The developing economies of the world are going cashless. Driven by increasing rates of mobile penetration and a growing realisation that “going digital” brings a host of socio-economic benefits, governments and financial institutions worldwide are steadily moving away from cash-based commerce.
The Kenyan mobile money payments system, M-Pesa, is a famous example of this trend, and there have been similar success stories in other countries, including Smart in the Philippines and EasyPaisa in Pakistan. And in India, the government is attempting to bring banking to the unbanked via an ambitious initiative called the Unified Payment Interface, a new system which will allow people to pay for goods, manage bills, and transfer and receive money as easily as sending texts or emails.
The ability to conduct financial transactions in a completely cashless environment brings many rewards. The Mexican government has saved over $1 billion each year since shifting to electronic distribution of government payrolls, pensions and social benefits, according to The Better Than Cash Alliance. Reducing the use of cash can make welfare programmes more efficient, as payments are transferred directly to beneficiaries, whilst also helping to prevent money laundering.
And what about women? How does the drive towards cashless economies benefit their lives?
We all know that women face huge demands on their time, often balancing professional duties with family responsibilities. Women who are reliant on cash must often travel to pay bills for their children’s education or health care – which is time spent away from vital income-earning opportunities. And, for many women, cash is a vulnerable commodity – it can be stolen or taken by husbands or other family members, and diverted away from household needs.
Having the digital tools to protect and manage financial assets can be a powerful enabler of security and empowerment for women, and a catalyst for the wellbeing of future generations. According to the Gates Foundation, when a mother controls her family’s budget, her children are 20 percent more likely to survive – and much more likely to thrive. And for women entrepreneurs, digital access is a crucial stepping stone to unlocking a range of services which are vital for business growth, including savings, credit and insurance.
The work of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s Mobile Technology Programme is anchored firmly in this new context. As banks continue to move their products and services towards cashless models, we know that there is a huge opportunity to generate economic opportunities for women, both as customers and sellers.
For the past two years, we have been collaborating with Visa, First Bank Nigeria and the Youth for Technology Foundation to offer 2,500 Nigerian women the opportunity to become branchless banking agents for “FirstMonie,” the mobile banking platform of First Bank Nigeria. As well as earning income for themselves, these women agents are also extending financial services to thousands of Nigerians, enabling them to register accounts, make deposits and pay bills via a simple mobile handset.
We are also exploring the wider issue of how recruiting and training women as mobile money agents can help to narrow the persistent gender gap in financial inclusion and bring more women customers into the formal financial ecosystem. Recruiting women to act as mobile banking agents may be crucial to breaking down some of the anxieties which prevent many unbanked people – the majority of whom are women – from using formal financial services. And we know that the gendered demands for this type of service are huge, as one of the women agents in the project, Tope Ajelewa, told us: “I realised that as there are no bank branches around here, it was an opportunity to help those women needing to pay school fees.”
We are still a long way from a world where cash is obsolete – in fact, 85% of consumer transactions are still conducted in cash. For many people, hard currency clearly remains a useful commodity. The reasons for this lingering predisposition vary widely between countries, and include both cultural factors, such as the extent to which consumer habits favour the status quo, and institutional factors, such as the level of government support and technological infrastructure for cashless transactions.
But the landscape is changing rapidly, and for those concerned with unlocking development gains for the world’s poorest and most excluded communities – and for women, in particular – the drive towards cashless economies offers an exciting window of opportunity.
Aman Grewal is the Mobile Technology Programme Manager at the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women. This blog was first published by Next Billion on 21 April and is republished here with their kind permission.