December 24, 2019

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I was delighted to attend this year’s FinEquity annual meeting and the Women’s World Banking Making Finance Work for Women summit in Singapore, where compelling business cases for women’s financial inclusion were presented. While there has been significant progress in closing the gender gap, the change is moving at a glacial pace, calling for more pragmatic actions among stakeholders. Below, I highlight seven key takeaways from the two events.

1. Develop gender-smart policies:  Historically, norms around women’s role in the economy and society have prevented them from getting access to financial services. Regulators need to develop gender-inclusive policies that address the specific demand- and supply-side barriers faced by women. These solutions cannot be found in policy meetings but at the last mile, with women leading this change.

Providers can proactively lead this change. Microfinance institutions such as BRAC are bringing financial services to the doorsteps of women previously excluded from the system through the group lending model.

2. Pursue gender-smart investing: With over half of the world’s population being women, organisations should pursue gender-smart investment over gender-neutral investment. This requires external deployment of capital into the hands of women and fixing organisational DNA to be gender-intentional.

Most of BRAC’s interventions aim at creating opportunities for women and changing their position in society. BRAC’s gender strategy sets out the pathway of strengthening gender mainstreaming processes within the organisation.

3. Design customised products for women: Women should be included in the product development process: the more diverse the product development team, the more likely it is to generate innovative solutions.

Client-centric product development is a core pillar of BRAC’s microfinance programme. One example is the women’s microenterprise loan product in Myanmar. Having reached over 4,500 clients since July 2018, the product was designed following a financial diaries research by BRAC and L-ift with support from UNCDF’s SHIFT.

4. Phygital – Blend physical engagement with digital channels: Digital technology has proven effective in creating greater financial inclusion but it often requires human support. Combining human touch with high-tech (phygital) is a winning model for expanding women’s financial inclusion.

In Bangladesh, customer service assistants (CSAs) positioned in almost every branch offices help BRAC maintain this human touch. CSAs not only facilitates the uptake of mobile financial services as bKash (BRAC Bank’s mobile money subsidiary) agents, but also build a relationship of trust with clients by troubleshooting common pain points.

5. Rethink financial literacy: Often, clients understand what they are doing with their finances, but do not understand how financial institutions can support them. Financial literacy should focus on building digital literacy; educating clients on the benefits of building transaction histories; and driving behaviour change from cash to cashless.

In Bangladesh, CSAs help promote financial literacy and positive financial practices through pre-disbursement orientations and financial education training. These empower clients to better understand their financial options and manage their finances responsibly.

6. Systematically collect and use quality data: We can’t tackle gender gap without overcoming the data gap, and the lack of quality sex-disaggregated data is a major roadblock. Championing women’s financial inclusion entails being aware of the exclusion (with the support of data) and setting clear objectives and metrics to track these changes.

In Rwanda, BRAC has implemented a digital field application that tracks information such as percentage of women clients; BRAC’s rural and urban outreach; and Poverty Probability Index information. In collaboration with 60 Decibels, BRAC has also completed a lean data assessment in Tanzania and Uganda to identify challenges along the client journey and improve overall client experience and satisfaction.

7. Collaborate for greater impact: There are many institutions working on this issue, but not learning enough from each other to magnify impact and develop sustainable solutions. Financial institutions should consider value-adding partnerships and FinTechs are a great place to start.

In Myanmar, BRAC has partnered with Experian, aWhere, L-ift and Telenor to offer a digital credit product for more than 400 farmers. Telenor provides alternative data from client call records. Experian uses this data for customer credit scoring; aWhere offers crop suitability information; L-ift onboards clients on the digital platform; and BRAC provides loans to the farmers.

Inclusion happens when people of all genders from all backgrounds are taken into account. With over half of the world’s population being women, we simply cannot leave them out and expect to see sustainable development. As Ella Bhatt, founder of Women’s World Banking says,Poverty will never be eradicated without women’s participation in the economy.


Mercy Wachira is the digital innovation and implementation lead for BRAC International Microfinance.

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