Tasmia Rahman and Paroma Afsara Husain

Wireless Currency, Endless Possibility: Seven promising mobile money projects to emerge from BRAC’s challenge

Throughout our journey from being a small post-war rehabilitation operation to becoming the world’s largest development NGO serving 135 million people in 11 countries, BRAC has always championed innovation with an ambitious vision of scaling up to have a big impact. One aspect that has often been attributed to BRAC’s success in its various programs – including microfinance, education, healthcare, agriculture, and community empowerment – is its practice of a simple mantra: “pilot, perfect, scale up”. (Full disclosure: The authors are employed at BRAC).

BRAC’s work with bKash, the largest mobile money provider in Bangladesh, began with a similar small microfinance pilot. It eventually transitioned 100 percent of the enterprise loan installment collection in a few locations from cash to cashless payments. Back in 2011, mobile money was still an unfamiliar concept in Bangladesh. bKash had just started its operations and the few incumbent mobile financial service providers in the market were still testing the waters to understand how it could be used. Clients had difficulty grasping how money can be transferred to any location through mobile phones in a matter of seconds.

Fast forward to 2014. In less than three years, the mobile money landscape in Bangladesh has drastically transformed. With nearly 14 million registered users, Bangladesh now boasts the fastest growing mobile money market in the world. In urban and rural locations alike, mobile money has a near-ubiquitous presence, with agents numbering close to 200,000. Given the developments in the mobile money market, BRAC saw a tremendous opportunity to utilize this technology in improving its product and service delivery, as well as operations. In addition to the earlier loan installment collection and savings pilots, Education Programme also recently started disbursing its student scholarships via bKash. We started to ask ourselves: Is there more that we can do?

With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, BRAC’s Social Innovation Lab launched the Innovation fund for mobile money in March to explore new possibilities and create the necessary space for innovations using mobile money within BRAC in Bangladesh. Recognizing that successful innovations often require risk and experimentation, the fund intends to support projects that work with mobile money. To scope out the best ideas for BRAC to consider and implement, an online idea challenge was introduced where anyone could submit an idea, comment or vote on ideas. The goal was to spark conversations within the BRAC community around how mobile money can be used by BRAC to innovate, improve service delivery, and gain efficiency. Through promotional activities that ranged from engaging mobile money experts from around the world to performing the first ever flash mob at BRAC to making mobile money a major theme at the second annual Frugal Innovation Forum, the challenge drew an enthusiastic response from people, receiving 100 wide-ranging ideas in just five weeks. Following a rigorous selection process, seven ideas (see below) that showed the most potential were chosen for implementation.

(Photo credit: BRAC/Shehzad Noorani).

Selected Projects

(nearly) Cashless branch: This pilot undertaken by the Integrated Development Programme is a move towards creating cashless branches in the remote char areas (riverine islands created and destroyed by floods and erosion). Given the transportation challenges and limited access to financial services in these areas, mobile money will make it easier for both BRAC clients and staff.

Mobile micro-insurance: Most of BRAC’s clients lack access to traditional forms of insurance. Through a joint collaboration, the Microfinance Programme and outsider partners will offer micro-insurance with low, flexible premiums using mobile technology for poor households. It will offer protection for incidents like accidents and illnesses.

Flexible school fee payments for secondary schools: Paying school fees can be a challenge for low-income parents. To address this, the BRAC University Institute of Educational Development will introduce a flexible payment scheme using bKash at the SSCOPE low-cost secondary schools. Parents can pay without needing to come to the school premises each time.

Adolescent savings: To encourage savings behaviour among adolescent girls and provide easy access to safe savings, the Education Programme will work with their adolescent clubs to encourage the habit of mobile savings among its youth club members. Adoption of technology is higher among youth, so this can drive adoption and create a lifetime savings habit.

Mobile payments for community health workers: This initiative by Health, Nutrition and Population Programme will look to improve operational efficiency, transparency and security by integrating mobile money instead of cash to disburse honorariums and incentives to thousands of workers.

Mobile disaster relief funds: For disasters like evictions, garment factory fires, and floods it is difficult to mobilize funds quickly, even though many would like to donate. The Disaster Environment and Climate Change programme will set up a simple donation platform that enables them to send money via their mobile phones. This idea originated from a university student in Chittagong.

We hope that these projects will inform and encourage similar initiatives in the future, both within and outside of BRAC, and mark the beginning of a digital revolution for the organization.

Tasmia Rahman is the deputy manager for the social innovation lab at BRAC.

Paroma Afsara Husain is a management professional at BRAC’s Microfinance Research and Development Unit.

financial inclusion