Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Top Five Digital Financial Service Features That Impact Women’s Access and Use

Research in Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire provides guidance for DFS providers and regulators

By Helene Smertnik, Senior Researcher at Caribou Digital and Savita Bailur, Research Director at Caribou Digital 

A focus group discussion discussing women’s experiences with DFS, Yopougon, Côte d’Ivoire. Photo credit: Caribou Digital
A focus group discussion discussing women’s experiences with DFS
Yopougon, Côte d’Ivoire. Photo credit: Caribou Digital

This blog links to a longer paper we published on SSRN on the impact of DFS features on women in Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire based on primary research with “end users”. For more information, please see the paper and please feel free to contact us at helene@cariboudigital.net or savita@cariboudigital.net at any point.

In 2019 (pre-COVID-19), with the support of the Gates Foundation, Caribou Digital and the DFS Lab embarked on a research project to identify which digital financial service (DFS) features impacted women’s access and use the most, compared to men in Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire. Mid-way through our research, we shared our initial findings, and with our research now complete, we’re able to take a closer look at these features. There were five that stood out the most:

  1. Ubiquitous agent networks.
  2. Real-time SMS notifications and seamless interoperability.
  3. Transparent fees.
  4. Help users avoid the need to revoke payments.
  5. Less stringent ID requirements as part of a tiered KYC approach.

Ubiquitous DFS networks 

Uniting tech and touch is critical for women. Women were quite vocal about the importance of a ubiquitous agent network (with no gender preference for agents) in order for them to have trust and confidence in DFS. In fact, a few women mentioned that they were dissuaded completely from using a financial service if it did not have any shops or agents, as was the case with the loan app Tala, which only provided a customer service number to call.

Older and less digitally savvy women relied the most on agents, indicating a generational divide which is sometimes even greater than the gender divide. Though older women said they sometimes ask their children for help, they were also cautious about disclosing how much money they had to their family. As a result, they would often go to agents for help.

Recommendation: DFS providers’ investment in physical agent networks is therefore critical to ensure the uptake of their services by women.

Real-time SMS notifications and seamless interoperability 

As part of our research, we observed men and women conducting mobile money transactions at shops. A key difference in their behaviors was that women tended to wait in the shop until they received the SMS notifications confirming their transactions, while men would simply drop off the money and continue on their way, expecting the SMS to come later. Because women require the official confirmation before moving on, real-time SMS notifications are key for their continued use of mobile money. If they have to wait too long, they will eventually go back to using cash to avoid wasting time. 

The issue of timely SMS notifications comes up especially when using interoperable services, highlighting the need for more seamless interoperability. For example, Equity Bank and M-Pesa are interoperable, meaning they connect to each other and transfers can be made between their accounts. However, the transfers sometimes take time to process, and the confirmation messages do not arrive or are late, leading women to go back to manual cash transfers. 

Recommendation: Ensuring SMS notifications are received in near real time is critical for DFS providers to best serve women.

Transparency in fees and cost structures 

“The units disappear without anyone knowing why. This colleague is telling us it is because of subscriptions done without our agreement but until now I had no clue,” said one of our interviewees, Elodie. Such hidden and nontransparent fees discourage women from using DFS, as we found that women were more sensitive to fees than men and also less likely to find workarounds to avoid them. For example, in both Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire, younger men knew that they could reduce transaction fees by conducting smaller transactions multiple times rather than one higher cost transaction, while most women were not aware of this strategy. 

Because of these fees, there was a strong sense among low-income women that money didn’t “grow” when left on their phone. Consequently, they did not associate mobile money with the possibility of savings, preferring savings groups or keeping money in cash at home, despite potential security issues. 

Recommendation: To ensure women use DFS, it is key for providers to have ethical cost structure designs as well as transparent communications about possible fees.

Help users avoid the need to revoke transactions 

Most digital financial service providers offer an option for revoking a payment after it has gone through. However, this process is complex, and the use of this option has the potential to hinder women’s usage of DFS more than men’s. In neither Côte d’Ivoire nor Kenya were there clear instructions from the DFS providers for how to go about revoking a payment, and if the money had already been withdrawn it became impossible. 

In a focus group discussion with women merchants in the outskirts of Nairobi, we also heard about how revoking features could lead to fraud, as some of the women had been cheated by customers who paid but then reversed their payments. The women were considering reverting back to cash due to these experiences. 

Recommendation: Given the complexity and cost of revoking payments and the lack of standards in place, it is important for providers to help users avoid the need to revoke payments by guaranteeing clear and sufficient cancelling features in place before the user hits send. For example, confirmation messages should appear which explicitly state the phone number and amount being sent, and should give enough time to review all the information without the phone shutting down. 

ID requirements and the need for a tiered KYC approach

In theory, women said they appreciated the importance of requiring an ID for security measures, both for agents and customers. However, in practice they privileged going to agents who didn’t ask for their ID. Since many women do not have an ID, they often rely on their husbands’ ID, or simply do not use digital financial services if an ID is required. 

In response to this reality, in Côte d’Ivoire, some agents intentionally do not ask for ID in order to gain a competitive advantage over agents that required it. In Kenya, agents would not always ask for ID when they already knew the customer. We also saw scenarios where agents would only require ID for transactions over a certain amount. 

Recommendation: While these agents are improvising to respond to the needs of their customers, ID requirements should be adjusted and standardized to meet women’s needs. A tiered KYC (know your customer) approach would encourage women’s usage by allowing them to make small mobile money transactions without providing identification. 


The women’s experiences shared above highlight how important it is for DFS providers and policy makers to consider women’s needs and wants in order to make sure they are financially included. The risk of women’s financial exclusion is even greater in the context of COVID-19, as payments are increasingly digital and access to DFS is crucial. These five features can help ensure that digital tools make women more - not less - financially included. 


Watch our webinar, What Digital Financial Services features might matter more to women than men and why?

This research was conducted with AFROES in Kenya, led by Gathoni Mwai and Sylvia Oloo and Empow’Her, led by Chloe Roncajolo and Serge Kouadio in Côte d’Ivoire. A special thanks to them.