2014: time to scale digitally

January 22, 2014 by


By the end of 2014, there will be more mobile phones than people in the world!

As if that’s not enough, there will be substantial growth in the number of people online. Google is hoping to create access for 50 million women in India alone. Most of this won’t be through computers. The “one laptop per child” mantra has given way to a “one affordable, probably made-in-china smart phone per child” approach.

This opens up a significant opportunity for new strategies to help people move out of poverty. The idea of using cell phones for financial transactions is one that has grabbed hold of the imaginations of many, from philanthropists like Bill Gates to giant telecoms like Telenor and Safaricom. With over nine mobile money companies worldwide boasting over one million users (including bKash in Bangladesh), there’s reason to expect this trend to continue.


What else follows? Digital financial services, whether by phone or ATM card, create an electronic trail. Some financial providers are leveraging mobile phone usage (from phone credit itself to actual financial transactions) to offer credit loans to “unbanked” populations. Cashless microfinance providers have emerged. In Kenya, entrepreneurs are creating a “paypal”-like system for merchants using M-Pesa (phone-based transfers). In many countries like Pakistan and Fiji, social schemes are going cashless—enabling the unbanked to access benefits more safely and reliably.

For every optimist, there is at least one thoughtful skeptic. Businessweek recently published the provocative ‘Digital money will save the world’s poor’ and other delusions. While it would be foolish to think that mobile phones and mobile-based services will end poverty, certainly as the trends continue, we can expect to see disruptive innovation at many levels, particularly if there’s widespread engagement between diverse players across the world. BRAC hopes to be part of the disruption and creative process.

We invite all, skeptics and optimists, to BRAC’s 2nd Frugal Innovation Forum on March 28-30, 2014. There will be many opportunities to debate if mobile money will transform the lives of the poor and catalyze the greater changes that seem possible. A range of practitioners will join to share their own experiences—why one organization working with the ultra-poor households in some of the most remote pockets of Bangladesh switched to mobile money, and how a Kenyan microfinance institution offers cashless services to clients, without sacrificing “high touch” service. Several leaders from BRAC and bKash’s founding CEO will also offer their reflections on how digital financial services are reshaping country contexts and delivery strategies.

Researchers with emerging findings on consumer behavior will share new insights on how poor and illiterate consumers use mobile money, and how practitioners can better understand and educate clients effectively. We will also dive into the concept of digital finance “plus”—i.e. all the corollary changes that are starting to occur in health, energy, water and other sectors, as entrepreneurs experiment with mobile money in creative new ways.

This is just Day 1!! On Day 2 we’ll turn our focus to the explosion of data-related innovation stemming from digital financial services, expanding coverage of technologies, and more. Stay tuned for a blog on data soon!

There’s still time to apply! Go to the website today to request an invitation.

Maria A May (@mariamayhem523) is a senior programme manager for BRAC’s social innovation lab and microfinance programme in Dhaka, Bangladesh.