Can Bangladesh's Youth Drive Mobile Money Adoption?

Mobile money’s early adopters in Bangladesh are much like those who first take up many emerging technologies worldwide - literate urban males who are above the poverty line.  Mobile money’s promise, however, lies in its potential to deliver financial services cheaply and easily to groups who traditionally have less access to formal financial tools including women and the poor.

In an effort to jump start this potential, BRAC, through the Innovation Fund for Mobile Money launched seven different pilot projects to test how traditionally underserved groups would respond to replacing cash-based transactions with mobile money. 

A year into the projects that began June 2014, BRAC partnered with InterMedia to conduct a qualitative study to investigate the impact three of these projects were having on the participants, and explore what was working and what challenges remained. The projects were chosen to focus on two key segments of its emerging mobile money client base: women and youth up to the age of 25. These included adolescent clubs that introduced mobile savings products to its members; SSCOPE schools where students and parents were allowed to utilize flexible mobile-money payment schemes for school fees; and a cashless branch in the remotest districts of Noakhali, where BRAC employees and volunteers received salaries and incentives via mobile money.

In addition to a number of specific findings, three broad themes were evident across these interventions.

1.  Service-specific adoption could lead to broader use

The pilot projects included in the study introduced mobile money to participants around specific use cases. Connecting mobile money service offerings with specific needs helped many program participants recognize the value of the services in an immediate and concrete way. As the pilots progressed, some participants also were able to envision additional ways of using mobile money, aside from sending and receiving money. For example, students in the savings pilot in Tangail suggested mobile money be used to pay school fees, without having any idea that such a pilot was already underway at BRAC.

Figure: Process flow of mobile money being adopted by SSCOPE participants

This echoes a more general trend in Bangladesh in which some Bangladeshis who first used mobile money only to send remittances have expanded their use of the services to fulfill other needs.

2.  Adoption was relatively easy for young users, who helped their parents learn as needed

Study participants in the SSCOPE schools included young students and their parents. In many cases, students were found to be managing the mobile wallets for their parents. As one parent in Savar said, “I do not need to worry because my son knows everything about [bKash].” In some cases, students effectively trained their parents in the use of mobile money, but an appreciable lag in mobile money uptake was seen for the parents compared to their children. Whether the assistance they received from their children prevented some parents from becoming independent wallet users was less clear.

For the relatively older students in the adolescent clubs, convenience was a key appeal for mobile money use. They reported appreciating the convenience of paying utility bills and topping up their mobile phones from wherever they were. With a willingness to save, but little exposure to formal financial services, these participants believed the options previously available to them, including saving money in clay banks were not optimal and saw mobile money as an important financial service option. Most participants with their own mobile wallets were able to operate them independently. As one student in Tangail shared, “My mother thinks that I give money to that woman officer of BRAC. She does not know that I save the money in my mobile.”

3.  Participants with low literacy often lack the confidence to move to digital transactions

Not all of the pilot projects generated rapid behavior change in participants. The “cashless” branch began with the goal of digitizing most transactions of a single BRAC branch in Noakhali, which was chosen, in part, because its remote location made cash transactions burdensome. There, among the traditional birth attendants who were being paid salaries through mobile money, the participants comprised a highly diverse group ranging from illiterate to high school educated and impoverished to relatively wealthy.

Literate traditional birth attendants were able to quickly achieve mobile money fluency as their ability to navigate menus far exceeded that of their illiterate counterparts, who had to either tell their PIN to someone else or memorize basic operations without actually being able to read the prompts. In terms of women’s participation in family financial planning, introduction of mobile money led to increased financial decision-making for some. However mobile money alone was not found to be a compelling factor for families to incorporate women’s opinions in financial planning, as some examples of active disenfranchisement of women from major family decisions were found. In this context, it needs to be noted that the introduction of digital financial services may not always have the ability to disrupt the long existing social structures.

While the pilot programs in the study indicated potential for broader mobile money uptake among underserved populations to be catalyzed by youth adoption or specific, targeted service offerings, the research also underscored the importance of significant human support to help new users in these groups become savvy users of mobile money, as many participants credited the help of BRAC pilot program staff to their understanding and comfort using these new services. It is likely that even outside of the context of the pilots trusted human touch points such as knowledgeable mobile money agents will remain crucial source of help and assurance for new users in case something goes wrong.

As social, educational and other barriers to adoption persist, personal support builds trust, confidence, and over time, habits.  As BRAC and other organizations think more about scaling digital financial services, having a cadre of people on the ground to support the change will be important.