Mobile-izing People in Bangladesh

This post written by Shamsin Ahmed and Kazi Amit Imran

Bill and Melinda Gates’ 2015 annual letter bets that over the next 15 years mobile banking will have a transformational effect on the lives of the poor. In Bangladesh, about 70% of the population is unbanked, yet an equivalent percentage of the population—not necessarily the same people though—has access to mobile phones. Put two and two together and mobile money is a no-brainer from our perspective.

Since the launch of the first mobile money product in 2011, mobile banking  has been made possible in part by the efforts of the government’s mandate to create a ‘Digital Bangladesh’, and the subsequent policy support from the Central Bank to promote the growth of the mobile finance industry.   

To the average Bangladeshi, however, mobile money is very much a new product. Its widespread adoption requires the development of a robust ecosystem with transactions that are safe and simple. Mobile financial services in Bangladesh are still largely limited to sending money from one individual account to another and cashing out from agents. Barriers to further growth include a lack of trust of mobile money, cultural taboos such as interactions between unrelated men and women, and inadequate training on mobile money usage and limited awareness of how it works.  

USAID’s Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance & Research (mSTAR) project aims to address these gaps by providing assistance to USAID health and agriculture implementing partners in order to facilitate their adoption of mobile money in their operations. In Bangladesh, mSTAR focuses on four components – awareness raising activities, providing technical assistance to USAID/Bangladesh implementing partners, providing small learning grants to promote the incorporation of mobile payments into project operations, and dialogue facilitation with stakeholders.

To date, mSTAR Bangladesh has produced around two dozen learning documents, including case studies and success stories that detail the benefits of using mobile money over cash from the perspective of organizations and beneficiaries. mSTAR Bangladesh has also educated over 300 central and field staff from 37 development organizations on how to incorporate mobile money into their operations. In addition, through the Mobile Money Consultative Group, mSTAR Bangladesh is bringing together different stakeholders with the aim of promoting the creation of a financial ecosystem that will benefit both the banked and unbanked communities.

As a result of these efforts, three USAID implementing partners have already begun incorporating mobile payments into their operations and documenting the challenges and benefits they have experienced from the process.

WorldFish

WorldFish aims to improve household income and nutrition and create employment opportunities through investments in aquaculture, including fish production.   WorldFish started using mobile payments in April 2014 to disburse training allowances to farmers. As a result of making the transition, WorldFish estimates that they are saving the equivalent of about 600 person days a year, in addition to other benefits.

Dnet/MAMA Bangladesh Initiative

USAID’s Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) project, locally branded as the Aponjon program, works in 40 districts in Bangladesh to provide health information to new and expecting mothers via community health workers. The project selected 25 districts where they piloted using mobile money to disburse incentives, pay training, meeting, courier and printing costs. Switching to mobile payments has reduced their payment disbursement time from 41 days to 11 days and reduced staff time needed to process payments from 32 hours to 15 hours per month. Moreover, the payment disbursement error rate has fallen from 5% to a negligible rate.

Social Marketing Company (SMC)

Social Marketing Company (SMC) is a global private sector social marketing organization focused on family planning and child health. Very recently SMC decided to incorporate mobile money into their projects to disburse and collect payments to and from the field. SMC is also collecting field data using mobile devices to conduct a baseline survey report. SMC is planning to use mobile money to disburse training allowances to 2,020 service providers and 4 private community health providers (PCHP), as well as collecting sales revenue from 200 sales outlets via 5 salespersons.

Shamsin Ahmed is a Mobile Money Associate and Kazi Amit Imran is a Communications Specialist, both with USAID’s mSTAR/Bangladesh activity, implemented by FHI 360. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Agency for International Development or the U.S. Government.