In Conversation with Wema Bank’s Adekunle Alarapon: In a Digitally Dominant Era, Physical Touchpoints Remain Essential for Financial Inclusion

June 27, 2023

Adekunle Alarapon (ACIB, CDEF) is Head of Retail Segments for Wema Bank Plc, where he holds responsibilities for Agent Banking & Financial Inclusion, Gaming & Entertainment Business, Workplace Banking and Female Gender (Sara) Propositions. Mr. Alarapon has more than 20 years of banking experience in operations, control, commercial, retail and digital banking. He is an Associate of the Chartered Institute of Bankers, where he received an award in Strategy & Leadership; a member of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, UK; and an Associate Member of the Nigeria Institute of Management. He also has a Certificate in Digital Electronic Finance from the Frankfurt Business School in Germany.

Mr. Alarapon recently spoke at our 2023 Women’s World Banking Making Finance Work for Women Summit in Mumbai, India, where he was a part of our Women-Centered Design for Commercial Viability Workshop. We are thrilled to connect once more with Mr. Alarapon for his insights on how women-centered design can shape holistic or “hybrid” financial solutions—that is, solutions that bridge the gap between the digital and the physical—and discuss how these solutions should meet women customers where they’re at in their financial journeys to be truly effective.

Q: The rapid transformation toward digital financial solutions may be leaving behind low-income women who do not have convenient or reliable access to digital offerings—if they have access at all. GSMA’s latest research notes a stall in progress in closing the gender gap in mobile phone ownership and usage (the primary way both men and women access the internet in low- and middle-income countries): As of 2021, they reported women in Sub-Saharan African countries were less likely than men to own a mobile phone and less likely to use mobile internet when they did own a phone by 37% in both scenarios—leaving 192 million women in this region without mobile internet. How can financial services providers (FSPs) address issues in access to ensure that they’re still able to reach and engage all women customers? Do physical touchpoints play a part?

The financial inclusion landscape in Nigeria and in most of Sub-Saharan Africa is still heavily dependent on physical person-to-person (P2P) interaction. Hence, a winning formula would be the establishment of what Wema Bank calls “Phygital” centers—our self-service in-branch platform that combines the best aspects of traditional and digital banking—across geographies and location, helping to support women’s participation in financial and economic inclusion.

Wema Bank’s Phygital Branches, called ALAT HUB, are equipped with digital devices that offer customers more choice for how they prefer to bank, enabling women who may be skeptical of solely digital capabilities to enjoy necessary financial services, such as account opening, card issuance, cash withdrawals and deposits, interbank transfers, micro-savings and loans, micro-insurance, bank inquiries, etc. in person, but quicker and more seamlessly thanks to the technology. This is a creative way of delivering these services via a digital channel that’s in a more familiar environment.

Q: Say there is a financial institution that has a digital solution with great potential to drive financial inclusion for last-mile women customers, but they do not have any physical touchpoints embedded in the solution process. Would you expect this product to encounter any challenges?

To be honest, I see some disadvantages in the ability of such products to scale fast outside of urban areas in the immediate future. However, as adoption of digital capabilities expands, suburban communities tend to see an increase in usage. Hence, the design of digital solutions must consider the social-cultural behaviors and financial needs of the average African woman to ensure scalability from urban to suburban areas, and eventually to rural customers.

Q: For many low-income women customers, engaging regularly with financial institutions and their offerings can be intimidating, and general financial literacy programs may prove overwhelming. How can FSPs leverage both in-person and digital solutions to provide targeted capability building—so women get only the information they need, right when they need it?

This must start with the training of FSP personnel on the methods and styles of sales dynamics/pitches to low-income women. There is a need to start with building trust and relationships with the women; once established, product offerings can be introduced using a trusted beneficiary/product-user as a reference point. This can be done by creating a small group of women “ambassadors” or agents within the community.

Q: Key moments, such as signing up for an account or conducting the first transaction, are crucial to building women customers’ confidence and trust—and these benefits may be lost when such moments are only conducted digitally. Women’s World Banking research shows that certain physical touchpoints, like working with women banking agents, can help build trust with women customers and the financial system. How can FSPs leverage these in-person experiences to encourage the transition to using digital solutions as well?

The use of women banking agents has become one of the most magical methods for engaging low-income women in financial products and services. FSPs should develop frameworks that attract and encourage women agents to their network, and that help them serve as advocates for the provider. This could include designing agent banking kits, such as waist pouches, aprons and scarves as brand identifiers for women agents. Women agents are then encouraged to reach out to women within their communities and teach them how to use digital devices during community meetings and social occasions.

Q: In many emerging economies, it makes sense to maintain physical touchpoints and more traditional solutions that women customers are often more familiar with. However, we know that digital solutions can often reduce access barriers for low-income women and reduce long-term costs for providers. Can you tell us of a use case from Nigeria where Wema Bank blended these moments, physical and digital, in a way that delivered a tailored customer experience, rather than creating two parallel offerings (in-person vs. digital)?

Wema Bank, in conjunction with Women’s World Banking and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, designed a micro-savings wallet for low-income women, called NAIRA ASIDE. The product enables women to save between $1 and $20 (in Naira equivalence) daily through Wema bank agents (ALAT HUBS) located within their communities. These savings are made in the form of cash deposits into their digital wallets via in-person agents and receive the value in their accounts instantly. Women are encouraged to follow through with this daily savings pattern for a predetermined period of three or six months.

Q: As noted in our Summit workshop, enabling women to gain better access to finance could unlock US$330 billion in annual global revenue. Can you highlight some of the business benefits for FSPs when they deliver holistic financial solutions (physical and digital solution components) that provide women customers with the “best of both worlds”?

There are huge benefits opened for FSPs when they deliver holistic financial solutions that provide women customers access to financial services. These include but are not limited to opportunities for international collaboration with other like-minded institutions; micro and macroeconomic expansion for the FSP; and affiliation with governmental and non-governmental institutions.

Q: How does the flexibility offered by holistic financial solutions—with digital and physical components—ultimately support women’s economic empowerment?

Women’s economic empowerment is supported through financial solutions that are deliberately designed with women in mind. These offer flexible engagement and enable an easy walkthrough of the user journey that makes digital access fun and interesting, rather than a compelling financial proposition. Human beings react to changes in different ways and it’s often more difficult to easily adapt to new methods the older we become. Hence, digital financial solutions must be offered in fun and interesting ways as early as possible that endear interest among women customers specifically by using the familiar soft mechanisms of building mutual trust, relationship, safety and reassurances.

Thank you, Mr. Alarapon, for your time and insights!

Learn more about Women’s World Banking’s design methodology, which was crucial in our partnership with Wema Bank when launching NAIRA ASIDE.