Going rural with digital financial services
  • April 08, 2015

When a family member first told Mary that she could use her mobile phone to store her money, she felt that she had finally found a safe place to keep the earnings from her vegetable sales.  Mary soon experienced, however, that the journey to register and manage an account to be less simple.

Participants interviewing rural clients and agents, to draft their journeys when using digital financial services in the region of Jinja, Uganda . Photo Credit: Malaika Media Uganda

At a four-day event in Uganda, UNCDF brought together 150 digital financial service providers from 20 countries in Asia and Africa to improve their understanding of the challenges faced by low-income entrepreneurs like Mary and find  solutions for them.

An event for learning and sharing experiences

Understanding the “user journey” was at the core of the learning event organized for grantees and partners from two UNCDF programmes, MicroLead and Mobile Money for the Poor.  Through meeting and talking with agents and clients directly, the participants, who were mostly providers of digital financial services (DFS), were able to identify ways to improve their services in rural areas by taking a more customer-centric approach. They also got an improved sense of how their ’cashless’ services can better meet the needs of farmers and small entrepreneurs in rural areas.  Participants also discussed savings group linkages, rural agent management, smallholder farmer initiatives and service design for poor rural households.

The participants came from countries ranging from the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar and Nepal to neighbouring Ethiopia, Malawi and Senegal. They represented the entire DFS ecosystem: financial service providers (Equity Bank, FidelityBank, Laxmi, NBS Bank and Opportunity International, to name a few), mobile network operators (Airtel, MTN, Ncell, Tigo, etc.), central bank and ministry of finance representatives, as well as other non-banking providers and funders.

The field visit or “user journey” was an eye opener for digital financial service providers. It changed the way the participants approach the development of new DFS products, partnerships, and delivery channels.

Lessons learned and quick solutions from the user journey include:

Problem 1: Costly and time-consuming registration and know-your-customer (KYC) procedures: Not only does Mary need a passport photo but she also needs a copy of a valid ID, which is no small challenge in rural areas where photocopy machines are scarce, copies costly and finding a photographer can be next to impossible. When she does have the opportunity to get a picture taken by a professional photographer, chances are good that it will take several weeks if not a couple of months before the photographer returns with the precious prints. In such a situation, participants heard that clients like Mary are willing to sacrifice a family picture—even a wedding photo!

Participants at an Airtel store during the field visit in Jinja, Uganda . Photo Credit:  Malaika Media Uganda

Potential solution 1: Some participants visited agents that offer to take the picture themselves through a device provided by the DFS provider. This solution seemed to be an obvious option to many participants to consider for their own countries and as a good investment in their attempt to improve the experience of DFS users.

Problem 2: Lack of literacy: Once Mary has collected all required documentation, she returns to her preferred agent with her phone and some cash for her first deposit. The agent then proceeds with registration, which in the best case scenario takes a couple of minutes but can take up to three weeks if the network fails to connect properly and activate the account. Since Mary cannot read or write, the agent completes the documentation paper work and holds Mary’s phone to show her how to manage the SMS messages. Mary painfully signs and accepts whatever fee the agent requests from her as she cannot read the poster that displays the official tariffs.

Potential solutions 2: Participants explored the potential that smartphones can offer and how short videos can be delivered on simple phones. This approach effectively replaces the written word, and is a practise used successfully by Freedom from Hunger in West Africa.

Problem 3: Long distances and lack of liquidity: Mary’s journey does not become easier after she is registered. To deposit cash, she plans a 15-kilometre trip to the nearest agent on the same day she sells her vegetables at the market. The journey comes at a cost, as waiting in a long line for her preferred agent takes time away from her business.On occasions when she needs cash, Mary knows that her preferred agent might not have the cash and be able to provide her with what she needs.

Potential solutions 3: What are the best options to keep agents afloat? Could providers recruit and train super agents capable of answering the urgent need for cash? Or would it help to map an agent network to ensure that clients can find an agent within five kilometres of their residence? Besides these ideas, another solution that emerged was turning every client into an “agent” as distance would then no longer be an issue. Each client could turn to one of their community members and manage transactions to either cash out or cash in money.


These are just three examples of challenges faced by low-income people in rural areas and possible solutions to improve the registration and usage of DFS. The realities faced by agents and clients revealed pain points that the DFS providers had never considered before.  Participants took the lessons learned from the training, especially the client and agent visits, home with them to adapt them into tailor-made solutions for their digital financial services clients.  One participant, Webster Chidze Mbekeani from TNM Malawi, said he would try his best to help people like Mary “by understanding her needs better rather than trying to just prescribe a solution”. Francis Matseketsa from Airtel Malawi went a step further, declaring: “I will roll out an engagement plan that ensures that the client is equipped with adequate information on the product and she knows where to go or how to contact us when she needs help. I want Mary to be delighted with our service.”

To learn more, visit the Live Event page at