bKash happens to be the largest mobile money service provider in Bangladesh with tens of millions of clients. It is also a close collaborator of BRAC in numerous projects including the Innovation Fund for Mobile Money project. Consequently, bKash has become a household name in the programme and is used by the clients as synonymous to mobile financial service. For the purposes of this publication, it would be best to consider ‘bKash’ a synonym for mobile financial service.

App Story

BRAC wanted to enhance financial inclusion for low-income, low educated rural women of Bangladesh. Hence a programme had to be designed in such a way that barriers like social norms and economic condition were removed but there could be no shortcuts either. Women clients have to endure a male dominated and intimidating environment every time they visit the bKash agents. Furthermore, bKash Plus service centres are 20km away on average. Together, these factors led to the thought of a CSA app. What if the women clients could just visit the nearest BRAC office and get the necessary services within half an hour?

Women clients can have their PINs reset, open a new account, block or unblock their account, update their information or check their transaction history through this newly introduced CSA app.

An overriding priority of the CSA app was that it had to be user friendly and the interface had to be very simple. BRAC commissioned mPower to build an app with functions proven crucial for our women client. This app would be handled by BRAC personnel, we call them Customer Service Assistant (CSA), who would double as bKash service agents.

“We had to get bKash on board and on the same page about what we wanted to do,” said Akramul Haider, BRAC’s Lead Software Engineer, who led the app development process.

The new app would be used to open new accounts, reset pins, unlock an account and such functions that required full access to bKash system. “That is what made this particularly complicated and set this project apart from others,” said Wasifa Noshin, Management Trainee of bKash. She said it was not just the front end that was the matter, but we had work on the back end and the interface as well.

“Further, there were three parties — mPower, which was building the app, and then there were bKash and BRAC. Getting all the parties on the same page and ironing out the details was in itself a challenge.”

Wasifa Noshin said the app had to be extremely simple and user friendly. “It would be used by BRAC’s customer service agents, many of whom may not be very tech savvy but they would be performing complicated functions.”

Akramul Haider explained that given the poor literacy level and inexperience, many clients often had complaints or queries. They would sometimes inadvertently get locked out of their account or simply forget their PINs. The CSA app addresses exactly such problems.

He said the app is complete in itself. “It can even take photos and embed them into an application for new accounts.” He is hopeful that after a successful pilot phase, the app will be rolled out to all the customer service assistants of BRAC across Bangladesh.

It also includes features that reduce work for BRAC personnel and give faster services. This app can work both online and offline, which means the customer service assistants save requests or filled out forms and concentrate more on the urgent requests. Later when they have more time on their hands, the CSAs deal with all the saved requests and forms.

The digital way forward

BRAC has spent the past five years identifying and addressing primary barriers to mobile money adoption for women. The largest NGO will have opened over 1 million bKash accounts across the country by 2019 and trained more than six million clients, mostly women. From digitizing salaries to promoting bKash for savings schemes, BRAC has identified ways to catalyse financial inclusion through mobile money.

The power of mobile money to transform the economic lives of women — and their larger networks — is clear. And BRAC is trying to make full use of that potential as it strives to develop products and services targeting new population segments to ensure that no woman is left behind on the journey to financial inclusion. This includes digitisation of wages for ready-made garment workers and piloting loan products for Facebook-based entrepreneurs.

Achieving gender equality in financial services, however, will require a multifaceted response that reaches far beyond ensuring meaningful access. Most critically, regulators will need to explore ways to further foster use of mobile money by lifting transaction fees and limits, for instance. Research demonstrates that women transact with mobile money at a lower rate than men due to greater price sensitivity. If partners across Bangladesh can come together in developing a regulatory environment conducive to inclusivity, then financial inclusion for all will not remain a dream any more. It will become the reality.

Driving a cashless ecosystem

When BRAC began its work with the Innovation Fund in 2013, it had not anticipated the extent to which the impact of mobile money training would spill over. Women have proven themselves to be agents of change, driving grassroots uptake of mobile money within and beyond their immediate network. If a woman adopts mobile money, it creates significant ripple effects throughout the larger ecosystem. She will in turn introduce it to her family, friends, and neighbors. Women have also proven themselves to be significant drivers of economic growth.

Increasing financial inclusion for women through access to mobile money in turn creates a more efficient, productive, and transparent economy.

With almost a quarter of a million students in its 8,695 schools, BRAC leveraged this potential to create an active base of mobile wallets in one stroke. BRAC made tuition payment through bKash compulsory which not only brought parents under the mobile money umbrella, but also generated ripple effects in communities and local markets. Project staff first introduced parents, mostly mothers, to an eight-step process in 2016 which explained the payment system through flashcards. BRAC Education Programme (BEP) has since opened 216,856 bKash accounts. Only 11,978 parents, accounting for 5.52% of the whole, had bKash accounts before BRAC’s intervention. The BRAC effect did not stop there. Newly incorporated housewives urged their husbands to open accounts and also spread the word to their neighbours. With more users, bKash agents popped up in markets and cashless transactions skyrocketed. People had money flowing in from Dhaka and other cities to remote villages. Birostail village in Bangladesh’s rural north, about half an hour’s auto-rickshaw ride away from Rajshahi is a case in point. A BRAC employee, Mainul Islam, says he gets requests from people, who are not BRAC clients, to help them learn bKash during his small group meetings with parents. “I had started with only the parents. Now everyone wants to learn. There weren’t so many bKash agents around before. The situation has changed.”

Razia Sultana, teaching at the BRAC school in Birostail for more than 15 years, has seen the changes in the locality firsthand. Just three years back, there was only one bKash agent point in the sub-district. “Now we can find at least three points in walking distance,” says Razia, who now receives her paycheck through bKash.

Sharmin Sultana sits outside the school every day while her 8-year-old daughter attends classes. She introduced her trader husband Md Ibrahim to bKash after learning about it at BRAC group meetings. Ibrahim has a business in Rajshahi’s Paba sub-district and had to visit banks regularly. This meant several hours of commute every week. Sultana then suggested he open a bKash wallet and transact through mobile money. A year down the road, even Ibrahim’s vendors have caught on. They use bKash too.

The story is almost the same in villages and communities across the country. BRAC training has been one of the most successful vehicles of mobile money expansion, spreading from students to parents, women to families and neighbourhoods to districts.

The bigger picture

It is widely accepted that financial inclusion is key to reducing poverty and achieving inclusive economic growth. Yet, the Global Findex shows that as of 2017, about 1.7 billion adults remain unbanked – without an account at a financial institution or through mobile money. Globally, half of the unbanked adults come from the poorest 40 percent households of their economy. Of the unbanked, 56% are women.1 In developing nations like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Jordan and Nigeria, cultural norms play a role, limiting women’s access to accounts and agents.

Studies find that women’s usage of mobile money is linked with improvement of their household’s earning potential and future wellbeing. Research shows that in both Indonesia and Tanzania, women micro-entrepreneurs encouraged to open mobile savings accounts reported having greater household decision-making power than those who did not have mobile savings.

A study in Kenya demonstrated how mobile money enabled women-headed households to increase their savings by more than a fifth, allowing 185,000 women to start up small businesses.

Meanwhile, women-headed households in Nepal spent 15 percent more on nutritious food and 20 percent more on education after getting digital savings accounts.

Having recognised the significance of women’s financial inclusion, initiative is being taken across the world towards closing the gender gap. In Pakistan, Karandaaz recently collaborated with GRID Impact to design a smartphone application for mobile money specifically for women. With the understanding that cultural norms in Pakistan limit women’s travel, the interface included audio instructions which allows them to use the app from home. In Andhra Pradesh, women were found to be more comfortable transacting with female bank agents, providing an incentive for financial institutions to actively recruit female business correspondents to expand their client base.

Access to financial services can transform lives and livelihoods of the unbanked, especially poor women of poor countries. But identifying the right approach to digital financial inclusion for women is a challenge.

Setting the Context

As recently as two decades ago, Bangladesh’s rural north was riddled with poverty and experienced monga (famine-like situation). The south was ravaged by cyclones. In the north east, transportation by boat was the only option for almost three quarters of a year. The West was far from what we mean by the global ‘West’. However, progress spread quickly across the country in the form of concrete roads, resilient crops and affordable medicines. Bangladesh is now poised to become the 26th largest economy in the world by 2030, lifting millions out of poverty in the process.

The economy has changed, and with it life. In an age when tens of millions own cell phones, mobile money has spread like wildfire. The percentage of Bangladeshi adults with financial accounts rose from 31% to 50% between 2014 and 2017 — a gain almost entirely due to a 20% increase in bKash mobile money accounts. bKash was the first mobile money service and continues to control a vast majority of the market. There are currently 35 million bKash users in Bangladesh with monthly transactions as high as USD 2.86 billion (February 2019).

The unprecedented triumph of mobile money notwithstanding, there was a snag — women were being left behind. Other than in the bustling cities, women were hardly integrated into this thundering juggernaut present in digital finance. The Global Findex shows a gender gap of 29 percentage points in financial access, which is significantly higher than the global average of 9 percentage points. This contrast in access to financial services poses a stumbling block to integrated development. And Bangladesh is not alone in its struggle to close the gender gap.