Financial inclusion brings empowerment to the marginalized and women
IN A WORLD NOW being run through digital means, even common, day-to-day transactions like sending money and paying bills can now be done at the touch of an app or a click on the laptop. However, that reality seems to be common only in the top urban spots of the country.
Grameen Foundation, a Washington-based international non-profit organization that was modelled after the microfinancing pioneer Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, launched in the Philippines an innovative program in 2015 that made digital financial services accessible even to the least technology-savvy people in remote villages and communities known as Community Agent Network (CAN).
J. P. Morgan Foundation Philippines and Tomberg Family Philantrophies helped provide financial backbone to the program, as well as technical assistance. Grameen also partnered with financial technology providers Action Able Inc. and FSG Technology Ventures Inc., who provided the digital platforms that were implemented in the communities covered by the organization.
CAN is essentially powered by the use of mobile and smart phones carried out by their agents, usually a member of the community that runs sari-sari stores in villages that are far-flung or have no direct access to commercial areas. The agents, through their stores, also serve as a payment center for utilities, money remittance and sending centers and top-up for mobile phone loads.
“The CAN Program was conceived with the goal of improving the resilience of the financially unserved and underserved communities by building a last-mile agent network that delivers financial services through an electronic transactions systems in a secure, convenient and cost-effective way,” explained Gigi Gatti, Regional Director of Grameen Foundation Asia based in the Philippines.
Gatti observed that while ordinary citizens may have embraced the cellular and smart phone technology and have transacted a great amount of money in terms of top-up loads and utilities payment, they have not warmed up yet to the idea of transacting online.
“There is the initial scepticism for the clients (ordinary Filipinos who pay through manual means) because they want very tangible proof that the money they used was spent well, even more than a receipt or a text message can provide,” she said. “Their preference for agent-assisted transactions stem from force of habit, and the technology being introduced is unfamiliar to them.”
For a fishing village like Barangay Bayas in Estancia, Iloilo, folks like Rena Abiner know and appreciate the idea of saving but have no access to a bank, or does not even know what goes on inside it.
“It is important for us who have low income to save,” she said in Hiligaynon. “Our fishing livelihood depends on peak season. Income from fishing is irregular. If it’s peak season, we have bigger savings. But in lean times, we can shell out small amounts of money.”
On the other hand, dressmaker Dinah Tuan expressed her initial apprehension when neighbour and CAN agent Delbert Rigodos introduced to her Digipay, one of the digital platforms implemented in Estancia, Iloilo.
“I know Delbert and he is trustworthy, [but] I just don’t know if his mobile application will surely push my payment to SSS,” she confessed. “I’m confident the airtime load will proceed, I just don’t want to risk it with something as important as a government contribution.” She had to ask her neighbors first if their transactions with Delbert were successful.
Women as Agents
CAN has also made possible the inclusion of women as informed financial managers, whether they are informally schooled or even degree holders.
“Financial literacy through the use of digital platforms and applications has worked to empower the communities to help manage their finances,” Gatti added. “It helps to empower women, who usually manage the family finances, and gives them control to secure the future of their families through sound financial management with the use of technology.”
One of them, homemaker Anna Sagun of Davao City, sympathizes with her neighbors when they are not able to raise money to pay the electric bill.
“I just give them advice,” she said, sharing the story of a neighbor distraught over the possibility of her electricity getting disconnected. “I told her, ‘puwede iyan (it’s possible).’ You can just pay it by installment until you complete it. Since every transaction costs 10 pesos, I make money from it. At the same time I was able to help her.”
Financially Knowledgable Society
As of January 2018, there are more than 1,700 CAN agents serving 423 barangays across 21 urban areas and rural provinces in the country, with a total transaction volume of 4.3 million valued at Php 1.3 billion pesos paid to 21 merchants.
By empowering those with no access or cannot be reached by the usual government and private institutions, these agents not only make the lives of their communities easier by bringing the technology closer to them.
Nevertheless, Gatti sees that the CAN’s women agents are the key to the program’s success.
“Many of the agents are within walking distance to homes, schools and wherever people usually converge like churches, plaza, health centers and hospitals, and many others,” she said. “Aside from that, many of their customers are not yet ready to adopt self-managed e-wallets, especially among those coming from the lower segment. Since Filipino women agents are more trustworthy compared to their male counterparts, and are as serious, they play a more prominent role in teaching and familiarizing folk with the platform and technology.
Lauren Hendricks, executive vice president of Grameen Foundation Worldwide, was present during Gatti’s presentation to the stakeholders, including government agencies and community leaders. She lauded the CAN Network’s success in its initial year of implementation, with the hope that it will be replicated in other communities and countries as well.
“While CAN is unique and a Grameen Foundation program first implemented in the Philippines, we hope that it can serve as a model for financial technology and digital financial literacy all over the world,” Hendricks said. “We at Grameen Foundation are committed to help all people, especially women, become empowered so that they can finally have control of their lives, their finances and their future.”