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Financial Inclusion: Obligation or Opportunity?

Why should banks care about financial inclusion?

First, the statistics, I think this will set the tone for this blog post. There are close to 2.5 billion people who are excluded from the banking stream and out of this, 2.2 billion people are from the continents of Africa, Latin America and Asia (McKinsey on Society: Global Financial Inclusion). However, this is not just a third-world phenomenon. According to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp (FDIC), in the US, post 2008 financial crisis, one family out of five has either opted out of the banking system or has been moved out (American Banker). Moving this huge unbanked population into mainstream banking is both an opportunity and a challenge for banks. An obvious opportunity is the significant untapped customer base that banks can target, so is the positive brand equity a bank can build by fulfilling its social responsibilities. Also, as banks target the cost-conscious unbanked customer, they will be forced to look at ways to offer cost-effective products and services, necessitating technology upgrades and innovations. However, cost is not the only hurdle in increasing the adoption of banking services. The potential users need to be convinced of the benefits of banking and banks will also face stiff competition from unorganized players. Finally, the banks will have to believe in the viability of this business opportunity, and not treat financial inclusion as an obligation.

In what ways can banks target the unbanked

For financial inclusion to be a success, banks should adopt innovative business models to develop products that address the stated and unstated needs of the unbanked population and also design delivery channels that are cost effective and viable in the long run.

Through business correspondents and facilitators

In rural and remote areas, one of the major hurdles in increasing banking penetration is connectivity and accessibility to banking services, which makes last mile inclusion a daunting challenge. To address this, banks can avail the services of business correspondents or facilitators. This model allows banks to establish greater connectivity through a trusted and reliable intermediary. In India, for instance, banks can leverage the local Kirana stores (the mom & pop stores) to service rural and remote areas. With a supportive nudge from the central bank, the commercial banks can enlist these shop owners as business correspondents to increase their reach. Since these neighborhood stores are acquainted with the local population, they can help banks manage the KYC norms, besides serving as a conduit for remittance. Banks also have an opportunity over a period of time to cross-sell other financial products such as micro insurance, mutual funds and pension products through these correspondents. To exercise greater operational control over the business correspondents, banks can also adopt a combination of branch and business correspondent models to deliver financial inclusion.

Through mobile devices

According to a 2012 world bank report on financial inclusion, out of a world population of 7 billion, over 5 billion or 70% have mobile phones and only 2 billion or 30% have a bank account. What this means for banks is that there is scope for them to leverage this phenomenal growth in mobile usage to serve the unbanked population. Banks can use mobile technology to service the basic banking requirements of their customers with no frills accounts, effectively bringing down the cost per transaction. As I had discussed in my earlier post on mobile payments, though non-traditional players have taken the lead in P2P mobile payments, banks still hold an edge in terms of infrastructure and reliability.

Through crowd-funding

According to the Crowdfunding Industry Report by Massolution, the global crowdfunding industry raised $2.7 billion in 2012, and is projected to grow to $5.1 billion in 2013. With credit policies becoming tighter and banks becoming more circumspect in terms of loan disbursals, crowdfunding has emerged as an alternative channel for lending. Typically, these initiatives target the unbanked population by offering small loans that are unviable for larger banks. Though a significant proportion of crowdfunding initiatives globally are run by non-banking institutions, banks are also venturing into this space.

The next step towards inclusive finance

Banks by themselves cannot make financial inclusion a success. There is a need for a whole ecosystem that is supportive of this mission. The policy makers, that include the regulators and government bodies, must be in sync, the IT solution providers must put on their thinking caps to come out with innovative products and solutions, communication channels such as internet and mobile need to expand their reach, and the media and the public need to play an active part.

The other challenge for financial inclusion is from the banks themselves. While it is true that financial inclusion will unleash a hitherto hugely untapped market, the normal banking model may be found wanting because of issues such as flexibility, convenience and reliability. The business will be viable only when there is a focus on increasing the usage of existing infrastructure and that is possible when the banks can offer the entire range of products and services to the large number of users of essential banking services.

Apart from these challenges, banks will also have to quickly master and replicate the business model to extend their reach to the remotest regions in their respective geographies. They will need to ensure that the transactions deliver a viable business benefit to the bank. For tapping cross-sell opportunities, banks will have to quickly roll-out customized and segment-specific products. The bank staff should be brought in sync with the business plan by convincing them of the viability of the business model and the need for a business correspondent delivery model. Banks, in collaboration with the government and NGOs, will have to run an extensive financial literacy program to educate the unbanked about the benefits of banking.

Finally, with the growing importance of retail banking and with many unconventional players eyeing the opportunity in payments and other lucrative areas of banking, banks need to understand the importance of micro and small branches. These micro and small branches can help banks increase their presence without a huge cost burden, provide bankers an opportunity to cross sell micro products and offer a window of opportunity for the large non-banked population to transact without any interference from intermediaries. These branches can also help diminish the role of the unorganized financial sector, such as local moneylenders and unregistered credit societies. This will also help banks build a brand awareness and loyalty among the users, which by itself has a cascading effect on the business operations, especially among the rural and un-banked centers.

In conclusion, with the increasingly competitive banking sector facing frequent slowdowns and downturns, the unbanked population presents a huge opportunity for banks to enhance their customer base and fulfill their social responsibility.


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