Designing Products and Developing Institutions to Serve Low-income Women: A Reflection

MAY 6, 2019

BY MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN, PRESIDENT AND CEO OF WOMEN’S WORLD BANKING

The lessons we’ve learned from this work have formed the foundation for our new strategy to advance financial inclusion for women at scale globally.

Through the support of Financial Sector Deepening Africa (FSDA), over the last five years, Women’s World Banking partnered with three large African banks — in Nigeria (Diamond Bank), Tanzania (NMB) and Malawi (NBS Bank) — on an array of projects to reach low-income women and girls with credit and savings projects, accompanied by financial education.

This work represented some of our largest and most sustained engagements with mainstream commercial banks to date and we learned an enormous amount.  The projects confirmed once again that a well-designed financial product that is accessible and easy to use is appealing to men and women alike.  As such it has the potential to expand a financial institution’s customer base exponentially.

I am so proud to say that we were able to reach more than 1.5 million un- and underbanked women, men and youth with financial services, many of them with digital elements in their delivery.  And the lessons we’ve learned from this work have formed the foundation for our new strategy to advance financial inclusion for women at scale globally.

There were a few particularly important insights that stood out to me.

About products designed for women:

  1. Even the best designed digital savings product doesn’t replace a client’s need for human interaction; on the contrary, the human touch is necessary for accounts to be used actively.
  2. Reaching the women’s market requires sustained institutional commitment not just from the leadership team but from all parts of the organization including marketing, sales, operations, risk management and human resources.

Learn more Beta Savings in this short video!

About youth savings products:

  1. Any youth proposition must include both youth and parents/guardians in order to be successful; bringing both youth and adults along in the user journey creates greater customer loyalty and sustainability for the institution. (And, mothers and daughters saving together yielded the largest balances and most sustained commitment to saving!)
  2. Gender differences in savings behavior among youth start early. For instance, girls in Tanzania were more likely to deposit in a bank while boys were more likely to be comfortable engaging with bank staff and asking questions.
  3. Youth aspire to have the security of a bank account; they understand the benefits of a bank as a safe place to save over a mobile account.

About access to credit for women: 

  1. Women’s lack of collateral shouldn’t preclude them from borrowing to grow their businesses. A cash-flow based lending approach is an effective approach to reach low-income women business owners.
  2. Access to alternative data sets such as savings behavior and cellphone “top up” rates can be used to assess credit worthiness, thus making credit more accessible to women clients who are less likely to have the documentation and credit history necessary to establish a traditional credit score.

We hope that all stakeholders committed to expanding financial inclusion will take these lessons to heart. The stories and data behind these insights (and many more!) can be found in this newly published digital anthology: https://www.womensworldbanking.org/insights-and-impact/engaging-women-customers-in-nigeria-tanzania-and-malawi/

In addition, I’d like to highlight one of our most important findings: the value of bringing a local perspective to product design, marketing, policy advocacy – really every aspect of our work.  Women’s World Banking’s work in Sub-Saharan Africa was immeasurably strengthened and our impact magnified through the guidance and encouragement of our Africa Advisory Council.  Drawing on the Council members’ insights allowed us to refine Women’s World Banking’s strategy on the continent and members served as ambassadors for women’s financial inclusion within their personal and professional circles.

I am so grateful for the vision and commitment of each and every one of our Africa Advisory Council Members. Going forward, I know they will continue to be important allies for Women’s World Banking and advocates for expanding women’s financial inclusion.