Monday, September 14, 2015

Njangi Sociality: New Money Technologies and Financial Inclusion in Cameroon

By IMTFI Researchers Francis B. Nyamnjoh and Divine Fuh

MTN Mobile Money Poster
In Cameroon, where the state has often been distant, indifferent and irrelevant, or present mainly in its extractive capacity, people have cultivated ingenious forms of self-reliance and social networking. Throughout the country, individuals and communities have a long history of investing in networks, solidarity and avenues of accumulation that bypass the state and its encumbrances. The Rotating Savings and Credit Association (ROSCA) known among Anglophone Cameroonians as njangi and among Francophones as tontine, is an institution based on solidarity or social networking facilitated by individuals or collectivities pooling together financial and other resources to fulfill their needs and dreams – in both normal and difficult times. These groups of individuals have an intimate knowledge of and trust in one another, and relations of reciprocity and interdependency determine the survival and success of these groups. We use njangi as an analytical framework in our project to understand the relationships and practices of obligation and reciprocity that shape the uses and meanings of mobile/electronic money in Cameroon.

Our year-long ethnographic research project investigated the daily practices, transformative value and social implications of mobile money and electronic transfer services amongst poor rural farmers and gardeners in the Cameroon Grassfields. Data collection was done through recorded qualitative interviews; focus group discussions; multi-sited ethnography; photo documentation; and participant observation. Researchers actively participated in everyday activities, rituals, interactions and events as a key method of learning the explicit and tacit aspects of life routines and cultures of mobile money usage. The study mainly targeted male and female farmers (above 25 years of age), associational groups, and mobile money providers. Through this sampling method we were able to target farmers, gardeners, buyers, transporters and other actors involved in mobile money transactions.

The Cameroon Grassfields, located in the northwest region of the country, are characterized by very high unemployment rates due to the lack of industry, resulting in high labor migration of young people to urban centers and across international borders in search of better economic opportunities. Due to this high population mobility, there is increased usage and reliance on mobile and electronic money services for remittances. The main providers of these services in the region are the MTN mobile communication network in collaboration with the Afriland Commercial Bank in Cameroon, Express Union, Moneygram and Western Union. With a predominantly subsistence and cash crop farming population, economists and development advocates identify mobile technologies as tools to enhance market participation amongst poor rural farmers, with aims to increase net returns from investments in agriculture. Our ethnographic fieldwork, however, set out to answer the following questions: 

What perceived and lived transformative value do mobile money transfer services have on the livelihoods of poor rural farmers? What are the daily practices, uses and meanings of mobile money services amongst poor rural farmers in the Cameroon Grassfields? How does mobile money impact the social and economic networks/networking of poor rural farmers?

Njangi groups in Cameroon come together for the purpose of saving some resource – usually money – on a consistent basis. The regularity of the payments or contributions is agreed upon from the outset. Participating members refer to their regular contributions in cash or kind as their njangi and to the act of contributing as playing njangi – emphasizing thus the game-like dimension of this activity. As with every game, each njangi is governed by rules by which participants are expected to abide. The associated meetings usually rotate and the money contributions made at each meeting are made available to one of the members, usually the person hosting the meeting for the day. Many of those we studied depended on remittances (often transmitted electronically) from relatives in cities and abroad, to fulfill their financial obligations in njangis. Our findings show that electronic money technologies are making njangi transactions more secure than before.

Njangi is also a collective activity and an exercise in solidarity. The person who receives njangi money is said to “chop njangi” – which literally means “eat” njangi – although the receiving member is expected to do everything but “eat” the money, as “eating money” usually connotes waste. The person receiving the njangi has the freedom to use the money as s/he pleases but it is generally expected, that they will invest the money wisely and prosper from it. S/he is expected to manage their investments judiciously and contribute to the njangi when the time comes, so that other members may also chop njangi. Thus, one is expected to “eat” only to the extent that one is cognizant of others’ entitlement to their fair share of njangi. Strong communal ties of trust and reciprocity are central to this form of exchange. Belonging to a njangi is also a principal element of social personhood founded on  the internalization of values that prioritize inclusion, honesty, interdependence, and redistribution. Intervention by coercive external agents of law and order to enforce appropriate behavior is therefore considered unnecessary (even though it is not uncommon). Instead, members are expected to embody and reproduce the njangi ethic – an obligation to reciprocate – and years of practice are expected to make this an effortless and instinctive act. As a famous Cameroonian saying goes, life na njangi, which means life itself is a form of njangi or 'give and take.' 

Amongst the farmers we studied, this njangi ethic goes beyond monetary value and includes forms of social labor. Farmers entering a njangi together also assist each other in plowing and sowing crops on the farm of their members. The beneficiary in turn provides food and drinks to the members. Whether the rewards are monetary or in kind, no one enters into njangi with just anyone, as it involves an investment of hard earned money or resources. Intimacy, either in the form of primordial bonds, or solidarities through association and subscription to common values and a shared cosmopolitan belonging, is therefore an important precondition for njangis. While intimacy and familiarity do not guarantee against betrayal and opportunism, they do offer greater protection and minimize risk.

Njangi groups are in some ways comparable to, compete with, and complement banks. Like banks, they save and lend people’s money, often at more reasonable interest rates. However, unlike banks, njangi groups generally provide more flexibility because they are also carriers of social relations. They cement relationships between people who already know each other through other contexts (such as a workplace, church, college, business etc.) and are expected to create, reproduce and ensure continuity for social networks that bind their members in other spheres of life. At key social events, such as marriages, births, baptisms and funerals, members are expected to demonstrate solidarity and inclusion through financial contributions and gifts, as well as personally participating in celebrating members’ achievements or providing comfort during times of hardship and disappointment. Njangi is thus a network of relations and sociality, underpinned by obligations of reciprocity that tie two or more parties together.

Mobile Money Kiosk
Our findings show that mobile money and new digital technologies are able to provide more efficient and secure circulation of money, precisely because there is an already pre-existing culture of solidarity and reciprocity. Mobile phones and new financial technologies and products are redefining the ways in which these socialities are realized without distorting their core values and principles. A climate of trust also allows for easier, affordable and faster access to capital and cost reduction for trade activities and other related expenses. Our research shows that mobile money and financial services offer four major advantages over traditional financial models.

  • The cost of digital transactions is very affordable. In-person services and cash transactions account for the majority of routine banking expenses. Mobile-finance allows clients to keep their money in digital form so they can send and receive money often, even with distant counterparts, without creating significant transaction costs for their banks or mobile service providers.
  • New money technologies enable wider and broader participation (for e.g. networking farmers across geographical locations) by compressing both time and space, and increasing the aspirations of people previously geographically immobilized in remote areas. These farmers are now able to participate in a ‘global community’ even when acting locally.
  • Mobile platforms link banks to clients in real time as observed in the partnership between MTN and Afriland Bank in Bamenda and across the country. This means that banks can instantly relay account information or send reminders and clients can quickly sign up for services on their own.
  • Mobile communications generate copious amounts of data, which banks and other providers can use to develop more profitable services and even to substitute for traditional credit scores, which can be hard to obtain for those without formal records or financial histories.
In conclusion, for poor households, while the benefits of credit (credit unions) and savings (njangi) are undeniable, the simple ability to transfer money is also equally important. Mobile money therefore, plays a critical role in complementing and building on the services of njangi groups that provide many people financial security and are also rooted in values and practices of interdependency and conviviality.

Read more in Nyamnjoh and Fuh's Final Report

Read a Life history narrative of njangi sociality in the Cameroon Grassfields based on fieldwork conducted by the authors.

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