Empowerment is the key to driving financial inclusion
I met Saratu during one of the outreach activities organised by the Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA), an organisation that works to protect women’s rights and enhance their inclusion in decisions that affect their lives and communities.
Saratu was a primary-school educated woman without any job or stream of income, who had fled an abusive spouse and was living in Kano State, penniless and jobless, with her four children. After countless months of living hand-to-mouth, she found a job supporting a market woman selling clothes and cosmetics. This gave her a semi-consistent stream of money.
She was approached by agent bankers who convinced her that a savings account was a much safer place for her money than her home. Living in a remote village on the outskirts of the city, far away from any physical bank branches, Saratu found it challenging to manage an account to which her access was significantly limited, especially in her cash-based environment. Her ordinary phone further restricted her from accessing services that a smartphone owner would have been able to access, such as online banking. Saratu’s limited education may well have affected her ability to utilise these services, even if she had access to a smartphone.
Beyond the lack of access and IT skills, the bank’s service charges, at a time when Saratu was barely making ends meet, seemed punitive rather than encouraging. An incident which saw her accidentally withdraw all the money in her account at an ATM, because of a lack of understanding of the ATM withdrawal process, was the last straw – she abandoned the account and returned to keeping her money at home.
Saratu’s experience made me wonder: “Of what use is a bank account to a market woman who is feeding a five-person family on the proceeds of daily trading activities?” This question is the most important question to answer if we truly want to meet Saratu’s needs and create tangible and sustainable impact in the lives of women like her. Saratu’s story teaches us the importance of context. The challenge with today’s financial products in Nigeria is the limit that is placed on personalised services to suit individual needs and circumstances.
According to the 2018 EFInA report, 32 percent of excluded women are willing, but lack product and service knowledge. Empowering these women at the bottom of the pyramid will create a burgeoning femeconomy. Furthermore, context-relevant educational initiatives can help to create positive perceptions and increase women’s trust and uptake of financial and monetary services. This will inform quality long-term engagements with the institutions working as guides and supporters of the well-being of women’s economic inclusion and growth.
Northern Nigeria, where Saratu is from, is a vibrant agricultural region with the potential to provide enough food for a large population of the country. In stark contrast to this potential, it also has a large number of uneducated people as well as a high number of socially-neglected youths and other indigent populations. The situation is exacerbated by the insurgency in the North East, and other conflicts in the North West and North Central zones, which have left a large number of the population internally-displaced and in penury. These factors are critical considerations for engaging with, and establishing sustainable economic initiatives in the North. It is also reflected in the comparative adoption of financial products and services with an inclusion rate of 60 percent in the South East and South West, against 27 percent rate in the North.
By making assumptions about the needs of Nigerians in the North, many financial institutions have sought to engage them using the same approaches that have yielded success in other regions of the country. This mass approach is often significantly impersonal, and results in solutions that miss the mark in actually addressing their needs.
Tailored strategies are a necessary component of truly empowering individuals in the way that they need. It starts with basic education, and evolves into skill-building initiatives and growth-enhancement initiatives; family structure support; general education across various aspects of their lives (from health to finance to business, etc.); and where necessary, financial empowerment can then follow. This was one of the key highlights from the recently-held Lagos Business School International Financial Inclusion Conference – the need for institutions to adopt improved market research approaches, which can enable them to enhance the effectiveness of financial products and services.
Take the distribution of stipends, for example. This is a strategy that has been taken up by many financial inclusion initiatives and even the government. While they have proven helpful in improving the well-being of individuals, without being accompanied by a more tailored empowerment initiative or programme, the effects are often short-term. This sentiment was echoed by a fruit-seller I encountered at a market who told me: “I have this small shop; I have had it for many years, but I don’t know how to grow it. I don’t need them to pity me, I need them to help me to grow.”
A study conducted on Microcredit and Social Capital in Senegal revealed that training, skills, and business experience were major success factors for women entrepreneurs. One participant illustrated how despite physical limitations, her educational background and training equipped her with the ability to start and run a business from her home; another was able to support her spouse in running and growing his business.
Financial service providers have the capacity and should endeavour to do more than just provide an alternative to saving money under your pillow. Agent banking, with its personalised nature, has the capacity and the potential to bridge the current financial inclusion gaps in Nigeria. The use of banking agents and mobile money agents rose by 0.6 percent and 0.9 percent, respectively, between 2016 and 2018. The one-on-one experience with an individual gives people the ability to ask questions and seek the kind of clarification that may not be easily accessible with a formal institution. It also allows them to build trust in financial institutions – albeit by a proxy. However, for agent banking to truly have the desired impact, there will need to be a concerted effort to avoid pushing mass solutions and adopt a more human-centred approach to addressing the needs of financially-excluded populations.
A one-size-fits-all approach will not move the dial on financial inclusion. What works in the South may not work in the North, and what works for men may not work for women. Cultural context, regional differences and nuances must be taken into account in order to deliver a robust response to the challenges of financial exclusion in Nigeria.
It’s simple. If we are to truly improve the economic outcomes of women at the bottom of the pyramid, our understanding of empowerment and ability to implement according to their needs must begin to evolve – significantly. The impact of financial inclusion for women should translate in their understanding and capacity to key into context-sensitive financial products and services to transform their lives and livelihoods.
Mahdi is the secretary general, Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative, Nigeria