Monday, October 30, 2017

Advancing gender equality with mobile money - conferencing in Tanzania

By IMTFI Fellow Milcah Mulu-Mutuku (Egerton University, Kenya)

Fig 1: Gender Inequality Source:
Gender inequality continues to be a defining feature in contemporary societies, especially in emerging economies. Despite great transformations in gender dynamics, there still exist glaring disparities between men and women in various aspects of life, ranging from students’ enrollment in institutions of higher learning to leadership positions in these institutions; from accessing job opportunities to power relations in the office space; and from interactions at household and community levels to participation in decision making arenas. On average, men are better positioned in this pecking order than women (UNDP, 2013).

Fig 2: Conference banner at DUCE Gate
The Dar es Salaam University College of Education (DUCE), a constituent college of the University of Dar es Salaam, organised the 1st International Conference on Gender Issues in Higher Learning Institutions on April 27-28, 2017 (view book of abstracts here), culminating with a visit to Mikumi National Park on April 29, in order to “explore and reflect on gender issues and on how best to redress them in the context of higher learning institutions with the aim of realizing human rights and gender equality as speculated in various national and international instruments.” Framed by the theme ‘Equity and Equality for All,’ the conference brought together over 100 attendees from over 20 countries. The inauguration speech was delivered by the Minister for Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly and Children, Hon. Ummy Mwalimu (Fig. 3-Front row, center seated) on behalf of the Vice President of the United Republic of Tanzania, Hon. Samia Suluhu Hassan. This is an indication of the importance attached to this event by the Tanzanian government. The Ministry headed by Hon. U. Mwalimu has a directorate that is in charge of all gender equality related matters in Tanzania, making her the appropriate representative of the Vice President at this conference.

Fig. 3: Hon. Ummy Mwalimu (center seated) with other dignitaries,
keynote speakers, and a section of paper presenters (courtesy of DUCE)

Six keynote speeches were delivered, and 45 oral and four poster presentations were made. Presentations covered a wide range of topics, all touching upon gender issues. I had the opportunity of presenting a paper co-authored with Castro Gichuki* entitled, “Mobile money and financial inclusion in emerging economies: a strategy of addressing gender disparities in control of financial resources.” The paper advocated for use of technology in addressing gender disparities, and was based on a larger project funded by the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI) of the University of California at Irvine that aimed to explore the influence of mobile money on women micro-entrepreneurs’ control of productive resources. Data were collected in 2016 using mixed methods, including questionnaires, object-centered focus group discussions, and in-depth interviews.

Control over productive resources and especially finances is culturally a gendered issue in favour of men in many emerging economies.

Fig. 4: Making a presentation (courtesy of DUC)
This has a negative impact on women’s economic activities, thus necessitating a search for strategies with the potential to remedy the situation. Difficulties associated with fighting gender disparities stem from the reality that these disparities are reinforced by some deeply held cultural practices and beliefs. Culture defines ‘codes of conduct’ among those who share cultural ties. Since it is socially transmitted, people who interact regularly share unwritten rules that govern life (Daher, 2012). These are not issues taught in school or through any education system; people inherently know and understand them through socialisation, shaping their way of thinking, behaving and expectations of others. Needless to say then, strategies that have the potential of eliminating or minimising gender disparities are those that are responsive to the culture of the people, and that can be easily integrated into existing social arrangements rather than conflicting openly with deep held beliefs and practices.

Considering technological progression and what it has achieved historically, it may hold the key to unlocking the dilemma of culturally reinforced gender biases and the mindsets that perpetuate them. The term ‘technology’ elicits thoughts of tools and instruments for enhancing human performance, shaping nature, and meeting human needs, and the accompanying knowledge about their use. A third component of technology that is not talked about as much is culture. As Vergragt puts it, “Use of technology is learnt, interpreted, and given meaning in everyday life” (2006:2). If found acceptable, technology is adopted and assimilated into the lives of people, slowly becoming part of their culture. Ask Kenyans today, and they wonder how they ever survived without M-Pesa! Why? Because the technology has become so entrenched in their lives that it has become part of their culture.

Once a particular technology has been accepted as a way of life, the oppressed or the disadvantaged in society can then use it to their advantage. A case in point is the ingenuity of women micro-entrepreneurs in the use of mobile money to gain control over business finances without conflicting with their husbands. We found in our study that women micro-entrepreneurs whose husbands had a tendency of interfering with business finances transacted secretly using mobile money services. These women paid for services and goods using M-Pesa and deposited money into their savings accounts secretly. Messages from the mobile money service providers were deleted immediately after the transaction to erase any evidence. This way husbands did not know, and could not keep track of, how much money the business was transacting. This was done to safeguard business money against misuse, a mission impossible for those transacting with cash. This then makes technology progression a crucial tool in breaking the gender disparity cycle.

Conference attendees were fascinated with the use of object-centered focus group discussions as a technique of data collection and were interested in understanding it better. This is a technique we used to stimulate conversations around the difficult topics of personal financial practices and culture. We used charts to prompt participants to think through their financial practices and to discuss their level of control over productive resources and the influence mobile money services had on their control and decision-making processes regarding the resources (for more information on this subject, please see our IMTFI blog: Object-Centered Focus Group Discussions: Stimulating Conversations on Mobile Money Practices and Culture.

Dr. Susan Murphy, one of the keynote speakers, led the conference participants in exploring the role of education in creating gender awareness and transformation. The unparalleled capacity of institutions of higher learning to act as spaces for transformation through a focus on excellence, critical thinking, and constructive engagement was acknowledged. These institutions have the opportunity to lead transformative thinking on gender identities and the social constructions of masculinities and femininities, a point affirmed by Dr. Su-mung Khoo, another keynote speaker. Nonetheless these institutions hold dominant biases and discriminatory perspectives specific to their communities that tilt the scales toward exclusivity.

As observed by Prof. Anne Looney, Prof. Anne Ferguson, and Dr. Amy Jamison (other keynote speakers), gender inequality in institutions of higher learning is an internationally observed phenomenon, with key leadership and academic positions being held by proportionately more men than women. Prof. Looney called it ‘a crisis of justice and a crisis of quality perpetuated by societal cultures and systems.’ We noted that nations have good intentions to create equal opportunities for both men and women, and even legislation is in place to that effect. However, in most cases these intentions are not translated into practice due to deep rooted biases and stereotypes. Therefore, Prof. Ruth Meena implored participants to change the narrative from barriers, challenges, and limitations to promoting enablers of gender equality. Some enablers that were identified included commitments by governments, roles played by gender and human rights activists, and technology.

Fig. 5: Paper presentation session in breakaway room TPC 106
 (courtesy of DUCE)

On the use of technology as a tool for addressing gender disparities, Dr. Conor Buggy pointed to the ‘blindness to gender’ in anonymized online teaching and assessment which allows all students to achieve their learning outcome without unconscious bias or prejudice from fellow students and teachers. This concurred with our assertion that mobile money technology progression is an asset, especially for women micro-entrepreneurs, for gaining control over financial resources and, to some extent, equalizing the playing field between men and women. Mobile money enhances privacy and autonomy of financial transactions due to its invisibility compared to cash, meaning women are able to transact without conflicting with male relatives who may hold the belief that control over financial resources is a preserve for men (Donovan, 2012). As society ‘drags its feet’ in addressing gender biases, women can continue providing decent meals for their families in an environment of peace afforded by mobile money technology.


Daher, M (2012). Cultural beliefs and values in cancer patients. Annals of Oncology, vol. 23(3). Pp. 66-69.

Donovan, K. (2012). Mobile money for financial inclusion. In T. Kelly and C. Rossotto (Eds.), Information and Communication for Development, pp. 61–73. Washington, DC: World Bank.

UNDP (2013). Humanity Divided: Confronting Inequality in Developing Countries, available at: [accessed 18 July 2017].

Vergragt, P. J. (2006). How Technology Could Contribute to a Sustainable World. GTI Paper Series Frontiers of a Great Transition No. 8, Tellus Institute, Boston MA.

Read about her experience presenting at the Making Markets Matter Executive Training Program (May 2017).

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Yet Another Cashlite Stumbling Block: "Alarming" Fraud and Mobile Money Uptake in Ghana

By IMTFI Fellow Vivian Dzokoto, Virginia Commonwealth University and
John Kojo Aggrey, Louisiana State University

After a bunch of false starts, it seemed like Mobile Money in Ghana was finally on the up and up. CGAP declared that Ghana was finally on the “cusp” of progress on the mobile money front (Mckay, 2015). The Ghanaian Central Bank repealed Mobile Money guidelines which were deemed excessively restrictive, and replaced them with a bunch of guidelines that were considered more conducive to the scaling up of branchless banking initiatives (Blay, 2016). Mobile Money transaction volumes doubled from 266,246,537 in 2015 to 550,218,427 in 2016 (BOG, 2017).

Ghanaian citizens such as Auntie Ama - who curiously still names current prices in the old currency that was redenominated in 2007 – now receives money from friends and relatives via Mobile Money, just like one of the 2009 MTN mobile money television ads had demonstrated she could. To the chagrin of the sometimes reluctant remitters, they can no longer use “I can’t come and see you” as an excuse anymore, since Auntie Ama herself reminds them that they can send her money via mobile. Tech-savvy Kweku Mensah has one of his bank accounts linked to his Mobile Money account which he uses to pay bills, and buy airtime for his girlfriends (who I am not sure know about each other). Last night he had pizza delivered. He paid for it using - you guessed it - mobile money. Even some Ghanaian churches – after some initial misgivings about the impersonality of it all - have developed online portals where people can send donations or tithes via mobile money (see for example give/). Cash was certainly not on the way to extinction in Ghana, but Mobile Money, offered by Airtel, Glo, MTN, Tigo, and Vodafone was certainly becoming an increasingly important part of the payment ecosystem due to its convenience and accessibility....that is, when the agent was available and the network was functional.

Ghanaians, it seemed, after a loooong while of coaxing, had begun to move on to the mobile money bandwagon touted as a means to financial inclusion to the 60% of the population who for a variety of reasons were excluded from the formal financial sector because they did not or could not own a bank account. Branchless banking did make sense given the fact that Ghana had 110.8 times more branchless banking agents than bank branches. The ratio of agents to ATMs was an even more astounding ratio of 150:1 (International Monetary Fund Financial Access Survey, 2016). Plus, trust in the formal banking sector took a bit of a dive when customers of UT and Capital banks earlier this year awoke to the news that their banks had failed and had their licenses revoked, and were being taken over by Ghana Commercial Bank (Frimpong, 2017). Added to the stories and rumors over the years of a few errant supposed microfinance companies who disappeared with people’s deposits, mobile money - while not as secure as hiding money under the mattress - was beginning to look like it offered a pretty good degree of safety. You could, after all, call a mobile network operator and yell at them if something happened: they were after all first and foremost a communications company.

Mobile Money fraud had risen to an alarming degree

It was therefore jolting that Ghanaians woke up on October 23rd to the news not that another bank had failed, but rather that Mobile Money fraud had risen to an alarming degree. Customers were being defrauded of their money through a variety of ruses. According to the police, staff of the various mobile network operators were often “deeply involved”. The news about fraud in mobile money wasn’t exactly new: there had been horror stories circulating through the rumor mill; a few mentions in the press earlier on the year about the need to “wage war” on mobile money fraud; and reminders by MNO representatives to mobile money subscribers to refrain from sharing their Personal Identification Numbers (PINs). But the latest news report (Joy Online, 2017; Darko, 2017) is jarring:
  • 50% of mobile money subscribers have been targeted; 
  • The criminals have found ways to cover their tracks so well that the cybercrime division of the Ghana Police Service could solve only 10% of the crimes; and
  • Mobile money was described as a “time-bomb waiting to explode, unless something drastic is done to curb the increasing fraud in the system”.
There goes the idea that mobile money is safe, perhaps safer than cash, and more convenient to access than the formal banking sector. There is nothing whatsoever convenient about being defrauded of money. There goes the idea that a transition to cashlessness can create a record of transactions and thus reduce fraud in Ghana. Fraudulent individuals found a way to take advantage of cashlessness based on their knowledge of the logistics of the Mobile Money platform, and did so without leaving much of a trail. There goes all the hard work that the mobile network operators, their banking partners, legislators, agents, and other stakeholders have invested in growing the mobile money market. It’s going to be much more difficult to market a product everyone knows has significant weaknesses. Mobile Money has lost that lovely feeling.

Hopefully, all is not lost. However, trust is important for adoption, growth, and sustainability of this payment form, and this trust has been badly broken by people from the inside. Sadly, the reality that these crimes are at least partly inside jobs are a reminder of the Ghanaian (Twi) proverb that states “if an animal will bite you, it is from your own cloth”. Adding salt to the wound is Uncle Attah who absolutely refused to use Mobile Money in the first place. He was suspicious that something could happen to the money once it wasn’t in physical form anymore by some “419” (fraudulent) person. He is now going round his neighborhood on an unofficial “I told you so” campaign. To him, it was, it is, and always shall be nothing but cash.

*Note: Some of the people referred to in this post are composites of people encountered in fieldwork, for others, names have been changed.

Blay, C. (Bank of Ghana). 2016.   “Mobile Financial Services in Ghana. Sub-regional Workshop on Mobile Money in West Africa.” 14th – 16th March 2016, Freetown Sierra Leone.

Bank of Ghana (BOG). 2017. “Payment systems statistics”  Accessed October 23, 2017.

Darko, F. (2017). Mobile money fraud alarming -Staff of telcos deeply involved – Police. 23-10-2017.  Accessed October 23, 2017.

Frimpong, D. (2017). GCB takes over UT Bank and Capital as BoG withdraws licenses. Business Insider. 14.08.2017. Accessed October 23, 2017.

Joy Online (2017). Staff of telcos accomplices in mobile money fraud – Police. 23-10-2017. ( Accessed October 23, 2017.

McKay, C. (2015). New Data Finds Mobile Money "On the Cusp" in Rwanda and Ghana. 15 December 2015.  Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP). Accessed October 23, 2017.

International Monetary Fund Financial Access Survey, 2016. International Monetary Fund.

Read Vivian Dzokoto's blogpost from the special PERSPECTIVES Series on Demonetization in India, "Before Money isn't Money Anymore...."

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

All in one, One in All: How I learned the invaluable value of cooperation through “Loy Loy”, a board game for financial literacy

Cross-posted from
by Lara Nguyen, summer intern at UCI Blum Center 

As a typical Millennial, I find that our generation is committed to finding sustainable solutions for poverty, except we don’t know where to start. While summer interning for the UCI Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation, I was given the opportunity to research and develop various poverty solutions for disadvantaged communities. One project in particular that was especially impactful was “Loy Loy — The Savings Game” –a financial education board game developed by UC Irvine’s Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI). It was developed at a workshop conducted by IMTFI (you can see inception video here). This revolutionary game is educational, thrilling and has the potential to improve financial literacy across the globe. Even better, it was “aggressively fun” as described by my peers who tested the game!

This past spring, the Blum Center hosted their third annual Designing Solutions for Poverty Competition in which businesses and organizations alike propose the most innovative and cost efficient solutions to relieve inequality. This past year, IMTFI won 2nd place in the competition with a $5,000 award to further pursue their idea and initiate production. Through the unique and groundbreaking “Loy Loy” game (which means “Money Money” in Khmer) IMTFI modeled the ROSCA system, or Rotating Savings and Credit Association, a form of collective savings that is commonly found in developing economies. ROSCAs allow factory workers to informally save money without the pressures of a banking institution and invest in larger assets. Inspired by the cooperative nature between Cambodian garment factory workers, researcher Andrew Crawford created a Monopoly-style game that mirrored the credit market and savings groups in both developing and developed countries and debuted it at the Mekong Financial Inclusion Forum in Phnom Penh. The objective of the game is to collectively earn $5,000 within one hour in order to invest in a small business as a group, with one of the key rules being that no one person can go bankrupt, otherwise everyone loses and the game is over. While it was a test of savings, the true challenge was cooperation and trust amongst the team.


On a circular board, the players are met with colorful red, green, and blue squares that represent life events that could either bolster of hinder one’s finances. During each round, players roll a die to maneuver around the board landing on either red, green or blue squares. Mirroring the practical world for families in tight economic situations, life happens and players sometimes may land on red squares that make them draw expense cards, blue squares for event cards or green squares for asset cards. The expense and event cards can force players to pay bills such as groceries or emergency medical care (either in fixed amount or percentage of cash holdings) and the asset cards allow players to buy objects that then provide a return each month such as equipment or livestock. These cards test the player’s ability to foresee unexpected expenses while also committing to ROSCA cooperatives.

Replicating the realities of life, disaster cards deduct a certain percentage from your personal finances, as seen in the blue diamond card pictured above! Eventually players pass “Payday”, which is when players receive their monthly wage and “ROSCA Meeting Day” which is when members can “bid” for the collective fund by offering to pay higher rates of interest. While every player chips into the ROSCA pool, the player with the highest bid gets to receive all of the funds. One of the most unique aspects of this game is that there is no singular strategy to conquer the game; many have been tried but seldom complete the task. Ideas such as going rogue and splitting from the group to save up $5,000 alone and owning the factory alone is also a possibility, though not as easy.

To continue reading and for further details about Lara's experience and how "college students and factory workers alike can learn from this finance game" go to for the full post -

Loy Loy: The Savings Game is now available online for purchase at

About the UCI Blum Center:
The UCI Blum Center is just one of many centers across the University of California campuses whose mission is to enable a new generation of students and researchers to actively counteract poverty around the globe and in Orange County by posing critical question about economic development. Its main objectives are targeting our education, research and engagement on campus; whether it is about introducing pioneer, educational courses or partnering with local organizations, the Blum Center is integral to changing the conversation surrounding poverty on college campuses.

Stay on the lookout for an upcoming interview with the researcher behind the game, Andrew Crawford, where he shares his recent experience at the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU) at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts on October 13–15, 2017 - where he engaged with 1,000 other innovative leaders from college campuses around the world who aim to make a difference.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Marching into Hong Kong: Maurer Plays Marco Polo (Part 2)

By IMTFI Director and UC Irvine School of Social Sciences Dean Bill Maurer

The first thing I noticed when coming into Hong Kong from China was that the cab drivers wanted cash. No cab driver was using an app to receive payment. The second thing I noticed was the cash: the HK$100 note is the same size and color as the Chinese 100 RMB note. Instead of a portrait of Mao, it has an image of Chinese soldiers marching into Hong Kong to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). Oh, wait, it’s not exactly soldiers. It’s a military marching band, holding musical instruments. Soooo much nicer.

With cash as an everyday reminder of Chinese rule, cash and cards dominate the payment landscape in Hong Kong. Overlooking the harbor we saw a giant lit-up ad for Samsung Pay during the nighttime lightshow, but I never saw anyone use it, and no one I met had ever used it (and several had never even heard of it). Lots of cash, a fair bit of bargaining, and some credit card use. Union Pay ads adorn walkways and public areas, as well as the airport, celebrating your ability to “make your choice” and touting Union Pay’s “global payment network.”

Union Pay ad in Hong Kong.
This seems to be a selling point, at least for now. WeChat Pay can’t be used outside of China by non-Chinese citizens (and I haven’t yet seen any merchant in the US who accepts WeChat Pay – but I’ll be looking, and Rutgers graduate student Jing Wang shared with me this photo of a vendor who accepts WeChat Pay outside of the NYU Stern School of Business!). My Chinese students at UC Irvine are all using WeChat for social networking, chat, news and more. It may only be a matter of time and regulation before WeChat Pay also goes global. When that happens, I have to wonder how much more data might be available to WeChat—and the Chinese government—about residents and citizens of the United States.

Food truck vendor in front of NYU Stern School of Business.
Photograph by Jing Wang, used  with permission
This may be why there is so much interest in Hong Kong—and in China, among those I spoke with—in blockchain technology. While I was in China, the government banned bitcoin and shut down some bitcoin exchanges. Nevertheless, several of my interlocutors in China wanted to know more about the cryptocurrency and blockchain. They were ready to disparage the (ridiculous) monetary theory behind bitcoin, but were deeply interested in the potential use of blockchain for “accountability.”

I was surprised to see a whole display of books (see left) in a non-academic, non-tech, general readership Hong Kong bookstore on blockchain and fintech. I actually bought a copy of a blockchain book—in Chinese, just to have as an artifact of this moment in the history of payment and accounting—at the airport bookstore in Hong Kong (thank you, National Science Foundation).

What are the bigger lessons then? I’m tempted to make some big claims but they’re really too flimsy to stand on right now. Still: maybe the US’s messy, noninteroperable, non-seamless, kludgey payments infrastructures are not such a bad thing after all? Google’s got a lot of my data and the NSA can snoop around in it just as easily as the Chinese government can use machine learning to catch phrases in WeChat conversations or shut down entire groups or circles of payment or make it impossible for you to rent an Ofo bike, limiting your mobility. But if I can’t keep track of my various accounts for the different payment services I use, is my fragmentation across payment platforms a good thing for my liberty?

Mobile payment in its WeChat/Alipay app-based form, so different from the SMS-based world of M-Pesa, crucially depends on government-mandated identity as the base layer on which everything else is built. So maybe there’s something to be said about the line from authoritarianism to app-based mobile payment? And maybe, whenever I’m feeling like a blockchain skeptic, I should look at that HK$100 note to remind myself why a noncentralized, non-government controlled means of accountability might be a good thing.

I can’t thank by name but also can’t thank enough my various interlocutors and guides in China and Hong Kong. Xiè xiè!

All photo credits are by author unless otherwise noted.

Read first post: "Paying behind the Great Firewall: Maurer Plays Marco Polo (Part 1)"

Join IMTFI Director and Dean Bill Maurer and CPRI Director Bryan Cunningham on November 14 for "Using Blockchain to Secure the Supply Chain: A Conference of Industry, Academic, andGovernment Leaders" to discuss the innovative potential of the blockchain to transform supply chain security. An IMTFI collaboration with the UCI Cybersecurity Policy & Research Institute (CPRI)~

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Monday, October 16, 2017

Paying Behind the Great Firewall: Maurer Plays Marco Polo (Part 1)

By IMTFI Director and UC Irvine School of Social Sciences Dean Bill Maurer

Before I left for China in mid-September, on a three-city, four-university whirlwind from Shanghai to Beijing to Hong Kong, I tried to read up on the mobile payment market there. The numbers were staggering: the New York Times reported $5.4 trillion in transactions in 2016, 50 times the mobile payment market in the US that year.

Now, if you’re reading this in China, of course, you can’t access that story in the New York Times, and this made the payments landscape in China even more fascinating to me. The so-called Great Firewall blocks access to many of the sites we not only take for granted in the United States but absolutely depend upon and would go into withdrawal without: for me, that’s the Times (we had a lovely reunion in the Beijing airport, by the way, once I’d passed through immigration). But the firewall blocks Facebook and Google, too among others, and made communication back home a challenge. One of my traveling companions brought several phones each with a number of different paid VPN services just to ensure near-continuous connectivity.

What’s striking however is the contrast between Internet restriction and the absolute proliferation of communication, media, social networking and payment within the platforms provided by the two mobile payment services currently vying for dominance in China: WeChat and Alipay. WeChat is a product of Tencent, the online gaming company that once upon a time got anthropologists of money and our interlocutors in other fields excited because of its native digital currency, Q coins. (Q coins also freaked out the Chinese monetary authorities. Again, see this article in The New York Times).  Its competitor is Alipay, is a part of Alibaba, which started off as an e-commerce company and has branched out in to finance and cloud computing. Although people told me that Alipay controls about 60% of the mobile payment market in China, I mostly saw people using WeChat Pay, and indeed the companies have basically reached parity now. The logos for each are as ubiquitous at the point of sale in physical world stores, cafes and restaurants as the MasterCard and Visa logos are in the US. One person who let me photograph her payment behavior said that she usually just picks whichever is closer to her when she approaches the till. Others however said that it was the suite of services offered within WeChat, and that are integrated with payment, that lead them to choose WeChat Pay over its competitor. And, indeed, to live a lot of their online and offline life within the WeChat app. (Alipay similarly offers such a suite of services).

So, what’s going on with mobile payment in China? 

First, here’s how you pay. Unlike mobile money services in sub-Saharan Africa that rely on the mobile telecommunications networks and use or at least started out using their native communications protocols which run through telco servers—SMS (text messages), and USSD (I’ll tell you about it some other time…)—or mobile payment apps in the US that use radio frequency ID or near field communication (RFID/NFC) that allow for the “tap and pay” of, say, an ApplePay, WeChat and Alipay use QR codes, the phone’s camera as a scanning device, and the phone’s display screen as a generator of a unique QR and bar code payment token. WeChat users have individual QR codes connected to their WeChat accounts. They can scan them to share contact details, become connections on WeChat’s social media platform, and also now for payment. The WeChat app also generates barcodes for scanning by specialized point-of-sale devices (usually hand-held optical scanners). I wasn’t able to observe as much about Alipay, but, again, this may say something, despite Alipay’s current market share, about shifting dynamics in this fast-moving sector in China. It might also just be a product of the specific demographic of the people l hung out with (college educated, urban, with disposable income, etc.), or regional variation (I was only in big cities), or something else. WeChat aggressively burst onto the scene through mobile social media, whereas Alipay began as a desktop platform, which may also account for some of the differences in market share and use between the two services. 

QR code in temple
QR code for bike sharing
QR codes for payment are EVERYWHERE. In temples for donations. On bike-share service bicycles (scan the QR code on the bike to unlock it and pay for it, and away you go). On business cards. On signs inside and outside shops. On waitresses, whom you can tip electronically by scanning a QR code on an oversized button pinned to their lapel. On homeless people, who print them out on paper and hold them or prop them up next to their spot on the street. People use it for peer-to-peer transactions for everything from paying for your kids’ school activities, splitting a bill, or doing a little informal forex.

(I couldn’t use it. I rented a Chinese iPhone that turned out to have an operating system too old for the WeChat Pay app. Foreigners have a hard time using it anyway, since you need a Chinese bank account, unless you get people to send you money and keep the funds it in your WeChat Pay wallet).
QR code for business card
QR codes for informal forex
Ursula Dalinghaus pointed me to this article on the ubiquity of QR codes and their multiple uses in China today, and I saw just about all of these uses in my travels. I also saw lots of examples of what I’ll just call QR code art for now—clever ways to integrate design elements, brand identification or personalization within a QR code. Nothing as fancy as these, but you get the idea.

Think back to 2008 and the rise of M-Pesa in Kenya. Back then, what did people primarily use their phones for? Mainly texting, maybe voice calls. So, it was an easy leap to develop a service that permitted payment via text message. Now think about your own phone use. How many texts or calls did you make today? How much use of your screen did you make for things other than reading texts? How many pictures did you take, receive, send, view online? If SMS had become the key functionality of the mobile phone for many people in the early 2000s, arguably, today it’s the camera and the nice big bright screen that we have come to depend on. QR codes simply leverage this fact.

They do something else, of course, too. SMS data goes through the telco and is owned by the telco (in the actual property sense but also in the metaphorical and material sense of how the data is transited and where it goes and sits for a while, in the telcos’ servers). Image data from the camera scanning a QR code is encrypted by WeChat and is inaccessible to the telco. If the user’s phone is connecting via WiFi, then the data is not even touching the telco’s pipes at all. WeChat does not have end-to-end encryption, however, in order to comply with Chinese policies. But the telco is essentially shut out of the WeChat and WeChat Pay user data streams. The folk theory—and possibly the reality—is that WeChat Pay gets “all the data” from transactions and from anything else that happens over WeChat, and the telco gets nothing, so the telcos are mad about this (again, this is what I heard). At the same time, however, everyone seems to think that the Chinese government also gets to peek into all that data, and that WeChat must be willing to share its data with the government in order to stay in business. See, for example, this kind of story, about human rights activist Hu Jia.

"Cash only" till
There are a couple of interesting things about how WeChat Pay handles accounts, too. As noted above, you can link it to your Chinese bank account, and it will then direct debit and deposit to that account. You can also work entirely within your WeChat Pay wallet—letting WeChat store your funds, which you can then use for all sorts of in-app purchases and for online/offline payment interfaces like the Ofo bike sharing service. (I don’t know what WeChat does with the float but I am told both companies invest the money in the market. Alipay is technically a product of Ant Financial, a fintech company that owns a bank and was spawned by Alibaba). There are different kinds of accounts: personal accounts and merchant accounts. I was told—and I do not know if this is true—that mom-and-pop merchants use their personal account to receive payment because it is not taxed the same way as a business account. One friend speculated that if the Chinese government or WeChat cracked down on this, there would be a rush back to cash-only payments for these merchants. (I only saw one “cash only till in my travels (pictured, in Shanghai) that is, until I got to Hong Kong, on which, read coming part 2 of this blog.

WeChat Pay’s origins in gaming show through clearly in the interface and some of its applications. Users can send “red envelopes” to one another, a fun way to send small amounts of money and to do so in a social way, spreading the love through one’s network of friends and encouraging others to pass it on. (Alipay, at least to me, shows its origins in e-commerce—it looks and feels “all business” to me, like PayPal here).
WeChat also leverages its social networking side. WeChat was primarily a social networking chat service allowing users to form groups. It has a blogging service within it too (and in fact there’s a WeChat blog that talks about the future of money and payments and mentions my work!). At events where people were meeting each other for the first time, everyone was talking out their phones and exchanging their Weixin handles or using the “Shake” function of the app to connect, or else just scanning each other’s QR codes.

WeChat also now has a full suite of services (see screenshot to left) within it such that the user never has to leave the app to do everything from pay bills, rent a bike, shop, connect with friends, read news stories, use lightweight programs, book hotels or train travel, find people willing to offer services for pay (a handyman, a tutor), and on and on. People did express concerns over data privacy: “my whole life is on WeChat.” But at the same time accepted, if sometimes with resignation, that that’s a small price to pay for convenience. Said one user, “it’s just so convenient, and my life is an open book.” Or another, “I know they’re watching but I don’t care and it’s just so easy.” The “they” here is understood to be both WeChat and the government. Still, as long as you do not discuss “politics or religion” I was told, you won’t be brought under suspicion.

Speaking of monitoring: another set of terms of everyone’s lips when I was in China had to do with machine learning. A surprising number of people in different contexts wanted to talk about deep learning, machine learning, natural language processing. Knowledge about the Chinese government’s widespread data tracking had sparked great interest in these techniques at the ground level, too.

As I said, I couldn’t download the app on my old rental iPhone. And, incidentally, I couldn’t easily get cash either. It was almost like being in Sweden, where it’s also notoriously difficult to get cash. I tried a bunch of ATMs; the only one that would work for me was at an HSBC office. Fortunately, I was on my way to Hong Kong, which turned out to be something of a cash capital.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Intermediaries, Cash Economies, and Technological Change in Myanmar and India (Part Three)

By IMTFI Researchers and Elisa Oreglia | SOAS, University of London, UK and Janaki Srinivasan | IIIT, Bangalore, India

Is mobile money changing the way people carry out their financial transactions in rural markets in Myanmar and India? Our comparative qualitative research of an agricultural market town in northern Myanmar and of a fishing market in southern India showed the multitude of ways people move, borrow, and save money in these places, and the value that humans bring to transactions that could easily be made through ICTs yet continue to be done “the old way.” ICTs and specific applications such as mobile money bring a different type of value, and in this final post we reflect on what we learned about human and machine intermediation in financial areas.

First of all, the combination of various technologies and brokers, such as traders and auctioneers, in rural markets in Myanmar and India translates the global reality of finance, financial tools, international supply chains, and political economy into an actionable reality for local farmers and fishers. A key feature of human brokers is that they are flexible and responsive to the changing political economy of their countries in ways that are not always possible for technology by moving in the grey areas between official regulations and informal economies, and thus leveraging gaps or strictures in the official economy. This flexibility is the constant value that users get from using human brokers rather than ICTs, all other things being equal. Because humans can leverage their social knowledge in their roles as brokers, they are able to adjust to changes in a broader political economy as well as to the specific users who they are working with. Thus, they can offer temporal and spatial fixes as well as their expertise in ways that are attuned to the times and their users. Technologies, on the other hand, face constraints regarding the extent to which they can be flexible based on what is inscribed into them by their creators and by the regulatory regimes in which they operate. For example, the fact that mobile money makes financial transactions visible is a feature that is inscribed into both the hardware and software that power mobile money and into the regulatory framework that allows it to operate under certain conditions. ICTs can be used flexibly, but this flexibility has to be figured out by its users, and there are limits to how much flexibility a given technology affords along a particular dimension.

A second point that we want to highlight is how brokers are usually better equipped, financially and often socially, to appropriate ICTs and leverage them to strengthen their positions in the markets, sometimes undermining farmers and fishers and reducing them to mere recipients of their expertise, or even trapping them in relations from which they cannot escape. As both cause and consequence of their trade, brokers are able to inhabit different social worlds that their clients are often not able to successfully bridge: the sense of “feeling out of place” that makes opening a bank account a much bigger challenge than simply gathering the documents required to accomplish the task. Ethnicity, gender, religion, caste, and educational levels all contribute to making people feel out of place in certain situations and environments. This kind of expertise in navigating and bridging different social worlds is perhaps the hardest to delegate to ICTs. Whereas in principle social barriers to entry are lowered on the class-less and ethnicity-blind world of ICT-based services such as digital money, or Market Information Systems, in reality such experiences are highly mediated by the offline worlds that people belong to.

Thirdly, we suggest that the question of whether or not financial transactions can be mediated more efficiently or effectively by humans or technologies cannot be answered in the abstract without referring to the specific conditions of a specific place. We will note that, for example, the problem that ICT users might have with being tracked in their transactions is less of a concern where digital technologies are introduced together with system reforms that make the system less predatory. The axis of time/space is also amenable to technological rather than human mediation, once structural reforms change people’s material circumstances. The 2016 demonetization in India and the demonetizations that Myanmar experienced in its recent history have uniquely affected certain segments of the population for whom the state was and is an unreliable financial partner. Such actions reverberate through time, and rhetoric alone is insufficient for persuading the same people that the state is now concerned about their financial inclusion. Once again, the issue of time is at the forefront: the consequences of financial encounters, either between individuals or between individuals and institutions, extend through time, and the latest ones take place in the shadow of those that happened before, thus needing the appropriate historical and political background to be fully understood.

Finally, we want to stress how it is easier for existing social practices and networks to adapt to innovation than it is for them to be changed by it. This is not a novel finding, but it is often overlooked when talking about the potential for inclusiveness of digital technologies; they are, in fact, more empowering for those who are already in a position of power, and who can thus acquire them earlier and deploy them alongside their existing tools and networks. For instance, traders acquired mobile phones before fishers and farmers did, and were able to reconfigure their own networks to take advantage of them. Once again, if looked at purely from a transactional and financial perspective, fishers and farmers are perpetually catching up with the better-established traders. Using (or not using) ICTs and tools like digital money in their own way rather than according to the expectations of the government and of financial institutions is their own act of resistance to reclaim their own well-established practices.

Read their illustrated final report, "Intermediaries, Cash Economies, and Technological Change in Myanmar and India", drawings by Krish Raghav (

The report examines the range of roles that (human and non-human) actors and material practices that are involved in conducting financial transactions have, showing the central role that historical legacies and politics play in explaining why both cash and financial intermediaries persist in the digital age.

Links to past blogposts: "Intermediaries, Cash Economies, and Technological Change in Myanmar and India (Part One) and (Part Two)."

Monday, October 2, 2017

Pastoral Adaptation to Market Opportunities and Changing Gender Roles among the Afar in Ethiopia

A report by Uthman Hassen, Adama Science and Technology University, Ethiopia

Map of Ethiopia showing Afar Region

This report is an investigation into the major changes observed in the pastoral system of the Afar of Northeastern Ethiopia, their shift towards the market and the application of money and technology, and the subsequent changes in gender relations. A combination of ethnographic methods including semi-structured and key informant interviews, focus discussions, and life histories were used to collect data from 89 respondents in five towns. Complementary data were also collected from additional informants through informal conversations with state officials, civic and clan leaders, sages and academics. It was found that pastoralism is gradually dying, and, consequently, women engaging in the market are increasing both in number and significance. However, their success is hugely constrained by various structural forces, notably state policies, failing laws and processes, lack of formal financing, price fluctuation, and absence of appropriate technology. In the face of these challenges, the Afar women continue to effectively commoditize their pastoral products and participate in wage employment. This shift has further enhanced cash income and mobility. In the absence of formal financial agencies, the traditional sources of capital and money transferring arrangements remain important to the livelihood systems of the Afar people.

Keywords. Pastoralism, Market, Money, Technology, Afar women, Mobility, Ethiopia


Who are the Afar? 
The Afar (Afar: Qafár), also known as the Danakil, Adali, and Odali, are an ethnic group inhabiting the Horn of Africa. They primarily live in the Afar Region of Ethiopia and in northern Djibouti, although some also inhabit the southern point of Eritrea. The Afar principally reside in the Danakil Desert in the Afar Region of Ethiopia, as well as in Eritrea and Djibouti. They number 1,276,867 people in Ethiopia (or 1.73% of the total population), of whom 105,551 are urban inhabitants, according to the most recent census (2007). The Afar make up over a third of the population of Djibouti, and are one of the nine recognized ethnic divisions (kililoch) of Ethiopia. The Afar are traditionally pastoralists, raising goats, sheep, and cattle in the desert, are organized into clan families, and are predominantly Muslim. []

This rich ethnographic report on the Afar is now available, learn about:
  • Their clan relationships, the importance of she-camels, and the feminization of pastoralism.
  • How ethical considerations of the Afar traditions and mobile money affect savings and other monetary practices among the Afar women in the market. 
  • How the Afar view state-backed currency versus livestock as “wealth”.

Excerpt: How the Afar view state-backed currency vs. livestock

“Commerce in the Afar region has been accompanied by two features of a cash economy: sharp fluctuations in the prices of commodities, and the arrival of an active class of merchants in the region. They agreed that for purchasing more tradable goods, there must be more money and favorable orientation to money as wealth. And these in turn depend on the purchasing and exchange value of money, especially for urban households. With very limited investment options, instead of depositing their money in a bank, backyard goat rearing serves as a store of productive assets and an effective strategy to avoid the fast falling purchasing power of money.

Over the years, there have been many variations in the exchange value of money compared against US dollar. The exchange value of money varies at different times, and so it is very difficult for the Afar to conceive of paper money as wealth. For example, just a quarter of a century ago, a qualified teacher with a diploma used to start his monthly salary at a rate of 347 Ethiopian birr. This amount was equivalent to 174 US dollars. Currently, a person with the same profession and qualification begins with a salary of 1663 birr, equivalent to 73 US dollars. The amount could be very insignificant if we calculate it on a daily basis, and much smaller if compared with the cost of basic commodities. For example, two decades ago, a loaf of bread that cost 0.10 birr is now 1.25 birr on average, and, according to informants, the size of the bread is also significantly reduced. These depreciations in the value of money and the rising cost of basic goods are the background for most women who reacted to the very question about money by saying, “Money has no value.”

For the Afar, livestock are self-reproducing assets that generate more value than money in the bank. In fact, conventionally, the value of wealth and assets is estimated by the size and diversity of livestock in rural villages, where maximization and diversification of livestock are the rules. Many informants asserted that they still do not consider money as wealth because of many factors, as an informant, aged 61, mentioned: 
‘The circumstances we have been living for so long were not favorable to have the initiative to consider money as our wealth and actively engage in commerce. It does not have any productive value. It never reproduces itself like our livestock do. We all prefer to own a cow or a goat instead of thousands of birr locked in the bank. The real value of money is controlled by the state, not by us.' 
The Afar’s orientation to money and banking has remained inseparable from the politics and policies of the state. Many informants cited the fact that the first branch of the commercial bank of Ethiopia was opened following the introduction of commercial farms in the area. After this, their livestock and natural resources had been destroyed. Banking and commercial farms are inseparable in the minds of many of the informants. The social meaning of money, locally known as 'genzeb', is more than a medium of exchange and wealth to be accumulated through the market, but rather is a symbol of the power of the state. Many informants echoed beliefs that money has been regarded, by national and regional governments, as a dependable means of buying political loyalties and national integration. Furthermore, as is true for many Muslim societies, the prohibition of usury has always occupied huge spaces among the Afar people. They view usury as establishing discord among clan members by dividing them into borrowers and lenders, and, consequently, destroying the bonds that have survived for generations.” 

Photo caption: Statue built to celebrate the Ethiopian millennium, just 9 years ago, in the ex-capital of the Afar, Aysaita town. Its shape is triangular, representing the Afar nation in three countries, namely Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti, commonly known as the Afar triangle. Symbolizing the hope for unity, on top of the clock (representing Ethiopia), there are two antenna projections, one pointing in the direction of Eritrea and the other to Djibouti.