman, because they're able to use a mobile phone or the assumptions around what that person is doing with a mobile phone. We can't ignore that pressure on a household. The sort of the community pressure to adhere to the norm is very strong.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: So, how are local organizations supporting norms changes to benefit women? We heard earlier from Jill Pijui. She is head of training for the Center for Excellence in Financial Inclusion. The center is registered with the government of Papua New Guinea and has a mandate to coordinate all financial inclusion activities in the country. Lower rates of women’s education have hindered women and it’s an aspect Jill works to address.

Jill Pijui: The vision is to ensure that everyone has to be financially included. So that means, um, the training program that I worked with CEFI for is to address one component of financial inclusion, and that is the usage. Most of the Papua New Guineans are making the usage ability to access financial services. So as, my role is to ensure that they understand. What is financial literacy? Ensure the goal of financial literacy is basically educating and empowering them to know what are the different techniques and skills used to help them manage their personal funds.

And also on the flip side, if they want to venture into doing small SME businesses, how can they be able to do that business successfully? So, that means to train them and provide business essential skills as well. So far training has been going on for the past eight years and we've seen some good success rate and some challenges at the same time.

The great success was that we've trained both men and women. So, in all our training program, we ensure that there is equal representation of both men and women present. So, in, in terms of the selection process of the participants to attend that training, we ensure that this takes place before any training kicks off. So, in all our training programs that we've done so far, the success rate is I would say 75 to 80%. Most of our training materials are designed in a way that it promotes behavior change. When they stand in front and deliver a session, they should know how to target someone's mindset and automatically change their way of thinking. Plus, the emotions towards certain behaviors that are not right.

We’ve seen that most women and men have changed their perspective on how to handle their personal finance. Um, most importantly, and if they want to venture into business activities, um, they know how to manage their personal funds first in order to properly manage their business fund.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: Spending priorities for women and men tend to be different. Women often want to start small, asking for small amounts of money, while men tend to want to start big. Also, women see their primary obligation as providing for their children and may not be willing to think beyond that. It's important that financial service providers and educators empower women to not only meet those goals, but advocate for moving beyond them.

Jill Pijui: She will ask only for a small portion to ensure that there is food for her children. And that's our basic need saving data, that's a goal she's always after ring. And ensure that there is food on daily basis, ensure that there are clothing for her children to wear and ensure that there is school fee for her children. Those are the three things when it comes to Papa, new Guinea women that they always think about, and despite they make a lot of money, and a man takes most of the decisions.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: So, what are some lessons learned? We know that there are certainly no easy answers when it comes to financial inclusion for women, especially in a complex environment like Papua New Guinea. Katie Highet says that the quick fix is often very tempting.   

Katie Highet: You can work on one barrier, but you absolutely cannot ignore the other barriers. And I don't think that you can ignore the other barriers, in any context. It's just that perhaps their lesser severity makes it seem possible for some time. In some ways for financial service providers, working in Papua New Guinea, they need to be incredibly honest. And they're forced to be very honest because they absolutely cannot ignore the plethora of challenges that exist around women's financial inclusion and ensuring that they are able to be a part of a broader ecosystem.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: And yet we know through the training work of the CEFI that gender norms are not static and immutable – they can and do change over time. Ultimately, putting the work into learning the true needs and wants of women can make a difference.

Katie Highet: I think we're understanding more and more just how nuanced this is and our need to really dig in and ask the right questions and, you know, understand the lives of the users. And there's far more cognizance around that than there was in previous years, um, you know, five years ago, 10 years ago. We really sort of start to see people understanding that they really need to pick apart. Not just women's behaviors, but women's wants and needs and drivers in order to really design and deploy financial services that speak to those women and actually draw them to want to use them.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: Sai, I hope you enjoyed hearing from our episode's guests as much as I enjoyed interviewing them.

Sai Krishna Kumaraswamy: I did, Yasmin. It was really interesting.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: What struck you? What was the most interesting thing you heard on our podcast today?

Sai Krishna Kumaraswamy: Yasmin, what amazes me most is in a country that isn't really well set up for advanced technology, like biometric solutions, you have financial service providers putting the voices and interests of women at the heart of their solutions. They actually take the time to listen to their customers and design smart solutions. The bank figured out that the male relatives of their women customers were signing on behalf of them. And to overcome that and the social norms related to them, the bank designed a really smart biometric solution, and that was pretty interesting.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: I think it was a big leap for the bank. It was a big change from the way that they had done business to date, and they were really thinking outside of the box with that. What struck me most was the conversation I had with Jill around training, not just for the women themselves in financial literacy, but for the families as a whole with their husbands, with their children. Because I'm often frustrated by development programs that place the burden squarely on the shoulders of women, I really think that we need to enable and empower the households and the communities to bring women along in their financial journeys.

Sai Krishna Kumaraswamy: Indeed, it's what I would perhaps call a gender sensitive and gender responsive.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: Even gender transformational.

Sai Krishna Kumaraswamy: Absolutely.

Yasmin Bin-Humam: I think, because it's really about behavior change by everyone in society. I think these are promising approaches. There's a change in the air.

Thank you for joining me, Sai. I also want to thank our listeners for tuning in to the Inclusive Finance Frontiers Podcast from CGAP. And if you enjoy this episode, please subscribe to our podcast and spread the word amongst your networks. Special thanks to our episode guests, my co-host, Sai, the CGAP Podcast production committee, and CGAP's production partner, Volubility Podcasting.