Solutions from the front lines
Agent networks, while expanding in Zambia, continue to face daily challenges with liquidity management. Airtel Money, one of the prominent mobile money operators in Zambia, is no exception to this issue. With the support of the United Nations Capital Development Fund’s Mobile Money For the Poor programme (UNCDF MM4P), Airtel Money set out to test novel float management solutions that would enable their agents to deal with their liquidity challenges.
Finding the right mountain to climb
MM4P and Airtel Money Zambia commissioned a team from 17 Triggers to map agent and customer journeys, digging deeper to uncover the reasons behind their behaviors and motivations around the usage of mobile money.
Airtel Money wanted to find how to increase uptake and usage of their service. While the customer and agent journeys lead the team to identify several major challenges to the uptake and usage of services, one of the consistent underlying issues was agent liquidity. The investigative trail with agents kept leading the research team back to their chief complaints about low customer traffic and difficulty accessing float when needed. MM4P and Airtel Money both agreed that liquidity was the right problem to focus on and decided to take the “inside-out” approach to problem solving, by involving those affected by the problem in the development and testing of proposed solutions. In a whirlwind of activity, they quickly set about working with the agents in Chipata to co-create their own solutions. These solutions were then tested by a different group of agents, also located in Chipata.
An agent who was about to give up
Billy is one of the agents who has been working with Airtel Money for some time. He is a tall, soft-spoken man in his early 30s with immaculately kept hair, who runs a dreadlocks salon in the heart of Kapata market. In his free time, he hosts a radio show at the local station. By the time the MM4P and 17 Triggers research team arrived at the doorstep of his salon, Billy was ready to quit being an Airtel Money agent.
“I started working as an agent two years ago. I liked the idea of being able to provide additional services to my customers and help them.”
But a series of changes to the overall distribution of float had left him high and dry, and disillusioned. His main problem, he told the research team, was that he was too busy to leave his shop to go to the bank and top up his balance when he was running low. When he runs out of float, it is not only bad for business but Billy feels that it reflects poorly on him with his current clientele. What was the point of continuing with Airtel Money, he wondered, if nothing had been done so far to solve his problems?
A simple question, and the freedom to ask it
A few days later Billy found himself shaking hands with a few of his fellow agents in Chipata, some of whom he was meeting for the first time. They stood facing a large blank wall, armed with colorful post-its, and a simple question: “what if…”. What if they could solve the very problems that were plaguing them?
Gathered around the cabana hut, the agents were soon absorbed in their thoughts, forgetting the hot Zambian sun as they scribbled ideas down, hesitating but then gaining courage and speed as their facilitators reminded them that they were after quantity, not quality, and that every idea, however small or improbable, was welcome. Billy watched as the blank piece of manila paper stuck on the wall quickly filled up with ideas, transforming all the agents present from helpless complainers into “solutionists”.
Many of the ideas were fun and borderline ridiculous – that was intentional. Creativity does not flow from a tap, it often springs to life when reacting to other ideas, especially when those ideas feel outrageous. Many of the ideas were simple, a lot were downright practical, and the agents found themselves nodding in satisfaction. Suddenly there was a strong possibility that their voices could be heard.
Airtel Money was excited by what they saw emerge from the co-creation session with agents. They had had their share of solutions launched from spreadsheets and boardrooms, and they decided to explore the float solutions that their front liners were proposing by testing them out immediately.
Tips for effective ideation sessions
Participatory design is a process of involving the very people whom you are designing for in solving the problem at hand. By respecting and harnessing the experience of the people who have to regularly deal with the problem, design teams can uncover deeper and richer insights and solutions a lot faster. When structured and properly executed, design sessions can help the target audience focus on what they want to achieve, and accelerate and refine ideas before implementing them.
If you are going to try this on your own projects, here are a few key points for making the most out of your ideation session:
- Reframe the problem carefully. A weak-sounding problem statement will leave people uninspired, but a too-bold problem statement may take people too far out of their comfort zone. Take the time to get to the core of the problem, and turn it into a worthy, workable challenge that invites solutions.
- Quantity first, over quality. Drawing ideas out of people who are not used to the format takes practice. The need for quantity helps participants push past the first obvious solutions to delve into the often unexplored fringes of the problem.
- Avoid judgment. To encourage ideas, hold back both praise and criticism, otherwise this creates an impression of what is expected, and participants will try to find ideas that fit into those boundaries. Accept all ideas, push for more, and save the judgement for later when it’s time to refine.
After the session, keep the momentum going by reviewing the generated ideas to find which are feasible, what aspects of other ideas can be used, and build on those. Ideation sessions with the front liners will help you get perspective on the issue that you could have missed, giving you a strong indication of how your target users think and what they will positively react to.
A brighter future for agents
Alfred is the territory sales manager for the Eastern province including Chipata. He watched with great interest as the float experiments unfolded. Having moved to the region three years earlier, his hard-working manner and friendly disposition had made him a popular and well-recognized figure in town. Alfred knows each agent personally and feels responsible for each of them, so he was delighted to see their enthusiasm. He noted how small actions lead to big change, like how simple meetings such as this gave agents the opportunity to voice their suggestions and made them feel part of the business.
“They [the agents] have a voice on how they want things done. And even when we [Airtel] bring things onboard that they should adopt, they will be comfortable with it because they know that they were part and parcel of the design. Unlike where something is just brought to them and they simply have to accept it.”
As MM4P and 17 Triggers prepared to wrap up the behavioral trial and report back to Airtel Money with their findings, they asked Billy what he thought about it all. In the space of a few weeks, they had watched him come back from the brink of quitting. Business was slowly picking up, and he was forming a new view of Airtel Money and his fellow agents. He was no longer as concerned about float - in fact he had his sights on something bigger, beyond his own needs.
“This [being an agent] is a good way of creating employment, if you look at how many young graduates are jobless and how many of them are sitting in bars drinking at this time because they do not have options. I would love to see Airtel tapping into these school leavers, help give them a chance.”
Other changes we observed might be small to those sitting in boardrooms but are incredibly rewarding and can change the intrinsic inspiration and motivation to become – and stay – an agent.
“When you look at it, we [the agents] should not be looking at each other as competitors, we should be looking at each other as – you know – one family.” Billy smiled. “My favorite part of all this is that I made some friends.”
So, co-creation. Then what?
Challenges will always crop up in any situation, and for MM4P, supporting their partners to identify the right problem to work on is a key first step for any project. Participatory design through ideating and co-creating with the very people who are affected can lead to creative and insight-driven solutions with better outcomes, and stronger buy-in and ownership.
What happens after ideation – testing the proposed solutions – is just as critical. Stay tuned for the next blog where we will continue to share lessons learned from the field.
By Uloma Ogba, UNCDF MM4P, and Kim Chaterjee, 17 Triggers