Agents: Why focus on women?

  • October 23, 2016

  • Kampala, Uganda

Globally, there are 1.1 billion economically active but low-income women.1 What this means for digital financial service (DFS) providers is that there is a huge potential market of women DFS customers that remains largely untapped. When it comes to DFS, it turns out that what is good for women is good for everyone. Research suggests that, if mobile phone adoption rates amongst women were to go up and DFS providers were to design more products and services that better meet the needs of women, the result would be that more women would use DFS in their daily lives. When considering approaches to engage more women with DFS, providers should bear in mind that women customers and women agents are two sides of the same coin, and what affects one invariably affects the other.

On Day 1 of the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) #DFS4Women conference, the Regional Technical Specialist for Mobile Money for the Poor (MM4P) activities in Malawi and Zambia, Nandini Harihareswara, facilitated an engaging and interactive discussion entitled ‘Agents: Why focus on women?’ The session featured presentations from three experts on the topic of women DFS customers and agents: Adrine Muhura, Connected Women Market Engagement Manager for Africa, GSMA; Memory Chirwa, Teller Experience Lead, Zoona in Zambia; and Sarah Namboze, Treasurer, Uganda Mobile Money Agents Association.

Leading off the presentations, Ms. Muhura addressed the key challenges to acquire women DFS customers. According to research by GSMA, the mobile phone gender gap persists in many low- and middle-income countries due to costs, low literacy levels and security issues. Some of these same issues, as well as others like product relevance, pose barriers that prevent women from accessing mobile money at the same rates as men. DFS providers can address these challenges by tailoring products and prices to suit women’s needs and interests and also by improving their customer service. Interestingly, there is evidence that some providers have been able to address a number of these barriers by hiring women agents. For example, in Somalia, women agents and temporary assistants were hired to photograph women customers and help them complete the mobile money sign-up processes in a culture where women are not allowed to show their faces to men outside of their family in public settings.

This point was a good segue into Ms. Chirwa’s presentation, which addressed in more detail exactly why women agents are crucial for reaching women customers. Ms. Chirwa also talked about some of the challenges women agents face and the measures Zoona has taken to address them. As agent networks are the first and most tangible service touch points of any DFS business, it is imperative that they be able to deliver the intended value proposition to the target group.

Research on agents published by IFC suggests that, compared to male agents, female agents are more focused, more fiscally responsible, provide better quality services and are more profitable.2 Regarding being more focused, the research showed that customers reported being able to trust women agents more and women agents tended to be more loyal to DFS providers. This point provided an interesting discussion point as Ms. Harihareswara asked DFS providers in the audience for their feedback on the issue of trust and loyalty amongst their agents in their different markets. Some providers shared that women agents and tellers help deal with issues of churn and dormancy of agency businesses as women tend to be more loyal to the providers and stick around longer. On a surprise note, a representative from TNM Malawi mentioned that, while it is true that incidences of fraud tend to occur less frequently amongst women agents, TNM has seen in Malawi that, when these incidences do occur, women tend to hit businesses harder.

According to Ms. Chirwa, Zoona has also seen that its women agents tend to reinvest a greater portion of their earnings back into the business, and four of Zoona’s top six agents are women. One agent, Misozi Mkandawire, even boasts a monthly turnover of $1 million and a $10 thousand monthly commission. But women agents don’t have it all rosy. Based on feedback gathered from Zoona women agents, Ms. Chirwa reported that women agents face many challenges, including social pressures from their families and communities, sexual harassment, accusations of being immoral, lack of respect mostly from men, and even issues having to do with lack of proper sanitation facilities close to the agent/teller booths. Realizing how valuable an asset women agents can be, Zoona has deliberately taken steps to hire more women agents and provide them with the support they need to succeed through its Support Towards Early Profitability (STEP) Programme.

Following Ms. Chirwa’s presentation, Ms. Namboze shared a very emotional story of how her journey as an agent began when an agent named Moses shared the agency business value proposition with her, trained her and gave her the materials to start. She quickly realized the profitability of being an agent, decided to start her own business and today has six employees, four of whom are women. Ms. Namboze echoed Ms. Muhura and Ms. Chirwa on the challenges women agents face and implored DFS providers to realize the enormous potential of women agents and to invest time and resources in providing them with training and support.

During the last part of the session, panellists fielded questions from the audience. One of the questions was, “What holds female agents back?” Ms. Chirwa answered by sharing that Zoona uses a performance management system to identify, early on and in a consistent manner, the challenges women agents face and put people in place to monitor women and tackle these issues as soon as they are identified.

Another question raised was, “How do you manage women agent security?” At Zoona, Ms. Chirwa shared that new agents are encouraged to set up shop in populated areas or public places to ensure that witnesses act as a deterrent. Fraud training is also a key focus area, and Zoona teaches management of cash flow so that agents don´t have too much money on them.

One of the final questions was, “How do you get more women agents to go into the rural areas?” According to Ms. Muhura, research in Kenya shows that rural areas are considered low hanging fruit. Women are less mobile than men and prefer to have services closer to them. Providers should take advantage of this fact and encourage more women agents to go into rural areas to target women customers because there is indeed a market and profit to be made there.

In relation to the different issues women agents face in urban and rural areas, Ms. Namboze pointed out that the fraud she has witnessed is different in both settings. In cities, fraud is more sophisticated and mostly involves false impersonation and messages to get money from agents. In rural areas, fraud is more focused on distraction of agents followed by theft of their phones to access the mobile money on them.

Overall, based on the audience’s reception of the presentations and the level of interaction that took place, it was evident that most audience members left having gained some insights; it is now up to them to apply these insights and put them into practice in order to leverage the assets of women agents to grow their customer base and to address agent network challenges.

1. Julie Zollmann and Caitlin Sanford, ‘A Buck Short: What Financial Diaries Tell Us About Building Financial Services That Matter to Low-Income Women’ (Somerville, MA, Bankable Frontier Associates, October 2016).

2. Sven Harten and Anca Bogdana Rusu, ‘Women Make the Best DFS Agents: How financial sector alternative delivery channels create business opportunities for women in emerging markets,’ Field Notes #5 (Johannesburg, IFC, May 2016).