Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Academics, Innovators and Regulators at "Digital Finance in Africa’s Future"

By Sibel Kusimba, American University and Solène Morvant-Roux, University of Geneva

Sean Maliehe, Lena Gronbach  (Human Economy Program, University of Pretoria)

The international colloquium entitled “Digital Finance in Africa’s Future: Innovations and Implications” was held in Johannesburg South Africa on 22-26 Oct. 2018, organized by the Human Economy Research Programme at the University of Pretoria and the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS), in association with Disrupting Africa.

The colloquium was unusual in bringing together and encouraging interaction amongst academics studying digital finance along with African innovators (entrepreneurs), regulators/consultants and development professionals to discuss the latest developments and their impacts. For academics it was a unique opportunity to engage more with important actors in this space especially regulators and innovators. List of presenters can be found here.

John Sharp, Director of the Human Economy Program of the University of Pretoria, put it succinctly: “You need corporations and big money if your human economy is going to work. We need to think about how to bring the people with power into the conversation.”

One distinct aspect of the colloquium was the relatively small size of the group, with less than 20 participants. The live internet feed and the large public talk that launched the colloquium on the evening of Oct 22 brought larger numbers of participants, giving the meeting both an intimate feeling as well as exposure to the public and a medium to broadcast the talks and discussions to online viewers.

Innovators and Providers’ Perspectives on Academic Knowledge

The emerging and rapidly changing field of digital finance and its entwinement with development policies is often hard for academics to study. Financial services and development interests produce large amounts of data and studies, often very detailed but with an aim to find use cases for financial products, so their claims are difficult to evaluate. Often the perspective of academia feels too critical or not relevant (too complex) to innovators or practitioners. Our discussions often tried to broach these differences.

For example, we discussed the uses of well-known financial diaries developed by scholars with a view of better capturing people’s financial behavior. The collective discussion ended up challenging the broad industry belief that these reports represent a kind of pure empirical or ethnographic view of financial behavior - partly because of their detailed recording of expenditures. These industry reports and the understandings of finance they produce often focus on inflows and outflows over relatively short periods and may assume financial explanations for peoples’ behavior without assessing alternatives. In one often-cited example from Kenya, a family cannot raise enough money for a sick person, but a few weeks later raises abundant money for her funeral after she unfortunately dies for lack of care. This story is frequently used to posit a need for different financial tools that can nudge a more rational response to illness. However, a lack of trust in medical care and many other cultural reasons, important in their own right, could also explain a lack of fundraising for a hospital stay.

At the same time, our discussion showed that the more inductive approach of anthropology seems to collect information that providers and innovators may not find clearly relevant. For instance, one professional in insurance offered that his experience with oft-touted “Human Centered Design” (which is a kind of “fast” ethnography) had led to assumptions that actual users ended up refuting once the product was rolled out. Anthropological studies presented by Kusimba and Morvant-Roux also came to a fuzzy conclusion. People want to be interconnected with others using financial technologies, but they want to be autonomous as well. More work needs to be done to further understandings that can make sense for product development.

Sibel Kusimba (American University)
The study done by Nnamdi Oranye on undocumented migrants in Nigeria also highlighted that meeting social obligations is as important as being able to fulfill personal projects and aspirations (and therefore call for specific financial services). This result was confirmed by Morvant-Roux from a study on undocumented Mexican migrants living in the USA. Financial services around international remittances would do a better job by acknowledging such a duality rather than trying to induce a rationality that doesn’t really exist.

It was humbling and also inspiring to learn more about the perspectives of innovators. For them the Silicon Valley catchwords like “disruption” have a lure and a kind of hope for African innovation that academics might take more seriously. At the same time the entrepreneurs also revealed that their pitches for funding often must refer to frameworks around charity and African development, which many felt influence the kinds of fintech that get funded in Africa. One innovator located his company in the Philippines after being frustrated by this mindset among Western venture capitalists.

The Regulatory Future of African Finance

The final area of great interest and a real opportunity for new exposure for an academic was the important talks by regulators. Dr. Steven Nduati was a Central Bank of Kenya payments regulator behind the M-Pesa legend, who felt that regulation must anticipate how financial technologies eventually work but must also be flexible and responsive to how these new technologies end up being used. The former Finance Minister of South Africa, Trevor Manuel, gave a compelling keynote. Speaking around “the intersection between finance and data," he noted that in the past politics involved land and physical assets – but in the 21st century, there will be an economy of data. How will African governments deal with privacy and security issues, and who controls and owns the data? A marked example was the case of South Africa’s innovative government cash transfer programs.  In the case of Sassa, Gronbach brought evidence that the South-African State has let a private tender taking advantage of the most vulnerable population segments through massive unauthorized deductions from the social grants and therefore undermining the social protection floor. Mesfin Fikre from University of Addis Ababa University and previous IMTFI alum added, “if the pace of M-pesa of Kenya continuous, for sure it will capture the data of almost all Kenyans, which gives it an upper hand in the future digital economy. This is because, having (owning) data means owning a weapon. So, it is high time to consider ‘who owns and control such data?’. Given the participation of foreign companies (investors) in the area, this scales up the problem. For example, in Ethiopia, mobile money related data is captured by foreign companies working in the area (BelCash and M-Birr).”

Manuel also warned that mobile money was largely becoming a solution for the poor, and expressed concern that African fintech would eventually lead to two solutions—remitting solutions for the poor, and traditional banking and investing for the affluent.

Nnanmdi Oranye (Disrupting Africa), Mario Fernandez (GoSocket), Funmi Arewa (Temple Law)

“The engagement of representatives of industry and academia offered an opportunity to engage with real world contexts within which digital finance technologies are actually used. The contributions by anthropologists (particularly Morvant-Roux and Kusimba) enabled a better understanding of varied on the ground uses and understanding about technologies,” says Olufunmilayo Arewa, Professor at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law and IMTFI Academic Advisory Board member. “Conceptions and uses of digital finance technologies in Africa and elsewhere are complex and multifaceted and constantly changing. A dialogue that includes both industry and academia offers needed insight into technology practices on the ground.”

Ideally more interaction between regulators, innovators, and academics—bringing “the people with power into the conversation”—one could imagine new futures for digital money in Africa that would prevent both the abuse of the data economy and the potential isolation of mobile money and remittance products from broader fintech innovations.

See blogpost 1 here: "Colloquium on ‘Digital Finance in Africa’s Future: Innovations and Implications’"

Photo credit: Riaan de Villiers, acumen publishing solutions

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Some businesses want to make you pay with a credit card or your phone by not accepting cash. N.J. could soon ban that

By Brent Johnson, NJ Advance Media for

Experts say it's becoming more common for businesses to accept only credit cards and
electronic payments and banning cash. (file)

No card, no phone, no problem.

A group of state lawmakers want to make New Jersey only the second U.S. state — and the first in 40 years — to ban businesses from refusing to accept cash from customers and requiring them to pay electronically.

The bill — which a state Senate committee will consider Monday — comes at a time when cities like New York and Philadelphia are weighing similar measures.

Experts say cashless businesses are becoming more common — especially in cities — thanks to a proliferation of credit and debit cards, self-serve kiosks, and mobile devices like Apple Pay that make it easier for customers to simply swipe and go.

But experts and lawmakers also warn that can disenfranchise people who don’t have the means to set up a bank account or can’t afford to be burdened by credit card debt.

“When you start going cashless, you marginalize people who are older, poorer, younger, who haven’t established credit — or people who don’t want to use credit to buy a pack of gum. Which would be me," said state Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, D-Gloucester, one of the bill’s main sponsors.

“For people that want to (use credit), that’s fine,” Moriarty added. “But stores should still accept legal tender, which is the U.S. dollar.”

Bill Maurer, a professor at the University of California-Irvine who directs the school’s Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion, said many businesses go cashless for “speed and convenience." That especially includes quick-service restaurants that are “trying to move people through quickly,” Maurer said.

It can also help prevent against robbery. Plus, Maurer said, electronic payments allow businesses to “capture data'” from customers to use for marketing and offers.

“In going cashless, you are kind of self-selecting a clientele that’s gonna be a little more higher end, spend some more money," Maurer said.

Thus, he said, these businesses are willing to overlook the added cost of devices and fees for card payments.

But Maurer said about 25 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t have access to credit cards or similar technology.

“Cash is a profoundly democratic form of payment,” Maurer said. “You just need to have it.”

For the full story, please visit:

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

More Restaurants and Cafés Refuse to Accept Cash — That’s Not a Good Thing “Just because you don’t have a piece of plastic, you can’t get a sandwich?”

By Alexa Tsoulis-Reay in New York Magazine's Grub Street

Cash-free businesses create a gulf between the people who can go there, and those who can’t.
Photo: Dirk Butenschön/EyeEm/Getty Images

I was at a health-food and coffee shop on East Houston, grabbing an $11 vegan sandwich for lunch, when I noticed the man next to me, who appeared to be homeless, trying to buy a cup of coffee. The entire exchange wasn’t going well: First, there was the absence of any traditional milk from the dairy-free café’s “vegan mylk” selection. The coffee’s price, $2.95 for a small, was also fairly steep. But just as it looked like the situation was going to resolve itself, a final, insurmountable hurdle arrived: As the would-be customer started to pay with a stack of coins and notes in his hand, an employee was forced to tell him that cash wasn’t accepted at the café. Eventually, he gave the coffee to the man, only after the three of us stared at each other uncomfortably.

Until then, I had been aware of cash-free restaurants and cafés, but had never fully grasped the effects of their growing numbers. Afterward, I realized “cashless” coffee shops, cafés, and take-out spots are everywhere. It also struck me that these businesses force people to adopt a way of shopping and living that not everyone wants, and that in doing so they create a gulf between people who can shop at these businesses and people who can’t.

The more I thought about it, the more these businesses began to infuriate me. Are these business owners trying to keep out certain customers? What about children? Or people who are paid in cash, or others who, for whatever reason, can’t or won’t open a bank account (because they are undocumented, for example, or do not have a home or a fixed address)? What about tourists who simply want to avoid bank exchange rates? What about other people who, quite reasonably, don’t love the idea of companies like Apple and Square being able to track their complete purchase histories?

And aren’t the businesses that refuse to accept cash really just sending a not-so-subtle message about the types of customers they want?

“We already have so many forms of stigma and discrimination in this country,” says Bill Maurer, a UC Irvine professor who also directs the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion, “and now we are adding mode of payment to the list — if we start marking belonging by ‘means of payment,’ that’s a big problem.” Maurer, who coordinates research in over 40 countries about the impact of new payment technologies on people’s well-being, encourages everyone to seriously think about the long-term ramifications of a “cashless revolution” — but that doesn’t seem to bother cash-free advocates too much.

“Cash is our main competitor; I don’t envy being in cash’s position,” a Visa spokesperson told me recently. In summer of 2017, the credit-card company announced a “cashless challenge” that would award a $10,000 prize to businesses that went completely cash-free. The cashless challenge, the spokesperson explained, was designed to “make it okay to say I am cash free, and hopefully encourage others to come forward, too.”

For the full story, please visit -

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Colloquium on ‘Digital Finance in Africa’s Future: Innovations and Implications’

by Lena Gronbach and Prof. John Sharp

An international Colloquium entitled ‘Digital Finance in Africa’s Future: Innovations and Implications’ was held in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 22-26 October 2018.

Opening Keynote: Mr. Trevor Manuel

Organised by the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study and the Human Economy Research Programme at the University of Pretoria, in association with Disrupting Africa, the colloquium brought together African innovators in the field of digital finance, as well as academics from various disciplines within the humanities, to discuss the latest developments in this increasingly important field.

The participants were drawn from a variety of academic institutions and FinTech companies, including the University of Geneva, the University of Addis Ababa, The Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion (IMTFI), Temple University, and the American University, as well as MFS Africa, eTranzact, Creditable, Wala, Inclusivity Solutions and Gosocket. The South African Reserve Bank and the Central Bank of Kenya were represented as well.

The Colloquium had two complementary aims. The first was to give some key players in the field of digital finance in Africa the opportunity to highlight the extent and sophistication of their innovations, and to discuss their successes as well as the obstacles and challenges they face. The second aim was to bring these innovators into conversation with academics with a special interest in the social, political and economic implications of the innovations in question.

South Africa’s former Minister of Finance, Mr. Trevor Manuel, opened the colloquium by emphasizing the importance of understanding the social and economic implications of new payment technologies and the need for prudent yet enabling regulation: “We must build on the success of mobile money, where Africa is recognized as a world leader. But much depends on the extent to which existing institutions can respond the demands of rapid, repeated structural and cultural shifts, and, at the same time, drive financial access to better serve all people across Africa.” Further, he acknowledged that “we have to focus on whose interests will best be served by the race to digitalization” – in other words, to consider the social impact of FinTech innovations in addition to their technological feasibility and financial profitability.

Mr. Manuel’s keynote speech led into an open discussion guided by Nnamdi Oranye, FinTech author and founder of Disrupting Africa, and Stephen Mwaura Nduati, former head of the Central Bank of Kenya’s national payment system.

Stephen Mwaura Nduati (former head of the national payments system of the Kenyan Central Bank) and Mesfin Fikre Woldmariam (University of Addis Ababa/ IMTFI alumni)

Eight working sessions took place over the next four days, each consisting of presentations by an innovator and an academic or a regulator, followed by group discussion. The topics included mobile money and digital payments, regulation, agent networks, remittances, G2P transfers, insurance, start-up capital, and the blockchain. While the number of delegates was kept small to allow for in-depth discussion among the delegates, ‘virtual participants’ from across the globe could follow the sessions via a live streaming platform and submit their comments and questions online.

The consensus that emerged from the lively and highly interactive discussions – frequently extending beyond the allocated time slots – was that there is a strong need for innovators, regulators and academics to engage in regular and interdisciplinary debate. While most innovators are aware that the technological feasibility of an invention does not guarantee that it will be socially beneficial, they do not always have the expertise to consider the wider implications of their technological prowess. And while humanities researchers can provide these insights, they do not always fully understand the technological complexity involved or the financial and regulatory challenges faced by innovators. Finally, regulators need to balance the interests of governments, banks, and FinTech start-ups with broader concerns about social and economic development. This difficult task requires insights into both the technological and the social implications of FinTech innovations and new financial products.

As one of the delegates put it: “Every innovator in Africa should have a Humanities scholar, such as an anthropologist, alongside them for the journey. The insights that emerged when we brought innovators and academics together were exceptional and far exceeded anything we could have imagined.”

Nnamdi Oranye, founder of Disrupting Africa

Other noteworthy points made by the delegates included the need to incorporate FinTech-related topics into academic curricula in order to prepare students for their future in a digital and globally connected world in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Further, the participants emphasized the need for a focused, interdisciplinary research agenda that explores both the technological and the social implications of FinTech innovations in different geographic, cultural and regulatory settings.

With these goals in mind, the organizers would like to encourage individuals, companies and institutions with an interest in these issues to join our emerging network of scholars, innovators and regulators (contact details below). The highly successful format of this Colloquium lends itself to replication in other parts of the world where innovations such as mobile money have already had a transformative impact or will do so in the near future.

From left to right, back row: Mari-Lise du Preez (i2i), Olufunmilayo Arewa (Temple University), Ubuhle Zwane (MFS Africa), Sean Maliehe (UP), John Sharp (UP), Dare Okoudjou (MFS Africa), Peter Vale (JIAS), Stephen Mwaura Nduati (FinTech consultant), Sechaba Ngwenya (Creditable), Nnamdi Oranye (Disrupting Africa), Solène Morvant-Roux (University of Geneva). Front row: Observer, Hennie Bester (Cenfri), Sibel Kusimba (American University), Lena Gronbach (UP), Marc Wegerif (UP), Mario Fernandez (Gosocket), Mesfin Fikre Woldmariam (University of Addis Ababa).  

The detailed deliberations of the Colloquium will appear in the form of a conference report in early 2019. Recordings of the sessions and the opening event are now available here. Regular updates on the progress of this emerging project will be made available on the conference website.

Read up on conference insights from IMTFI alums Sibel Kusimba and Solène Morvant-Roux: "Academics, Innovators and Regulators at 'Digital Finance in Africa’s Future."

Lena Gronbach, Researcher/Administrator: The Human Economy Research Project (

Prof. John Sharp, Programme Director: The Human Economy Research Project (

Photo credit: Riaan de Villiers, acumen publishing solutions

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Understanding fintech from the U.S. to China

By Melissa Wrapp and Bill Maurer

On September 28-29, the 2018 California-Shanghai Innovation Dialogues hosted by UC Irvine brought together scholars, policymakers, and industry professionals from across the globe to discuss the ethics and broader social impact of emergent technologies, from insurtech to blockchain to roboadvising. Filene’s newest Fellow, Bill Maurer, gave a talk analyzing the burgeoning cryptocurrency ‘ICO’ phenomenon focusing on the power of big data and digital platforms to create seemingly totalizing systems. Here, Maurer teases out some of the major financial innovations headed our way and the socioeconomic implications that credit unions should be attuned to.

Photo credit: Marilyn Nguyen

What changes are happening in the international fintech space?
We are living in an increasingly digital world. The decreasing costs and rising quality of smart devices is accelerating fintech use. More and more we can expect to see technologies developing around what some are calling the ABCDs: AI, Blockchain, Cloud, and big Data. In China in particular, apps that create an ecosystem of different utilities, such as WeChat Pay and Alipay, are becoming giants in the mobile payments space—and reaching beyond payments into transit, bike sharing, credit, dog walking, you name it. Although their rise in China is in part linked to particularities of the local context, it is important for us to understand these technologies as companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google make moves toward integrating payments, social media, news, and other applications.

Filene Fellow Bill Maurer. Photo Credit: Marilyn Nguyen.
Americans sometimes struggle to understand what they see as Chinese consumers’ relaxed attitude toward data aggregation. What is the appeal of these apps?
For many in China, it is the same as the reason we in the US unthinkingly click through user license agreements without reading: convenience. Analysts are often quick to jump to a framework of surveillance and oppression in conceptualizing Chinese financial innovations. This isn’t unreasonable given the government’s proclivities toward censorship. There are already signs that “social credit” schemes (think Uber ratings, but for everything in your life) may be used to silence political dissidents. And products like Zhima Credit (also known as Sesame Credit), a new social credit scoring system offered by Ant Financial, coincide with broader government plans to collect citizens’ social credit data. However, as scholars at the conference pointed out, these possibilities for algorithmic governance fit into a much broader system of regulation geared toward promoting and maintaining trust in China’s low-trust market environment. So it is important to keep in mind that “convenience” in China is bound up in the social value of stability, concerns over fraudulent goods, and transparent pricing; and that it means something completely different than it does in the American context.

What is something unexpected social scientists have discovered about how people are engaging with new fintech?
People in the tech space often pitch their products in terms of revolutionary, wholesale disruption. However, what we are finding is that rather than entirely replacing things that came before, fintech is creating new layers of possibilities. Turning again to social credit schemes in China, for example, researchers have found that migrant workers are using new apps to access credit in order to extend longstanding patterns of informal lending to friends. Migrants’ efforts to improve their credit scores, therefore, are not linked to a desire to consume more for themselves, but to be able to lend to relations and friends. It is important to pay attention to the way new technologies mix up formal and informal practices, as well as older traditions and tendencies around money with new delivery channels, interfaces, and possibilities. All these continue to be informed by culturally specific moral logics around money, as well as existing financial practices.

Insurtech panel (LtoR): Lei Guang, Liz McFall, Xian Xu, Robert Collins
Photo Credit: Marilyn Nguyen 
What do participants in the credit union movement need to understand about new fintech products?
Despite our best efforts to channel our customers’ behavior toward certain ends, humans will always find workarounds. No matter how “intelligent” roboadvising becomes, for example, it will never fully exclude affect and emotion. No matter how much data is collected by insurtech companies, there will always be a smoker who lives forever and a marathoner who dies young. Sociologist Liz McFall reminds us that the origins of the word risk are related to “things to avoid in the sea.” There will always be things to avoid in the sea: sea monsters, rocks, and reefs lurking beneath the surface that are not fully known. It is better to recognize when people are tinkering, subverting, and otherwise creatively repurposing our technology and try to understand what they are up to and why, than to assume they will adopt tech the way we intend.

Take this conversation to the next level with Filene Fellow, Bill Maurer, when he speaks to how credit unions should analyze the risks of adopting new fintech with its promises and opportunity costs at big.bright.minds.2018. big.bright.minds. brings together experts from each of Filene’s Centers of Excellence to help us redefine consumer financial wellness. Join Bill Maurer and Filene in San Diego on December 6-7.

See original post -

Melissa K. Wrapp
PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology
University of California, Irvine

Bill Maurer
Dean, School of Social Sciences; Professor, Department of Anthropology and School of Law; Director, Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion
University of California, Irvine

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

On the Media: Money, Then and Now

The origins of money are in bartering, right? Not so, explains IMTFI Director, Bill Maurer speaking with Bob Garfield at On the Media, "in the beginning was not the coin... in the beginning was the receipt."

Stone money from the island of Yap.
(Bartosz Cieślak/Wikimedia Commons) 

Most schoolchildren learn that money arose when barter proved insufficient for meeting everyday trade needs. People required more complex transactions, so they invented currency: a medium of exchange, unit of account and store of value. It's a compelling story...but a false one. Instead, most evidence suggests that money arose from recordkeeping. In this segment, Bob speaks with Professor and Dean Maurer at UC Irvine and Brown University's Mark Blyth about past and present myths about money, and what the history of money might suggest about its future.

To listen to the interview or read the full transcript, please visit On The Media: Listen | WNYC Studios | Podcasts:

Friday, October 19, 2018

How Software Ate the Point of Sale: Or, why paying for stuff is so complicated now

By ALEXIS C. MADRIGAL in The Atlantic

Photo credit: Adam Hunger/Reuters

I’m standing at the counter of a Vietnamese restaurant in Berkeley, ordering a pork bun. There was a time when I knew exactly what would happen next. I’d hand over my card, the cashier would swipe it, a little receipt would curl out of a machine, I’d sign it, and I’d crumple the bottom copy into a pocket. Easy.

Now all kinds of things can happen. I might stick my card directly into a point-of-sale (POS) system. Maybe I swipe; maybe the cashier does. Perhaps a screen is swiveled at me. I could enter my PIN on a little purpose-built machine; I could sign with my finger on a screen; I could not have to sign or enter a PIN at all. I could tap my phone on a terminal to pay. Usually, there’s a chip reader for my no-longer-new chip card. When I put the card in one of the machines, sometimes it takes four seconds; other times, I have time to pull out my phone and stare at it, which means I forget about the card until the reader begins to beep at me, at which point I pull it out, mildly flustered, as if I’d caused too much ice to pour out of a soda fountain. Ah! Okay. Sorry.

The act of paying for stuff is undergoing a great transformation. The networks of machines and code that let you move your imaginary money from your bank account to a merchant are changing—the gadget that takes your card, the computer that tracks a restaurant or store’s inventory, the cards themselves (or their dematerialized abstractions inside your phone). But all this newness must remain compatible with systems that were designed 50 years ago, at the dawn of the credit-card age. This combination of old and new systems, janky and hacky and functional, is the standard state of affairs for technology, despite the many myths about how the world changes in vast leaps and revolutions.

If some areas of financial technology, or Fintech, promise a new elegance, the point of sale serves as a reminder of the viscosity of the everyday technologies on which most Americans rely. If you want to divine the future of transportation, you’d probably learn more thinking about the bus than the rocket. If you want to know how money is gonna change in the future, you need to look at the cash register as much as the blockchain.

[The future of money-like things]

But the most powerful and ambitious companies in the world have tremendous incentive to take interest in the cash register. It’s there where the two great data streams of the modern world flow together: what people do on their phones and what they buy in the physical world. In the first stream, the tech one, the rule is that data becomes money, after it is fed into machine-learning systems tuned to show you better ads. In the other, the data is money. If these two streams fully merged, a company could have a perfect ledger of what you saw and then everything you bought. The ads would get better, so you’d buy more stuff, and in buying more stuff, you’d make the ads better. Online, Facebook (and others) can already track all kinds of activity. But about 90 percent of purchases are still made IRL. Imagine the vast sums of money that could be made if every transaction became part of the ledger. Unsurprisingly, the big tech companies want a piece of this action—as do the banks, as do many start-ups and established, niche players.

So Americans are living through what Bill Maurer, the director of the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion at the University of California, Irvine calls the “Cambrian explosion in payments.” The “point of sale”—once a poky machine or just a person with a calculator or a pencil—is now a computer like everything else, tied deeply into the operations of the restaurant or store. The labor of making a payment could fall to the cashier, as in the old days, or to me, the customer, but we’re both accessing a complex, evolved system of reckoning between banks and their attached remoras, feeding on whatever money ends up in the water.

For the full story, please visit:

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Market Watch: How artificial intelligence could replace credit scores and reshape how we get loans

“In the abstract, having access to credit is better than not having access to credit and certainly better than having access to really predatory credit at extremely high interest rates,” said Stephen Rea, IMTFI Fellow cited in Market Watch, Oct. 15, 2018. Still, he cautions that while increased credit access has the potential to meaningfully improve the standard of living in emerging markets, companies and consumers must tread carefully.

Image credit: Peter Grundy

Market Watch: How artificial intelligence could replace credit scores and reshape how we get loans

Alternative credit scores — using data, in part, from customers’ smartphones — will be migrating from emerging economies to the U.S.

by Emily Bary

You may not think the number of words in an email subject line says anything about you, but at least one company is betting that the metric can help determine your likelihood of paying back a loan.

LenddoEFL, based in Singapore, is one of a handful of startups using alternative data points for credit scoring. Those companies review behavioral traits and smartphone habits to build models of creditworthiness for consumers in emerging markets, where standard credit reporting barely exists.

In addition to analyzing financial-transaction data, Lenddo’s algorithm takes into consideration things such as whether you avoid one-word subject lines (meaning you care about details) and regularly use financial apps on your smartphone (meaning you take your finances seriously). Lenddo also looks at the ratio of smartphone photos in your library that were taken with a front-facing camera, since selfies indicate youth, helping the company divide people into customer segments.

The data points are unconventional, but Darshan Shah, Lenddo’s managing director for South Asia, says the company’s overall algorithm is a reliable predictor of creditworthiness for the so-called underbanked. For those who lack formal credit histories, Lenddo and others say artificial intelligence can help sort through a variety of data points that, in sum, indicate financial responsibility.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

No Shirt, No Swipe, No Service: Cash is a miracle. So why are more businesses refusing it?

By Henry Grabar in Slate, staff writer for Slate's Moneybox

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by paulprescott72/iStock.
For years, small businesses have asked customers to pay cash, set credit card minimums, or added a surcharge onto card transactions, in an effort to defray the premiums imposed by companies like Mastercard and Visa. Now, an increasing number of businesses are doing the opposite. Head out of Slate’s offices for lunch and you might wind up at Dos Toros, a local burrito minichain; for coffee you might pick Devoción, a Colombian-born coffeehouse with an airy storefront. In either case, you’d be confronted with the same demand: Pay with plastic.

Stores are eliminating cash registers and coin rolls in pursuit of what they say is a safer, more streamlined payment process—and one that most of their customers want to use anyway. At Dos Toros, co-founder Leo Kremer said that more than half of the shop’s customers used cash when its first location opened in Manhattan in 2009. By the beginning of this year, that number had fallen to just 15 percent. At that point, the various hassles of dealing with cash—employee training, banking fees, armored-truck pickups, and the occasional robbery—outweighed the cost of credit card fees on those transactions. The shift wound up being more or less revenue-neutral, Kremer said, but saved a lot of time and trouble. Dos Toros’ New York locations have been fully cash-free since the winter.

And what about customers who don’t carry a card? “You agonize over that,” Kremer said. “After talking to the team and absorbing the flow at the register, we felt like almost everyone who used cash had a card. It just hasn’t been an issue.”

Read original post and see what IMTFI Director Bill Maurer has to say here:

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Remittance Channels & Regulatory Chokepoints

By Ivan Small in Limn Magazine, Issue 10: Chokepoints

The bells jingled on the door as I entered a small store tucked in a New England Vietnamese shopping center. Specializing in transactions between the United States and Vietnam, the store is representative of many small operations providing travel and financial services, including plane tickets, visas, box shipping, and remittances. Discussing her business, the owner Kelly gestured to a wall covered with children’s pictures. She explained they were extra passport photos of her customers’ kids, many of whom were now grown up and customers themselves—a testament to the store’s enduring role in facilitating transnational ties for the Vietnamese American community. 

Bitcoin ATM in Ho Chi Minh City, 2017. Blockchain technologies offer
a potential remittance channel that may circumnavigate
regulatory checkpoints, for now. Photo credit: I. Small.
Yet when our discussion turned specifically to remittances, Kelly lamented that it was becoming more difficult for small businesses like hers to compete. In the past, she handled remittance transfers herself, via a bank account. Now, according to her, “banks don’t allow it.” As an informal remittance service provider operating in a gray area to facilitate small transfers, her company had become visible to the expanding reach of the formal financial world—most notably, as a potential “black market” operation. Kelly recently contracted financial-transfer services to an external provider but noted that, at $1.25 per transaction, “It’s hardly worth it anymore. Nonetheless, our customers need to send money and expect us to do it for them, so we continue as long as we can.” 

The informal money-transfer sector has been integral to the Vietnamese community in the United States, but during the past ten years its share of the U.S.-Vietnam remittance market has fallen from one-half to one-third. Kelly’s operation was one of many affected by remittance oversight regulations put in place after the 2008 financial crisis. Specifically, regulations associated with Dodd-Frank require low-value transfers of more than $15 to comply with disclosure, consumer protection, and error-resolution rules requiring more steps and paperwork for remittance providers. Such regulations were emerging as a problematic chokepoint, disrupting and diverting the long-standing channels of her financial-transfer services. Kelly experienced this regulatory chokepoint as a slow but significant shift, pressuring her to diversify from remittances to other services. Writ large, “not being allowed to do it anymore” signaled a significant shift in the financial infrastructures linking diasporas and homelands—Vietnamese and otherwise. 

Reforms of international remittance infrastructures since 2008 have impacted transnational banking, financialization, and payments. By highlighting these transitions—as well as the stories and histories of money-transfer operators like Kelly, who facilitate not only financial connections between Vietnam and the United States but also other material and bodily mobilities—we gain insight into how emerging chokepoints in the international financial system are experienced and navigated. Doing so draws attention to the practical, technical, and affective value of such services in framing and maintaining economic and social relations.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

“It is easy for women to ask!”: Gender and digital finance in Kenya

NEW article by Sibel Kusimba in Economic Anthropology 5(2). Special Issue Theme: Finance, 10 May 2018 for her IMTFI-funded project, Group versus Individual Strategies: Dynamic Social Networks of Mobile Money among Unbanked Women in Western Kenya.

This article examines the role of gender in the use of digital finance in Kenya, including the well‐known case of mobile money but also the emerging use of smartphone apps, payment tills, digital credit services, and digital fund‐raising computer programs. Development professionals have explicitly feminist goals in bringing digital finance to women in the Global South. In several recent reports, they outline the belief that gender norms are a barrier to women's use of finance. They hope digital finance will bring women agency and control over money and consequently shift restrictive gender norms. This article offers a critique of these assumptions based on ethnographic conversations, a diary exercise, and network self‐portraiture conducted in Kenya in 2016 among both rural farmers and urbanites. Adopting a distributed agency perspective, the ethnographic study demonstrates that Kenyan women and men use digital finance not to seek individual control of their money but to produce themselves as connected and trustworthy members of financial groups and collectivities. Gender norms may not hinder women from finance but rather enhance and deepen women's and men's financial relationships and bring women success in amassing funds.

Fig. 1: Consolata, headmistress of a school in rural Western Kenya, draws her social/financial networks.

During a March 24, 2017, webinar on women and financial inclusion, experts from Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) expressed disillusionment with microcredit as a poverty alleviation tool. Globally, microfinance has reached more than 200 million borrowers, two‐thirds of them women (Garikipati et al. 2017), but the hosts explained that microloans were not leading to “higher incomes or more product investment” (Innovations for Poverty Action webinar, March 24, 2017; see also Banerjee et al. 2015; Roodman 2011). The webinar hosts suggested a new approach: digital finance delivered via mobile phones. They proposed that digital finance could bring women empowerment, control, and agency and lead to positive social change: “We want to create financial tools that will create agency and control for women and shift gender norms.”1

Through reports, studies, and research evidence, development professionals are articulating a new project to bring digital finance to women in the Global South—especially poor and rural unbanked women. They are using data sets of bank account ownership and studies of household economics, including women's bargaining power with husbands (Agarwal 1997), to claim that social and gender norms are barriers to women's agency with money (CGAP 2017a, 2017b). Development thinkers hope that digital finance on mobile phones will “rapidly connect women to digital financial services that enable them to more easily store, transfer, secure and build value digitally, beyond money payment transfers” and that digital finance will bring “empowerment and equitable decision‐making in households” (Gates Foundation 2015, 2; see also Innovations for Poverty Action 2017).

How fitting are development understandings around finance, technology, and gender for Kenyan women? This article defines finance as relations between people, money, and time that are “grounded in practices of everyday life” (van der Zwan 2014, 102). In Kenya, financialization—as I define it, the increasing use of everyday finance—often relies on digital channels and has emerged as a meld of formal (provider‐designed) and informal (user‐innovated) sources. Formal products designed for the low‐income and unbanked include digital credit via mobile phones. Informal user innovations with apps and services are equally if not more common, such as WhatsApp fund‐raising and money pooling and circulation through M‐Pesa, a money transfer service.

In this article, I describe the cultural practices and meanings around gender that influence people's engagement with digital finance. I question the idea that the value of digital finance for Kenyan women is resistance to social and gender norms. My critique centers on the idea of agency. For the development professionals of the IPA webinar, agency is a quality of individuals. It is a noun, “something one has” or does not have (Gero 2000, 34), and from a liberal feminist perspective, it implies autonomy, emancipation, and resistance to social norms (Mahmood 2001). Rather, I suggest that the agency of Kenyan women is profitably viewed as a way of acting and being in particular settings—as “the condition and constraints under which we pursue our goals” (Enfield 2017, 3). This broader view draws attention to agency as joint action in groups, as distributed through relationships between people and material systems (Burrell 2016; Enfield 2017; Pettit and Schweikard 2006).

To access the full article - go to original post: or "Recent Publications" on Professor Sibel Kusimba's website:

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Financial Education Via Television Comedy in Applied Economics Letters

NEW article by Andrew Crawford, Paul Lajbcygier and Pushkar Maitra in Applied Economics Letters, 19 Jan 2018 for their IMTFI-funded project, Mobile Money Financial Literacy via Television Comedy.


We show that television may be able to deliver rudimentary financial literacy in a cost-effective manner. In a controlled experiment, Cambodian garment factory workers were randomly assigned to one of three treatments: no video (baseline), slideshow and comedy TV show. After the intervention, to examine whether individuals were able to internalize the information that was provided, participants were asked to answer a set of questions on financial knowledge and attitudes. Our results show that participants randomly assigned to the comedy show are significantly more likely to report that they are interested in obtaining more information on savings accounts and are also significantly more likely to open a savings account in the next 6 months. This method of delivery may prove effective particularly for the disadvantaged sections of the population in remote regions of Cambodia.

In recent years, mass media has penetrated large parts of the developing world with traditionally remote communities now having access to television and internet. It is argued that this could be used to achieve development goals: entertainment can have an educational role to play, leading to the term edutainment. Evidence from different parts of the world suggests that this is indeed the case.

In this article, we examine whether mass media can be used effectively to improve financial literacy and consequently foster financial inclusion in developing countries. Television may be able to deliver rudimentary financial literacy to those most disadvantaged in a cost-effective manner. The promise of broadcast TV is that the financial education it delivers may prove effective as it will be accessible, memorable, and entertaining to a large audience of those normally excluded from financial services, particularly those belonging to disadvantaged sections of the population and those living outside the major cities.

The Cambodian Microfinance Association (CMA), in conjunction with the research team, produced a 5-min comedy skit to be ultimately shown as prerecorded segment in a popular Saturday evening television show, one which is watched by 20% of the country’s population. The episode involves a storyline mainly focussed on concepts relating to financial knowledge, loan management and savings. An advanced video of the episode was shown to randomly selected garment factory workers during their lunch break. A second randomly selected group of garment factory workers were shown a financial literacy slideshow video, which covered roughly the same material, but did not have any comedy content. After watching the respective videos, the participants were asked to participate in a survey to collect information on their financial knowledge and attitudes towards different financial products. The results were compared to that of a baseline group, which consisted of a third randomly selected group of garment factory workers who did not watch any video, but participated in the same survey as participants in the two treatment groups.

We find evidence that attitudes to savings accounts were significantly different for those who viewed the comedy show compared to those assigned to the control and the slide show, without going into explanations for these differences. Furthermore, it appears that the video was more effective than the alternative delivery approaches in piquing workers’ interests in savings accounts.

To access full article -

Photo taken from Cambodia Microfinance Association (CMA)'s video on loan management from YouTube. View here:

Contact information:
Andrew Crawford, Department of Banking and Finance, Monash University, Caulfield Campus, Australia -
Paul Lajbcygier Department of Econometrics and Business Statistics, Monash University, Clayton Campus, Australia
Pushkar Maitra Department of Economics, Monash University, Clayton Campus, Australia -

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

“Capitalism is so much easier!”— Learning savings through playing a board game

By Farah Qureshi and IMTFI/Loy Loy Team at UC Irvine in the Geek Anthropologist

Loy Loy: The Savings Game in Washington D.C.!

Staging of Loy Loy at the AnthropologyCon Salon in Washington DC

Julia had been waiting until the last round to take her pot of money from the others. She was trying to get 50 Loys from every player to buy the coffee cart for extra income. After passing the star square it was savings group meeting day. She bid 50 and each player was obliged to give her the money, but the request was met with resistance. Earlier in the game, Chris had threatened to leave the savings group when Julia did not lend him money to buy a pig. Her high bid was a gamble completely depending on the players’ solidarity, so she held her breath while Chris’ deliberated his options. While playing, they had all learned that trust was crucial to the game, but she also knew he would not survive long alone. In the end, Chris resentfully handed over his 50 Loys to Julia, it was her first asset purchase anyway, and helping her would overall help everyone. 

Welcome to Loy Loy: The Savings Game ( where you play a Cambodian female worker trying to save up money with the other players to purchase a garment factory together.

In November 2017, our team from UC Irvine’s Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI) carried a role-playing board game to the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) annual conference in Washington D.C.. Loy Loy (which means “Money Money” in Khmer) is a financial education tool being developed by IMTFI to teach players how one type of rotating savings and credit association (ROSCA) works. Similar to Monopoly, you receive ‘payday’ money upon each circulation of the board, which represents one month in time. However, unlike Monopoly, all players both move collectively with a single placeholder representing time and save together to win by purchasing the $5000 garment factory before the maximum number of months is up. Your progress depends on random events and expenses (such as medical expenses), with occasional opportunities to purchase income generating assets (for example, a pig) despite the pressure to maintain your personal funds. If any player reaches bankruptcy, the game is over for everyone. All players are challenged to come together and reach the goal collaboratively to win, which you can do through extending loans to one another or paying one another’s bills.

As anthropologists like Clifford Geertz and Shirley Ardener have famously written, and as generations of ROSCA members and development professionals have experienced, ROSCAs are commonly used in low-income communities across the world but can differ dramatically from country to country. In East Africa, for example, members of the ROSCA (or chama) make sure that money is separated and stored in a box. All participants pay an equal amount each month, as payouts are all equal. Mexican and Mexican-American tandas provide a unifying social space, encompassing a form of community as well as consistent sharing of funds. In Cambodia, factory workers form a kind of bidding ROSCA. In this kind of ROSCA, each individual contributes towards a collective savings pot, for which each member of the group then bids by offering to repay at a rate of interest they’re willing to offer to receive the pooled funds. In Loy Loy, ROSCA day falls once each round to award one player funds from the pot, instigating haggling and bidding wars between players. Once a player has ‘won’ the pot, they cannot enter a bid on the next ROSCA day until each player has had a chance at winning.

The idea for the board game developed during a closed-door workshop for IMTFI fellows, "Getting Beyond the Survey: Ethnography and the Art of Seeing," where participants convened to share their in-progress research and discuss methodology. A creative group exercise materialized issues found in observations of payment practices in different field sites around the world. You can see the inception video here:

Games are recognized as a valuable tool to communicate complex social dynamics. Allowing students to participate, interconnect and play creates an immediate and ongoing feedback mechanism where failure is reframed as iteration so that learning happens by doing. In this case the game teaches you about your own interactions and relations with money even as it offers a window into the everyday economic challenges and financial practices of people like the Cambodian garment workers who inspired it. As a player, you’re responsible for both negotiating and preparing for expenses that turn out to be impossible to cover using the regular wage income that you’ll receive. Most players realize this within a few turns and begin to develop their strategies while playing, either forming as many close social connections as possible or bidding large on ROSCA days to receive loans and trying to hoard.

The game is engrossing: players are absorbed into a virtual reality constructed through their characters and ROSCA community. In both groups, players passionately embodied their characters while forming new friendships. Unique and surprising banter always appears as each player justifies their reasoning for deserving the money. The game encourages very particular creative thought and debating skills! We ran two testing sessions for interested gamers while at the AAAs, one in the lobby of the hotel where the conference was being held, and the second as invited guests at the AnthropologyCon salon for gaming and games at the conference. Sharing Loy Loy at the AAAs was a fun experience. I found it immensely valuable to receive feedback from anthropologists before and after each session, and in what follows, in the full blogpost I offer just a few reflections on what we learned.

For detailed reflections from the AAAs and background of Loy Loy, read the full blogpost in The Geek Anthropologist here:

Interested in keeping up to date, learning more or helping us distribute Loy Loy? Please join us on To purchase Loy Loy, follow this link to the Game Crafter site.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Insights on Demonetisation from Rural Tamil Nadu: Understanding Social Networks and Social Protection

NEW paper by Isabelle Guérin, Youna Lanos, Sébastien Michiels, Christophe Jalil Nordman and Govindan Venkatasubramanian, published in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 52, Issue No. 52, 30 Dec, 2017.

Queue in front of ATM in Chennai, January 2017
Photo credit: Santosh Kumar.

Drawing on survey data from rural Tamil Nadu, the effects of demonetisation are documented. Serious concerns arise with regard to the achievement of its stated goals. The rural economy was adversely affected in terms of employment, daily financial practices, and social network use for over three months. People came to rely more strongly on their networks to sustain their economic and social activities. Demonetisation has not fought, but has largely  strengthened the informal economy. Demonetisation has also probably further marginalised those without support networks. In a context such as India, where state social protection is weak and governmental schemes are notoriously subject to patronage and clientelistic networks, dense networks of supportive relatives, friends and patrons remain key for safeguarding daily life. With cashless policies gaining currency in various parts of the world, we believe our findings have major implications, seriously questioning their merit, especially among the most marginalised segments of the population.

Isabelle Guérin ( is at the IRD-Cessma  (French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development, Centre d’études en sciences sociales sur les mondes américains africains et asiatiques), Paris, France and is associated with the French Institute of Pondicherry (IFP), India. Youna Lanos ( is a doctoral student at University Paris Dauphine, DIAL (Développement, Institutions et Mondialisation), and is associated with IFP. Sébastien Michiels ( is at IFP. Christophe Jalil Nordman ( is at the IRD, Paris and is associated with IFP. Govindan Venkatasubramanian ( is at IFP.

A group of women complaining to a clerk office that their labour welfare benefits cannot be withdrawn from the bank, January 2016. Photo credit: Santosh Kumar.

This paper follows and explores arguments made in the Special PERSPECTIVES Series on Demonetization in India last year, take a look at Part 1 and Part 2 below: 

Read more about Isabelle Guérin, Santosh Kumar and G Venkatasubramanian's IMTFI-funded research here.