Bryan Farris

Overcoming Gender Bias In Mobile Money

Editor’s Note: Recently, Bryan Farris spoke with Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women’s World Banking, one of thought influencers and industry leaders in microfinance with a focus on female entrepreneurs and customers in 27 countries. As WWB notes, the organization not only provides women access to financial services but “also control over their assets.” This post is the first of several topical discussions centered on the many financial, cultural and societal issues facing women in developing markets. Let’s discuss the mobile money savings solution; in Kenya M-Pesa partnered with Equity Bank to provide savings and they take deposits. This leads me to ask-who should be partnering with mobile money providers: microfinance organizations, or a larger organization, like Women’s World Bank, that could provide the same savings program across multiple mobile money providers?

Iskenderian: Right now, I do think it’s too early to tell and not a bad idea to try all approaches to see what works best and which is the most cost effective.

There is another issue with mobile money that fortunately we’re not seeing in Kenya, and that is the idea of a gender bias. There hasn’t been a gender gap between women and men taking up a mobile savings solution in Kenya, but in other countries you do see gender issues.

In Pakistan, we’re finding that using a mobile money solution probably means that you’re only going to be reaching the men. In a lot of poor households, there is only one phone and the phone belongs to the man. If the woman uses it, he is going to know, and he is not necessarily going to support her effort to save.

The number one product feature that women everywhere ask for, Pakistan in particular, is confidentiality. What we’re having a lot more success with in Pakistan is providing financial services – both loans and savings – via traditional plastic debit cards that require a PIN and an ATM to use. This is easier for women because their husbands don’t necessarily need to know that there is a card in the house.

Another interesting psychological factor we are observing is that while people are very willing to use mobile technology to make remittances, loan payments, or even to withdraw money, it gives them pause when it comes to using the mobile phone to store their hard-won savings. Essentially, to build trust there has to be some element of the presence of a bank. We are experimenting to try to find the threshold, to identify what degree of bricks and mortar is required to build enough trust – is it a kiosk, an ATM, or does it need to be a whole branch?

We’re still in the experimental stage. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation did a fascinating conference in November where they brought together regulators, banks and mobile operators. It was interesting to see how the regulators were balking at some of the options under consideration to benefit mobile money and even POS (Point of Sale) solutions.

If it is the latter, what are ways beyond deposit-taking that can enable asset accumulation? Not many people talk about using traditional debit cards for loan disbursement and deposits, how exactly does that work?

Iskenderian: Right now we are working with women borrowers of the KASHF Foundation in Pakistan. It was felt that mobile money wouldn’t gain traction, due to cultural issues so instead borrowers are issued cards with PIN numbers that allow them to make withdrawals and deposits at a series of ATMs and Kiosks run by KASHF. Interesting; another issue with mobile money that this solves, particularly in Pakistan, is the issue of high illiteracy.

Iskenderian: That’s exactly what my team in Pakistan is telling me. At first it seems mind boggling that a cell phone would present a challenge to an illiterate woman, but it’s a stark reminder that there are a lot of aspects of illiteracy that we need to solve or at least take into consideration. People say that the concept of proximate literacy – the idea that an illiterate person can show a literate person their phone and have a message read to them – does work and that people are comfortable doing that. I’ve actually seen it happen, but I would be surprised if people would be as comfortable using proximate literacy when it comes to money, and especially their savings. In particular, it seems women wouldn’t want their husbands or even their friends to know how much money they have saved, for fear that they will come asking for it. What do you think?

Iskenderian: That’s the strikes on the No. 1 issue we hear about when we do our market research for women using informal savings products known as ROSCAs (Rotating Savings and Credit Association). What women hate about the ROSCA, and what they want from a more formal savings product is the idea of confidentiality.

ROSCAs are very simple – a group of savers each come together with a set amount of money once a month. The savers take turns taking the pot until everyone has had a chance to earn a lump sum payment and then the cycle starts again.

Unfortunately, during the month that you “win” the ROSCA, everyone in the village is knocking on your door asking to borrow some money because they know you’ve recently received a large amount of savings. Confidentiality, then, has a direct impact on women’s ability to use their own money for the purposes by which they saved it.

The issue with ROSCAs is that they do not allow for flexibility and the savings are very hard to access, which might actually result in people saving less for fear that an emergency need might arise.

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