January 5

Scott Anderson

2015’s Most Influential Post Winners Are …

FINTECH Stories Dominated, but Not where you’d expect

It comes as no surprise that financial technology (fintech) trends that brought “the unbanked” somewhat closer to true financial inclusion, dominated our Our Most Influential Post of the Year Contest. Stories of digital lifelines that carried savings, insurance and other financial products to the fingertips of the underserved were consistently among our most popular posts in 2015. But what was surprising to me, at least in terms of the results of our contest this year, were the geographies in question.

We typically think of Kenya (with the dominance of M-Pesa) and India (which has dozens of players vying for the market edge) as the primary places where fintech firms are going beyond mere buzz and are beginning to take root in consumers’ lives. And that may be true … for the moment. The top two posts in our annual contest, however, explored countries and regions (Afghanistan and Mexico) where DFS does not dominate business headlines. Given the pace of change, that won’t be the case for very long.

The other common, but unsurprising, attribute of the winners of 2015: Each post was written not from the point of view of observation or analysis, but rather from the position of action and experimentation, sometimes with failed results. In other words, these contributors are all doers. As a result, it seems relevant to highlight the actions and their accomplishments as described by the authors.

Thank you to everyone who voted in our competition and congratulations to our finalists and winners.



First Place with 39 percent of the votes:

NexThought Monday: Mobile-izing Savings with Defaults in Afghanistan by Michael Callen, Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and an affiliate of the Evidence for Policy Design Initiative; Joshua Blumenstock, an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington Information School; and Tarek Ghani, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Callen, Blumenstock and Ghani provide an inside look at their randomized control trial, conducted with the 1,000 employees of Roshan, the country’s leading mobile communications provider. While those employees, from senior executives to custodial staff, do not necessarily reflect the earning power of most Afghans, the researchers nevertheless wanted to find out the extent to which default savings could have an impact. And, since 60 percent of the country has a mobile phone, there are many ways to expand automated savings programs far and wide.



Here’s what they did:

“In collaboration with Roshan, we designed and implemented a savings product that could automatically deduct savings from employees’ salaries. This product, called M-Pasandaz (‘M-savings’ in Dari), added a second wallet to the mobile money interface, to store the portion of an employee’s salary that had been automatically deducted from their monthly salary. Employees could elect to have anywhere between 0 percent to 10 percent of their salary automatically deducted each month. Changing this allocation only required that a short call be made to the human resources department at Roshan. To test the importance of the default effect, half of all employees were randomly selected for automatic enrollment at a 5 percent contribution rate. The remaining half was initially ‘opted out’ at a 0 percent contribution rate.”


Here’s what they achieved: 

“In the end, the program proved very popular with employees – over 45 percent chose to continue with monthly contributions even after matching incentives were removed at the end of the study. Meanwhile, Roshan is actively considering providing a 50 percent match for up to 10 percent of employees’ salaries for automatically deducted contributions.

“The program successfully increased savings, but why does default enrollment increase participation so effectively? One possible answer is that people simply didn’t pay attention, and stayed in the program out of mere inertia. We were able to rule this out using data gathered from surveys, and by sending randomly selected employees different types of text and phone reminders that drew attention to the savings plan.”


SECOND Place with 27 percent of the votes:


It Takes a Village to Build a Business: Lessons learned from a fintech accelerator in Mexico by Jackie Hyland, a senior investment analyst with Accion Venture Lab.

In April, Venture Lab helped recruit a dozen of the most promising fledgling fintech companies in Mexico for its first-ever accelerator program. Hyland describes Mexico an “ideal choice” for the project given burgeoning fintech space there. What follows is a detailed look into not only the many market quandaries these entrepreneurs encounter, but also some truth telling when it comes to how investors can evaluate them.


Here’s what they did:

“The objective of the accelerator program was clear: to find and assemble the 12 best early-stage fintech companies in Mexico, and through a three-month program, provide them with the mentors and tools they need in order to take the leap from betas to scalable businesses. We knew there would be an interesting number of startups working in this space, and were even more encouraged when we found, through our initial market scan, about 330 fintech companies operating in Mexico.


Participants in the accelerator.

“… For any early-stage company, understanding the end client is extremely important to define and refine the growth path of a startup. In running this accelerator program, like a startup, we also needed a deep understanding of the needs, behaviors and wants of our participants. We assessed these by conducting a variety of pre-program surveys and calls alongside Village Capital. Responses from the cohort mentioned several needs: ‘We need to better understand how to acquire customers, and acquire them quickly,’ wrote one. Another participant wrote, ‘We would like advice on sales and distribution channels for the company, and how to structure them in order to take advantage of our resources.’ This gave us a fascinating insight as investors, to not only prepare for the content creation and to invite value-add mentors, but to validate some of the things that we need to be particularly thoughtful about when analyzing investment opportunities.”


Here’s what they achieved:

“Overall, from analyzing the cohort applicants to coordinating final pitch presentations, we learned a great deal about local market challenges and catalyzing financial inclusion in one of the markets that needs it most. …

“Similarly, seeing these companies struggle with tough questions and decisions throughout these three months helped us learn more about how entrepreneurs in Mexico think, who is out there hustling, and who could be our next investment. It was also a special chance to get to know CEOs outside of our typical investment process, which is often characterized by an uncomfortable ‘sizing up’ evaluation on both sides, and a feeling of power imbalance.”

Third place with 15 percent of the voteS:


Leticia Gasca, co-founder of F**kUp Nights


NexThought Monday – Calling All Failures: Failing is a big part of social entrepreneurship, by Leticia Gasca, co-founder and director of the Failure Institute and F**kUp Nights.

Back in 2012, Gasca created the organization that celebrated (I’ll call it “foul ups”) to shatter the shame that accompanies business failure. What began as a small group of entrepreneurs in Mexico City has multiplied to more than 80 cities in over 30 countries. The mostly young members don’t just marinate in their blunders over drinks, they try to learn from them and turn them into successes. Gasca helped do that on NextBillion by helping us launch a series on social enterprise failures and lessons learned – lessons that often led to healthy profits and meaningful impact.  


Here’s what they did:

“A year ago, we launched the Failure Institute, a collaboration with several universities around the world that conducts rigorous academic research on the most common reasons why businesses fail in Mexico. We published these findings in The Failure Book, along with a collection of the best failure stories told at F*ckup Nights. The book sold out its initial print run of 1,000 copies within a month, and more than 3,000 people downloaded the digital version during the first two weeks it was online.”


Here’s what they achieved: 

“Regardless of their country or culture, participants often report experiences similar to what my friends and I felt after our first failure conversation. Rather than causing shame or embarrassment, the simple act of sharing their business failure stories actually increases empathy among entrepreneurs, strengthening their business communities. It also creates an informal educational method that allows people without formal studies to learn more about business and increase their likelihood of professional success. Thanks to benefits like these, a global community is now emerging around the concept of sharing business failures publicly.”


Scott Anderson is the managing editor of NextBillion.