Monday, June 3, 2013

Barriers to mobile money adoption among rickshaw pullers in Delhi: The first of two personal stories

IMTFI sponsored researcher Mani Nandhi highlights barriers to mobile money adoption among rickshaw pullers in Delhi by sharing her notes from the field in the first of two personal stories.

I would personally like to see all of the un-banked rickshaw pullers in Delhi be able to deposit their savings safely via a mobile phone into a bank account. Is this wishful thinking? Do these poor migrant pullers have the same desire as I do in finding a safe place to save? Are there factors beyond their control or my vision that comes between desire and effort? The following is the first in a two-part blog post looking at my encounters with two rickshaw pullers in Delhi. In the process of trying to unravel the main issues I pay particular attention to the way poor people's desire and choices can inform us about context and culturally specific barriers to mobile money adoption.

Tulsi Ram guessed that he is about 55- 57 years old. He is an uneducated rickshaw puller who migrated from Madhya Pradesh to Delhi with his wife and five sons, 12 years ago. Within a day of our meeting him, he was interested in acquiring a bank account. He explained that up until then he had not been able to get one because he had no savings. Softly-spoken but determined that he should think of saving for his twilight years, he volunteered with us to get a mobile bank account. It was a real achievement for him when, after using his thumb print on the application form, he received the EKO Okeykey code book. It was the sign that he had opened a new account with EKO mobile money. Tulsi received a message about his successful account opening and was told that another message would come for activation. Tulsi said “Since I cannot read I automatically delete the messages always.” We told him to show the messages to someone to check about how to activate his account. 

The train was on track. I was happy. Will the ride be a smooth one? I contacted Tulsi to check that he had managed to register successfully but his mobile phone was answered by his son who informed me that his father had been hospitalised with an eye ailment. 

Days passed....

Two main problems became clear to me as I continued to work with Tulsi. The first was an error made by the retail agent. His thumb impression was taken in red ink when it should have been done in blue or black ink. The agent’s error was rectified when Tulsi made a fresh application, this time at the counter. The second barrier was Tulsi's illiteracy. Later I understood that his account had not migrated to the CBS platform of the State Bank of India (SBI) because he had given only 9 digits for his mobile number. When his 10 digit number was relayed to the EKO office, the account was finally activated, 61 days after the first step. During the long waiting period Tulsi kept asking me two questions: "Madam, I was told that account activation status would be known through a message, but it’s not yet received in my mobile phone.” And: “Madam, when can I go to deposit some money?" 

Four days after his account was opened he went to deposit a small sum of money to operate his “first bank account” but his enthusiasm was immediately dampened. The customer service representative told him to come back after 3pm the same day. Time is precious for rickshaw pullers and Tulsi could not go to deposit his money at a time that was convenient for him. In the interim, he lost his mobile phone while visiting his village two days after Dipavali (a major Indian festival.) When I met him on 23rd November 2012, he said he could not go again to the EKO counter because he did not have the mobile phone and had neither time nor money to buy another mobile phone now. He did not know about blocking the mobile phone (SIM) number with the service provider nor did he know about lodging a police complaint about the loss of his mobile phone and SIM card. When I told him that his lost mobile number is the account number for his mobile banking account and that he needs to get a duplicate number, he exclaimed: "Madam, what can I do? I don’t have time to go for this because I need to earn?” Nonetheless, he promised to speak to his son to get a duplicate number. 

Exactly a month later on 22nd December 2012, I met him again and he had not been able to get a duplicate mobile number; instead, he had found it easier to buy a new SIM card and a new mobile phone. What were the factors involved in this decision? "Time constraints" and "illiteracy"? Or should that be "time constraints" and his own "rational choice" from his perspective? I explained to him that he still needed to register the new mobile to his bank account.

After a missed meeting and repeated reminders we finally met, albeit two hours after the arranged time. But there had been a domestic crisis. His daughter-in-law had left for her mother’s village in a huff after a fight with his second son. His son had left soon after to bring her back. Tulsi’s mobile phone was taken by this son because the family only has two mobile phones – one with Tulsi and another at home with his wife. From my perspective, another delay, yet Tulsi was unperturbed. His concerns were more immediate such as how to meet domestic expenses in the face of spiralling prices, recurring health issues and his hand-to-mouth existence. As much as he wished to have a bank account, his desire to use the account to save was outweighed by the demands of his daily hardships. To put it another way, his daily struggles to make ends meet overwhelmed his desire to save in a bank account. 

As I write this post, tomorrow is another day when I am going to meet to take him to the EKO counter to get his account number changed. I am hoping that his desire to use the mobile banking account grows stronger than his never ending problems...


  1. Great blog post. While this story is sad and frustrating, it is also very illustrative. Service providers, whether they are banks, MNOs, Business Correspondents or any other name, need to really take the time to live in the shoes of their customers and understand their frustrations. It is a shame that a service directly linked to a phone number doesn't take account of the transient nature of these phone numbers for many people, and the difficulty it takes to get them blocked or renewed. There is a world of difference between the on-paper process from a telco saying, "Get a police report about your lost mobile phone in order to go to the telco and get a new SIM card." and the reality of a rickshaw driver dealing with the police. Good process design and risk management can overcome these hurdles, but only with creativity and empathy.

  2. Great insight into the end users shoes, understanding customer behavior is priority one in this day and age. I as well hope things improve for Tulsi.