With mobile phones in tens of millions of pockets across Tanzania and Uganda, it’s never been easier for banks, mobile network operators, and other formal financial institutions to reach potential customers. Problem is, so few products, tools, and experiences are actually designed for the poor. So when we commenced our partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to figure out how to increase the adoption of mobile money among low-income people in East Africa, we saw a massive opportunity to design for impact.
No strangers to working in digital financial services, we had a few hunches as to why, when mobile money has the promise to be fast, safe, and convenient, it hasn’t been a runaway hit with the poor.
Maybe the on-phone experience wasn’t what it could be. We’ve seen that many people find mobile money confusing to use, so perhaps telecommunications companies and mobile network operators (MNOs) needed better tools to convey how mobile money works. Maybe the phones themselves with their clunky operating systems were the problem. What if the problem was in the over-the-counter service? Or perhaps people were happy with their informal options.
As you might expect, the answer was a cocktail of all of the above garnished with a pervasive mistrust of big institutions like banks. That’s not news. But after tons of deep research in both countries, and talking with a host of people across the entire spectrum of mobile money use, we started to see that the solution maybe wasn’t so much technical as it was personal.
We see a sector-changing opportunity for mobile money, and it’s in one of the last places that conventional mobile money wisdom would tell you to look.
The road to the overwhelming adoption of mobile money in Uganda and Tanzania runs directly through agents.
Equal parts bank teller, financial planner, and face-of-the-business, agents have a hand in the vast majority of transactions. They show people how to use the service, and when something goes wrong, they’re the first line of support. And yet, they’re totally underleveraged by the banks, telcos, and MNOs they represent.
But what if agents had the tools, systems, and support they needed to fully service their customers? They’d grow trust, encourage the uptake of more products, and build a more robust ecosystem for mobile money across East Africa.
We’re betting that designing to optimize the way agents support their customers is the key to unlocking the power of mobile money.
Over the next year we’ll be partnering with everyone from tiny startups to massive companies like Airtel and Vodacom to figure out how to grow mobile money, improve the experience, and help as many people as possible to join the formal financial system. Mobile money works when customers feel confident, supported, and empowered. Agents are the people who can get them there.