“Ecosystem” seems to be a big buzzword in the mobile money space. Many mobile network operators (MNOs) are extending their focus beyond what they consider to be the killer applications – storing and transferring money and cultivating strategies to offer financial services at scale.
The cornerstones of a viable network are trust and ubiquity, but this is no easy task. MNOs not only need to find the appropriate partners, they also need to make the ecosystem relevant to the daily lives of their users. This can be done by capturing the various financial practices that constitute daily life, and by monitoring so-called unintended uses. One of the clearest examples of this – the use of M-PESA for the safe-storage of money suggests a latent demand for particular types of services, such as savings. By capturing and integrating these practices, MNOs increase the likelihood that their ecosystem will sustainable.
There are other ways to ensure sustainability. That is, through education initiatives targeting financial literacy. In the context of the mobile ecosystems this term has several meanings. At a more basic level, it could mean providing users with information regarding the various features of the application and could also mean explaining how these features can be navigated. Such initiatives are beneficial because they take some of the burden for education away from the retail agents handling cash-in and cash-out transactions. But financial education can be taken beyond lessons of simple usability, and involve those of better money management. These projects could teach the poor how to initiate savings plans, make strategic investment decisions, or seek out credit from formal financial institutions. If done properly, they could raise financial awareness and, in some cases, have positive implications for the livelihoods of poor users.
Achieving a sufficient level of financial literacy is not an easy task – what to teach, and how to teach it, takes both time and money and whilst the onus of providing (consumer) education leans towards the service provider the boundaries of this responsibility are not clear. As such MNOs may not always be interested in such an investment. However by raising the level of financial and service literacy such initiatives will have substantial benefits for the MNO in the long run: on a personal level people are more willing to invest time and effort in using a wide range of services because there is a clear benefit; and within the broader society – that people are aware of the kinds of services that are available to them.
An increase in service use will not without its consequences – the integration of financial practices into the ecosystem makes them both more visible and more traceable, especially in countries where the majority of economic activity is currently informal.