When asked how mobile financial services (MFS) helped her, Amena Khatun (using a pseudonym to keep the identity of the interviewee secret) said, "Bank is different. MFS is personal. If I want to go to the bank, my children or husband will know. But I can use MFS and send money to my relatives whenever I want. I have it in my phone."
It became clear based on similar comments from many female MFS users that maintaining secrecy is an important aspect for them when it comes to saving money or making financial transactions. Their husband or even adult male children may simply snatch the money away from them or not allow them to send it to their relatives if the information is revealed.
We came across several such not so obvious ways in which MFS help their users as we identify the affordances provided by MFS. An affordance can be thought of as the ability that technology gives its user that results from the interaction between the user and the technology as the user tries to accomplish her/ his everyday goals.
As of 2018, about 53% of the working-age population in Bangladesh did not have any bank, mobile money, or nonbank financial institution account. Bangladesh has recently become the fastest growing country in South Asia and is all set to graduate from the LDC category by 2026. Such a large share of the working-age population not having access to banking can prove to be a major impediment in continuing its steady progress. Sustainable economic growth to a large extent depends on whether diverse sections of the population have access to financial and social resources, and MFS have massive potential to create a meaningful and impactful contribution in this regard.
Currently, 15 banks approved by Bangladesh Bank offer MFS in the country, the prominent ones being bKash, Rocket, UCash, and Nagad. According to Bangladesh Bank, the number of MFS transactions grew by about 153% while the value of the transactions increased by about 230% during the period December 2015 - October 2020. A lot of doubts, however, still exist regarding the impact of MFS in Bangladesh, primarily in their ability to improve the lives of the poor.
One of the primary potential causes of this scepticism is a lack of proper understanding of how MFS influences the everyday lives of the people. To understand these influences and fully comprehend the potential of MFS, it is vital to identify the various affordances actualized by MFS users as they try to meet their everyday goals.
In trying to understand the affordances, we interviewed 55 MFS users (30 males and 25 females). The age of the respondents ranges from 17 to 50 years. Their occupations vary widely, e.g., there are household helps, homemakers, students, rickshaw pullers, car drivers, security guards, garments workers, members of Bangladesh Ansar, and SME owners. The education level of the respondents also varies from no education to postgraduate level. Based on in-depth interviews of these 55 people, we identify the following seven affordances provided by MFS.
First and foremost, MFS provides the affordance of financial services accessibility, an ability that allows MFS users to enter and operate within the complex environment of financial services. Our respondents affirm that they can perform many of their necessary financial transactions through MFS in the absence of a bank account.
Second, MFS provides the affordance of self-controlling ability. Our interviewees are worried that if they keep money at home, they may end up spending it. Therefore, they save a portion of their money in the MFS account so that they can finance future potential expenditures such as school admission fee or examination fee for their kids. They know that they will need this money for unavoidable future expenditure, but still, they feel the need to put some sort of barrier that would prevent them from quickly accessing the money.
Third, MFS provides the affordance of spatial and temporal mobility. Banks generally have a certain physical location and a limited time of service. In villages, bank branches are usually located in the "Bazar", which can often be situated far away from where people live. MFS has given the users ways to bypass spatial and temporal constraints imposed by a bank. They no longer have to go to the physical location of the bank or they no longer are bound by the limited-service time as they can use MFS to make transactions from the comfort of their home and whenever is convenient for them.
Fourth, MFS provides the affordance of disintermediation ability. Most of our respondents don't have a bank account, and they say that one of the major obstacles in opening a bank account is the requirement of various documents that many of them often do not possess. Some suggest that matching the signature required for the issuance of a check is problematic given the precise verification procedure of the banks. At the same time, some respondents mentioned that MFS agents often refuse to take out small amounts of money and therefore, maintaining a personal MFS account is better. So, MFS users employ two layers of actualization techniques to realize the affordance of disintermediation ability. First, the agent-based system liberates them from the banks and second, personal accounts free them from the agents.
Fifth, MFS provides the affordance of self-sustainability, the ability to perform certain tasks with little or no help from others. To send money to their village homes, many of the respondents previously had to depend on other people and often had to pay a portion of the transportation costs.
Sometimes their family members would not receive the full amount or the carrier would complain about getting mugged. The respondents had no option but to accept whatever the carrier was telling them. MFS solved this problem by allowing them to send the money themselves without having to depend on anyone else.
Many female households help them feel safe because they do not have to go outside to use MFS. Often, they do not get permission from their employers to go outside and send money. Many of them are new to the city and do not have much knowledge about the neighbourhood they are staying in. These situations are no longer binding because they can use MFS to carry out transactions even staying indoors.
Sixth, as discussed at the beginning of this article, MFS provides the affordance of secrecy maintainability by allowing the users to maintain confidentiality about their financial transactions and/or savings.
Finally, MFS provides the affordance of networkability, i.e., the capability of networking. MFS helps the users to maintain and enhance their social networks by allowing them to send money regularly or in emergencies to their immediate as well as extended family members. They feel happy to do so because they know that they are obtaining a "kindness credit," a gesture that may be reciprocated in the future.
We hope that understanding these affordances will help MFS providers to conceptualise their product beyond the design and usability features and construct new ways to reach target markets by modifying the messages that resonate with the affordances. It can also help policymakers better assess the effectiveness of MFS, and help people still facing ambivalence regarding using MFS develop a new notion about the usefulness of these services.
* This article is written based on research conducted by the authors, which was published in the Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries under the title "Mobile financial services in Bangladesh: Understanding the affordances" on 29 December, 2020.
Dr Asad Karim Khan Priyo is an Assistant Professor and Chair at the Department of Economics, North South University
Dr Ummaha Hazra is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Management, North South University
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.