Monday, September 19, 2016

Review Post: Monetary Practices of Traditional Rural Communities in Ethiopia: Implications for New Financial Technology Design

By IMTFI Postdoctoral Scholar Ursula Dalinghaus

In this blog post I review an exciting new publication by IMTFI Fellow Mesfin F. Woldmariam, co-written with Gheorghita Ghinea, Solomon Atnafu and Tor-Morten Groenli. The article is based on Woldmariam's IMTFI supported research and appears in the journal, Human-Computer Interaction. The post ends with a brief update on Woldmariam’s latest research endeavors, together with IMTFI fellow Ndunge Kiiti.

In their path-breaking and provocative research article, “Monetary Practices of Traditional Rural Communities in Ethiopia: Implications for New Financial Technology Design,” the authors propose novel design applications for digital money and mobile money information systems with illiterate and low-literacy users at the focal point. Grounded in a fieldwork-based case study on the money practices of several village communities in Ethiopia, and in the context of religious and social practices, the authors make a case for incorporating peoples' existing practices and values into the design of dematerialized money forms. The authors, like many in the financial inclusion space, anticipate a time when all money is digital and no longer needs to be "cashed out" of an e-money system.

What challenges does this present, not only now but also in the near future, for rural populations like the low-literacy communities studied in Ethiopia whose techniques for managing and embedding money in social practices depend upon the material aesthetics of money? Cash money features—such as color for sorting value and visible piles to budget amounts—are important for navigating the daily use of money and in fulfilling religious obligations and social performances. Especially in the context of extending money gifts, the materiality of cash enables individuals to decide when money amounts should be hidden or visible, and even to refuse a money gift based on its source or moral quality (is it "clean" or "dirty?")

Rather than assuming a "one-size-fits-all" approach, the authors argue that these values and practices should be integrated into the design of new mobile money platforms. Failure to take local and population-specific needs and values into account will mean that illiterate users will be further excluded or may even reject the adoption of new technologies. While the authors are careful to connect their design ideas to the specific case at hand, they argue that similar types of needs can be found in many other parts of the world. More grounded research is therefore needed to ask the right questions in developing locally specific and context-appropriate e-money applications that support existing social practices. The larger and crucially important question the authors of this article raise is this:

"who gets to decide what 'value to people' looks like, what 'legitimate uses' of money are?" (p. 511)

The insights and applications presented here will be invaluable for professionals and researchers alike in the financial inclusion space, as well as for anyone interested in the qualitative design implications represented by digital money futures. (The full article can be accessed here)

In a blog post for IMTFI Woldmariam wrote early on about the importance of metadata and information in conceptualizing how material money might be translated into digital form. His case study on cash management techniques in Ethiopian rural marketplaces has also been featured in IMTFI’s Consumer Finance Research Toolkit.

Mesfin Woldmariam talks with smallholder 
farmers from a DigitalGreen Project
More recently, Woldmariam has been collaborating with IMTFI Fellow Ndunge Kiiti on a project supported by the Institute for African Development at Cornell University to assess mobile money awareness and use/usage among smallholder farmers in rural Ethiopia. This project places research and on-the-ground dialogue with smallholder farmers and other stakeholders at the beginning and forefront of potential design and implementation of new technologies. Drawing on their respective field experiences and areas of expertise, Kiiti and Woldmariam's work emphasizes the importance of carefully assessing and documenting smallholders' existing practices and needs to develop appropriate and empowering solutions.     

To read more about Mesfin Woldmariam’s and Ndunge’s IMTFI research, their project pages can be found here and here.


Mesfin F. Woldmariam, Gheorghita Ghinea, Solomon Atnafu and Tor-Morten Groenli
"Monetary Practices of Traditional Rural Communities in Ethiopia: Implications for New Financial Technology Design." Human-Computer Interaction. Volume 31 (2016): 473-517

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