Solutions from the front lines


Solutions from the front lines

How co-creation with Airtel Money turned agents into problem solvers
May 26 , 2017
Lusaka, ZAMBIA - 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 asyou knowone 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

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Uloma Ogba
Knowledge Management Consultant, UNCDF MM4P Zambia
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Uloma Ogba
Knowledge Management Consultant, UNCDF MM4P Zambia

Addressing classic agent network challenges with and for women


Addressing classic agent network challenges with and for women

October 26 , 2016
Kampala, UGANDA - 

As agents represent the first and most tangible touch point for most digital financial service (DFS) customers, there is little doubt that having an effective agent network is key to the success of any DFS provider’s operations. Research published by The Helix Institute of Digital Finance in 2015 suggests that agent networks are also probably the most operationally burdensome and costly element of the DFS value chain, and have been shown to cost between 40% and 80% of the revenue generated from the business. This finding means that, if providers are not diligent, their agent networks can end up costing them more than they are worth.

On Day 3 of the #DFS4Women event, Nandini Harihareswara, Regional Technical Specialist for Mobile Money for the Poor (MM4P) programmes in Malawi and Zambia, moderated a session on ‘Improving classic agent network challenges with and for women.’ The session was facilitated by Junior Kwebiiha, DFS Expert for MM4P Zambia, Melissa Rousset from Helix Institute and Venkata Atluri from MicroSave.

Ms. Harihareswara opened the session by inviting participants to share some of the key challenges they are facing in their markets in terms of growing and sustaining their agent networks. Some of the recurring challenges they reported included the following: managing liquidity and rebalancing, especially in rural areas and also pertaining to agents diverting capital for other purposes than their mobile money businesses; literacy levels of agents and tellers; the gender gap that still exists between male and female agents; connectivity issues that hinder the provision of quality services in areas where the network is bad; agent training with regards to cost, content and methodology of the training approaches used; and lastly, agent profitability.

At this point, Ms. Harihareswara asked participants to reflect on some of the lessons they learned on Days 1 and 2 of the event. On Day 1, some of the participants had the chance to attend the session ‘Agents: Why focus on women?’ There, they received information on women agents and women customers backed by research and experience from providers and agents in different markets. Research and implementation suggest that, compared to male agents, women agents are more profitable, focused and fiscally responsible, provide better quality services to their customers, and are perceived to be more trustworthy and loyal. On Day 2, all participants joined a field exercise in which they were able to use an innovative data collection tool developed by Optimetriks to capture pertinent information on agents and customers, including women.

After reflecting on Days 1 and 2, Ms. Harihareswara invited audience members to engage in an intensive thought exercise about how they could leverage the assets of women—as agents and customers—to solve some of the agent network challenges they had identified at the beginning of the session. The facilitators were on hand to steer the discussion of participants, who were separated into small groups, and help them think through their ideas in a logical manner. At the end of the exercise, participants from each small group shared their results with the whole group.

The first group presented savings groups as one solution to the agent liquidity issue, including in rural areas were savings groups are common and heavily populated by female members. The reasoning behind this approach is that savings group members have accounts at banks and could translate their balances into e-value and keep their cash equivalent in banks. The banks could then potentially support any member of the savings group who wanted to become an agent. A representative from Catholic Relief Services (CRS) who was in the audience invited any other participants that were interested in linking savings groups to formal financial institutions to consult with CRS, as it has done some studies on mapping savings group locations and characteristics in different regions.

The second group tackled the issue of training and suggested ways to make trainings more cost efficient and effective. One idea was to conduct trainings via videos shared through mobile phones. Another was to identify key agents within different communities who could take on the responsibility of training a set of agents. One provider brought up the key point that providers should explore ways of providing trainings in local languages to make them easier to understand and remember. Building off the lessons from Day 1 and the fact that women are considered trustworthy and also more patient and empathetic, providers could use this solution as a means of recruiting and training women ‘super agents’ who in turn could recruit and train more women agents and tellers. The group also suggested using fraud teams to help women agents who have been identified as being high risk and easy targets for fraud. Agent forums were also suggested as a means of disseminating important information throughout agent networks, since information is more likely to be well received from a peer than from a provider in a suit. Lastly, the group suggested that agent networks could be made more inclusive by inviting men to come with the women in their networks and providing incentives for women to become agents.

The last group focused on how to be more deliberate in the agent recruitment process so as to capture and retain more women agents. The group suggested that one approach could be to develop a more complete understanding of the life cycle of a woman to identify at what points she is most likely to be receptive to the idea of becoming an agent, the reasons why her agency business could become dormant and what could be done to help address these pain points. One suggestion to involve more women was to make the on-boarding process a bit less intense and also more incentivized. Another suggestion was to identify women influencers in the community and use them to target potential women agents through churches, savings groups, etc. It all boiled down to developing a value proposition for women and why they should become agents.

After this exercise, the group from Helix Institute briefly shared some of their knowledge on innovative agent models currently being tested in various markets. In the first model, the shared agent network model, the same set of agents serves a group of providers through the technology platform of the shared agent network provider. The providers’ role is limited to signing up and managing the performance of the agent network. This model is currently being used by MobiCash in Bangladesh, where the network has over 30,000 agents and partners with six different banks. In the second model, the roving agent model, agents provide doorstep service to customers. The group pointed out that most of the activities of roving agents seem to be focused on gaining new customers and educating them on the use of the services offered. A successful implementation of this model is in Pakistan where Telenor uses roving agents to market its mobile money product, Easypaisa.

The third and probably the most innovative agent distribution model in the market at the moment is the Uber-type model for cash-in/cash-out agents. What’s interesting about this model is that it enables customers to act as liquidity merchants, mimicking what Uber has done for transportation. In India, Eko is currently trying out this model by using its Fundu app to match customers who want to cash out with customers who can enable such transactions. The jury is still out on how much traction this model is likely to gain over time.

By the end of the session, participants left with the following key take-aways: they had identified the key challenges facing their agent networks and brainstormed a number of ways in which women might help solve some of these problems; and, they left with an idea of some of the innovative ways in which other DFS markets are structuring their agent networks. The challenge remaining is to see what they will they choose to do with all this information and what steps will they take towards incorporating women agents when it comes to restructuring their agent networks to increase customer acquisition and profitability.


October 2016. Copyright © UN Capital Development Fund. All rights reserved.             

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of UNCDF, the United Nations or any of its affiliated organizations or its Member States.

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Agents: Why focus on women?


Agents: Why focus on women?

October 24 , 2016
Kampala, UGANDA - 

Globally, there are 1.1 billion economically active but low-income women.[1] What this means for digital financial service (DFS) providers is that there is a huge potential market of women DFS customers that remains largely untapped. When it comes to DFS, it turns out that what is good for women is good for everyone. Research suggests that, if mobile phone adoption rates amongst women were to go up and DFS providers were to design more products and services that better meet the needs of women, the result would be that more women would use DFS in their daily lives. When considering approaches to engage more women with DFS, providers should bear in mind that women customers and women agents are two sides of the same coin, and what affects one invariably affects the other.

On Day 1 of the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) #DFS4Women conference, the Regional Technical Specialist for Mobile Money for the Poor (MM4P) activities in Malawi and Zambia, Nandini Harihareswara, facilitated an engaging and interactive discussion entitled ‘Agents: Why focus on women?’ The session featured presentations from three experts on the topic of women DFS customers and agents: Adrine Muhura, Connected Women Market Engagement Manager for Africa, GSMA; Memory Chirwa, Teller Experience Lead, Zoona in Zambia; and Sarah Namboze, Treasurer, Uganda Mobile Money Agents Association.

Leading off the presentations, Ms. Muhura addressed the key challenges to acquire women DFS customers. According to research by GSMA, the mobile phone gender gap persists in many low- and middle-income countries due to costs, low literacy levels and security issues. Some of these same issues, as well as others like product relevance, pose barriers that prevent women from accessing mobile money at the same rates as men. DFS providers can address these challenges by tailoring products and prices to suit women’s needs and interests and also by improving their customer service. Interestingly, there is evidence that some providers have been able to address a number of these barriers by hiring women agents. For example, in Somalia, women agents and temporary assistants were hired to photograph women customers and help them complete the mobile money sign-up processes in a culture where women are not allowed to show their faces to men outside of their family in public settings.

This point was a good segue into Ms. Chirwa’s presentation, which addressed in more detail exactly why women agents are crucial for reaching women customers. Ms. Chirwa also talked about some of the challenges women agents face and the measures Zoona has taken to address them. As agent networks are the first and most tangible service touch points of any DFS business, it is imperative that they be able to deliver the intended value proposition to the target group.

Research on agents published by IFC suggests that, compared to male agents, female agents are more focused, more fiscally responsible, provide better quality services and are more profitable.[2] Regarding being more focused, the research showed that customers reported being able to trust women agents more and women agents tended to be more loyal to DFS providers. This point provided an interesting discussion point as Ms. Harihareswara asked DFS providers in the audience for their feedback on the issue of trust and loyalty amongst their agents in their different markets. Some providers shared that women agents and tellers help deal with issues of churn and dormancy of agency businesses as women tend to be more loyal to the providers and stick around longer. On a surprise note, a representative from TNM Malawi mentioned that, while it is true that incidences of fraud tend to occur less frequently amongst women agents, TNM has seen in Malawi that, when these incidences do occur, women tend to hit businesses harder.

According to Ms. Chirwa, Zoona has also seen that its women agents tend to reinvest a greater portion of their earnings back into the business, and four of Zoona’s top six agents are women. One agent, Misozi Mkandawire, even boasts a monthly turnover of $1 million and a $10 thousand monthly commission. But women agents don’t have it all rosy. Based on feedback gathered from Zoona women agents, Ms. Chirwa reported that women agents face many challenges, including social pressures from their families and communities, sexual harassment, accusations of being immoral, lack of respect mostly from men, and even issues having to do with lack of proper sanitation facilities close to the agent/teller booths. Realizing how valuable an asset women agents can be, Zoona has deliberately taken steps to hire more women agents and provide them with the support they need to succeed through its Support Towards Early Profitability (STEP) Programme.

Following Ms. Chirwa’s presentation, Ms. Namboze shared a very emotional story of how her journey as an agent began when an agent named Moses shared the agency business value proposition with her, trained her and gave her the materials to start. She quickly realized the profitability of being an agent, decided to start her own business and today has six employees, four of whom are women. Ms. Namboze echoed Ms. Muhura and Ms. Chirwa on the challenges women agents face and implored DFS providers to realize the enormous potential of women agents and to invest time and resources in providing them with training and support.

During the last part of the session, panellists fielded questions from the audience. One of the questions was, “What holds female agents back?” Ms. Chirwa answered by sharing that Zoona uses a performance management system to identify, early on and in a consistent manner, the challenges women agents face and put people in place to monitor women and tackle these issues as soon as they are identified.

Another question raised was, “How do you manage women agent security?” At Zoona, Ms. Chirwa shared that new agents are encouraged to set up shop in populated areas or public places to ensure that witnesses act as a deterrent. Fraud training is also a key focus area, and Zoona teaches management of cash flow so that agents don´t have too much money on them.

One of the final questions was, “How do you get more women agents to go into the rural areas?” According to Ms. Muhura, research in Kenya shows that rural areas are considered low hanging fruit. Women are less mobile than men and prefer to have services closer to them. Providers should take advantage of this fact and encourage more women agents to go into rural areas to target women customers because there is indeed a market and profit to be made there.

In relation to the different issues women agents face in urban and rural areas, Ms. Namboze pointed out that the fraud she has witnessed is different in both settings. In cities, fraud is more sophisticated and mostly involves false impersonation and messages to get money from agents. In rural areas, fraud is more focused on distraction of agents followed by theft of their phones to access the mobile money on them.

Overall, based on the audience’s reception of the presentations and the level of interaction that took place, it was evident that most audience members left having gained some insights; it is now up to them to apply these insights and put them into practice in order to leverage the assets of women agents to grow their customer base and to address agent network challenges.


October 2016. Copyright © UN Capital Development Fund. All rights reserved.             

Photos © UNCDF Uganda/2016.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of UNCDF, the United Nations or any of its affiliated organizations or its Member States.


[1] Julie Zollmann and Caitlin Sanford, ‘A Buck Short: What Financial Diaries Tell Us About Building Financial Services That Matter to Low-Income Women’ (Somerville, MA, Bankable Frontier Associates, October 2016).

[2] Sven Harten and Anca Bogdana Rusu, ‘Women Make the Best DFS Agents: How financial sector alternative delivery channels create business opportunities for women in emerging markets,’ Field Notes #5 (Johannesburg, IFC, May 2016).

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