Round 2 with CGAP’s Gautam Ivatury

The ThinkChange India staff is committed to providing our readers with interviews with people we believe are at the brink of something special but have for the most part been overlooked by the mainstream media. Readers will be able to see other conversations under our TC-I Changemakers tag.

This week, Vinay sat down (over the phone) with Gautam Ivatury of the global microfinance center CGAP, which works to expand poor people’s access to financial services. Such services include but are not limited to microcredit and branchless banking. This interview is a follow up to one conducted on May 4, 2008, which you can read here.

Vinay Ganti: Could you please review yourself on the following topics, which we discussed in our last conversation?

  • Reaching beyond MFIs:

Gautam Ivatury: This still continues to be a major focus of CGAP’s mission. Across all of CGAP’s work we continue to look for ways to partner with a range of institutions and providers, including but not limited to MFIs, to be able to massively expand financial services for poor people.

GI: With regard to branchless banking, we set out to accomplish a number of goals. Overall we have been happy with the results of CGAP’s work in this area over the last six months, despite the fact that it has taken longer than expected for our project partners (in countries like Pakistan, Kenya, Mongolia, South Africa and elsewhere) to roll-out the branchless banking channels we helped design and finance.

Since our last talk, CGAP has expanded its policy and regulatory diagnostic work in branchless banking. New markets analyzed have included Colombia, Argentina and Indonesia, and we’ve continued to maintain close dialogue with the Reserve Bank of India and regulators elsewhere.

Also, the actual awareness of mobile banking in the field, i.e. what is and how it can work, has increased dramatically in the past. Last May we co-organized the first major annual event on “Mobile Money” for the unbanked in Cairo with the GSM Association (the industry body for the world’s 700+ mobile operators), IFC and DFID. That event got more than 500 paid attendees, most from private industry. And this week at the GSM World Congress in Barcelona, GSMA and other private sector players will announce additional activities in the space. DFID announced its new FAST program to encourage branchless banking this week. Initiatives like these are critical to get widespread adoption of the concept and to achieve scale. Moreover, major consulting and research outfits like Aite, Monitor and McKinsey have started research and published reports on the topic.

At the same time, our seven branchless banking projects have been slower to launch than we all expected two years ago. There have been some notable achievements — our Philippines partner has entered three new rural provinces and signed up about 80,000 new mobile banking clients, and Telenor bought 51 percent of Tameer Bank (our partner in Pakistan) to jumpstart its mobile banking initiatives. But in general the implementation of mobile / branchless banking has been slower than anticipated.

VG: Why do you think this is? Continue reading

Transfer money after the beep

Here is an interesting approach to the technological hurdles of mobile banking. Called Cashnxt, this venture in Kerala, uses high-pitched sounds via mobile phones to encrypt and decrypt the secure data needed to perform a financial transaction. An article on ReadWriteWeb, explains it as such:

As a customer, if you and a vendor are a member of the Cashnxt network, you can conduct transactions using your mobile phones. The merchant dials CashNxt’s IVR number, enters their PIN and transaction amount, and then hears a high pitch sound on their mobile phone. The customer does the same – calls the IVR number, enters their PIN and hears a high pitch sound. The two phones are then brought together, held close enough for CashNxt to encrypt and decrypt the sounds. 

Go after the jump to see a youtube video of the process:

Continue reading

Mobile Banking asked to take a breather by RBI

So yesterday the Reserve Bank of India called for banks to halt mobile banking services until it can release its operative guidelines. A significant number of Indian banks have already begun offering such services to its clients in an effort to expand their user base and to provide previously untapped populations access to banking.

But A P Hota, chief general manager at the RBI, advises banks to put plans for mobile payments on hold and to “dissociate themselves from any mobile based money transfer service which has not received explicit approval of RBI or not covered by any of the guidelines issued”. []

Hopefully such standards will come out sooner than later, as we have seen how poorly India performs with regard to financial inclusion.

Vikram Akula of SKS Microfinance Touts Mobile Banking as the Future of Microfinance

In a recent interview with IndiaKnowledge@Wharton, Vikram Akula of SKS Microfinance touted mobile banking (conventionally used for performing balance checks, account transactions, payments etc. via a mobile device such as a mobile phone) as the future of microfinance, but cited India’s regulatory environment as a significant limiting factor in expanding mobile banking networks (click here for a related article from our archives). According to Akula,

“It doesn’t make sense to try and build a retail brick-and-mortar infrastructure in rural India. From a cost perspective, it makes no sense at all. Mobile technology today is robust enough that you can actually very easily do banking. We actually have a very successful pilot that we’ve done.”

The prohibitive regulatory environment cited by Akula may soon change, as RBI “has begun to realise that the ‘rapid expansion of this mode of communication has thrown up a new delivery channel for banks.’” In order for the mobile banking market to fully realize its full potential, however, further incentives/mechanisms need to be put in place that stimulate, rather than stifle growth, especially since the mobile “banking” sector in India is currently “limited only to enquiries, alerts, and certain kinds of bill payments,” and has yet to become “transactional.”

To watch a video of the interview, which focuses on issues beyond mobile banking, including capacity building, capital infusion, cost defrayal, and the notion that microfinance institutions’ operational models should be akin to those of businesses, see below:

Wrap it Up: Two Papers reviewed by reviewed two recently released papers this week; here is a summary of those.

1. “Should Access to Credit Be a Right?” by Marek Hudon

This is a very interesting question as fields like microfinance have gained so much popularity and success. The paper takes both practical and normative approaches to this issue and frames the overall debate in a way that seems to argue that the framing of credit as a right would significantly contribute to alleviating poverty. The full paper can be found here.

2. Consultative Group to Assist the Poor, Focus Note: The Early Experience with Branchless Banking (On the Potential of Branchless Banking in the Microfinance Sector)

This paper takes information from 18 different countries that employ branchless banking to analyze its effect on both microfinance and poverty generally. The paper highlights the ability of mobile banking to overcome the hurdles that many MFIs face with regard to the lack of well-established banking infrastructures in these countries. The full paper can be found here.

Mobile Banking May Get Watchdogs

Looks like mobile banking has hit the critical mass where bureaucrats feel the need to regulate it:

RBI Executive Director R B Barman said this week that a central bank committee is examining the regulatory challenges raised by mobile banking. The committee is expected to report recommendations next month, leading next to RBI drafting the requisite changes to the country’s regulatory framework.

In addition to regulation, RBI is also looking at new ways to use mobile banking to reach greater users. Mark Pickens of CGAP writes:

RBI is also closely watching several pilot schemes using mobile connectivity to improve access to financial services among low-income Indians. As the Economist reported earlier this month, one program in Andhra Pradesh is testing how to deliver pensions and unemployment benefits to around half a million people in villages, via specially-equipped mobile phones in the hands of local payment agents and smart cards issued to recipients. A parallel POS-based system is also being tested. So far, 40,000 cards have been issued.