Betting on digital: a chat with The Gates Foundation’s Liz Kellison on women’s financial inclusion

May 23, 2016

With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Women’s World Banking is partnering with Nigeria’s Diamond Bank and mobile network operator MTN to build understanding of what it takes to make digital financial services work for low-income women.

Diamond Y’ello, first launched in Nigeria in 2014, is a mobile-based bank account opened instantly through the customer’s mobile phone in a few simple steps. While the account is accessible to MTN’s over 63 million subscribers and potential subscribers, more work needs to be done to increase meaningful usage of the account, especially among women who face unique barriers to adopting new financial services.

Women’s World Banking is conducting in-depth research to better understand low-income women in Nigeria. We will then work with Diamond Bank and MTN to develop strategies to break down barriers, including educational marketing approaches, training programs for banking agents, mobile tools and other product features. The lessons will be used to develop Diamond Y’ello as a model for expanding women’s access to and usage of digital financial services around the world.

Liz Kellison, Deputy Director of Financial Services for the Poor at the Gates Foundation, works with her team to make high-quality financial services widely accessible to poor people throughout the developing world. Earlier this year, Liz joined Women’s World Banking in Nigeria to launch the Diamond Y’ello project. She shared her thoughts on the project and her reflections after visiting women clients operating market stalls in Lagos. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation:

Maura Hart: Why is Gates Foundation supporting this project with a specific focus on women?

Liz Kellison: We believe that when women are economically empowered and have more financial decision-making power within the household, there is an impact on poor households. And we believe that digital financial services will lead to women’s economic empowerment. We are conducting research in the field that is going to help us prove that, but that is our hypothesis: by focusing on women, we get better outcomes for low-income households.

Liz Kellison with Women's World Banking and Diamond Bank team MH: What’s a question that you wished people asked but never do when it comes to digital financial services for women?

LK: One of the things that I wish people focused on more is that, while we have a fair amount of anecdotal data about the barriers that women face in adopting and using digital financial services, we don’t know the most critical barriers in various markets. If you know seven barriers, that’s great, but we can’t spread ourselves across all seven of them. One of the things we’re trying to do in 2016 is to hone in on what are the critical barriers preventing women’s access as opposed to men. We’re supporting partners like Women’s World Banking to do specific research on this topic.

MH: Why is Women’s World Banking an asset in this work?

LK: Women’s World Banking is poised to be the repository of a lot of this information. Not only a repository but an advocacy vehicle. I see Women’s World Banking as becoming the go-to partner for figuring out how to reach women bigger, stronger, faster. You have such deep product knowledge about what works for women, and you’re boosting your knowledge about how digital financial services can be a critical factor in reaching women.

MH: What do financial service providers and mobile network operators not know about their women customers currently?

LK: The first thing that providers need to do is know their customers and know who their female customers are. GSMA has estimated that only 23 percent of mobile network operators do this. Men and women save differently. They spend differently. They think about their finances and financial services differently and we just don’t know enough collectively about those differences.

This is why the Diamond Bank, MTN, Women’s World Banking partnership is so exciting because we’re going to get to know the female customers intimately in order to improve the product and improve the reach. We’re going to learn a lot about what’s important to a woman in a digital product, including how they want to save and how to they want to spend.

MH: During your visit to the outdoor markets in Lagos, what stood out to you in conversations with women clients?

LK: It didn’t really strike me how critical digital financial services are to a woman business owner, and specifically a woman running a market stall, until we were standing right in front of one of these women in Lagos. She told us about the transactions she needs to do every day to keep her money safe. I had always thought about women customers as heads of their households, dealing with their husbands and children, needing financial services to manage their families’ financial needs, but I hadn’t thought of them specifically as independent business owners who really need to manage the finances of their small businesses. It was an “ah-ha” for me that this is a vital area of commerce for women in Africa and around the world.

That’s why this was a really cool visit for me because I could see the client right in front of me, using this digital savings product, transacting with an agent. The example was suddenly alive for me.

MH: Would you like to share any other observations from your visit to Nigeria?

LK: Nigerian women very much want more solutions like Diamond Y’ello. There’s a hunger to use technology too. They want more of these tools, but many are hard to use and mobile coverage drops, so they are still figuring out the kinks in the system.

Nigeria feels poised to really move forward in this area, especially with Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s emphasis on creating digital payment connections with the citizens of Nigeria. It’s safe to say that there’s a lot of enthusiasm in the government for boosting digital payments, and women can only benefit from this. You can feel that momentum among Nigerians working in this space. I think it’s a tremendously exciting time to be improving digital financial services for women in Nigeria.