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Follow the Money: Mobile Banking Research in Afghanistan

In this installment of the Digital Diversity series, Jan Chipchase, Executive Creative Director of Global Insights at Frog Design, discusses how mobile technology may be used for personal banking in Afghanistan, a country challenged by limited access to traditional banking infrastructure and widespread distrust of formal institutions.

By Jan Chipchase

There’s a moment at the end of every field study that’s a mixture of relief and regret. It usually comes when the field study is wrapping up and the team is heading to the next destination — shortly after take off, around the time that the food cart makes its way down the aisle and you’re asked for chicken or beef — or in this case lamb. It is the first proper reflection of whether the months of planning, the blood, buckets of sweat and tears have yielded enough to make it all worthwhile, and it’s tinged with an acknowlegement that the opportunity for just one more interaction has passed.

In the summer of 2010, I conducted a short field study in Afghanistan to explore practices around money, with a particular focus on mobile banking (mBanking) services such as M-Paisa. Many people associate mBanking with cities like London or New York, but the potential impact is far greater in countries where there is limited access to fixed banking infrastructure. Afghanistan was chosen as the destination for this research because of the rise in mobile subscriptions, the stubbornly low level of fixed banking infrastructure, and the widespread distrust in formal institutions (Kabul Bank had a run on its coffers just after we left).



AfMoney-Kabul-CON-MPaisaTopup-0080.jpg Notification that the M-Paisa credit has been topped up.

Photo: Jan Chipchase

The global ubiquity of mobile phones — there are approximately five billion subscriptions worldwide — has encouraged innovations such as Smart Money in the Philippines and M-PESA in Kenya. The most talked about part of these services is money transfer between two parties, but mBanking has been extended to include bill payment, buying goods and services, and full-fledged savings accounts.

However, these services downplay something more fundamental — the value that comes from taking coins and notes out of circulation and storing them somewhere safe. And being reassured that they remain safe.

There is a universal appreciation of “money,” but practices around money are heavily influenced by culture and context. For example, objects of exchange can range from banknotes to airtime, goats to gold. Other differences can include the extent to which value flows through informal channels and who controls the purse strings in a household.



AfMoney-Kabul-INT-M2-MPaisaAgent-0086.jpg Mobile airtime stacked-up ready for delivery to Roshan agents.

Photo: Jan Chipchase

Our team aimed to highlight the sophisticated strategies that the poorest members of societies adopt in managing their limited resources — for example the extent to which social capital was leveraged.

For most foreigners in Afghanistan there are three models of working: those associated with the military stay on base are tooled up and primed for things to go wrong when they are off-base; NGOs with years of experience and an eye on the long term operate within strict security protocols that (in many parts of the country) limit their interaction with locals and stubbornly keep them from the streets; and the journalist model — hire a good local fixer, keep your movements unpredictable and maintain a good situational awareness.



AfMoney-MazareSharif-MISC-Jan-0595.jpg A Kabul resident passes advertising for electronic mobile phone top-ups.

Photo: Jan Chipchase

For this study we adopted the latter, with the added edge of using motorbikes to beat Kabul’s legendary traffic jams.

Researching in Afghanistan presents its own particular set of logistical challenges, from the security of the team intent on conducting home and street research to bridging the significant gender divide. Plus, Ramadan added a unique twist. Social situations that are often lubricated by the researcher’s best friend — tea — were notably lacking during the day. We missed the usual invitations to sit down, pull up a cushion and share a moment: us playing the role of the invited guests; them the role of gracious hosts. Our modus operandi was to publicly observe ritual fasting, but the lack of sustenance during the oppressive midday heat dampened the energy of a team used to working at full pelt.

As far research topics go, it is unusual to find something so ubiquitous that is simultaneously so taboo as money. How honestly would you answer if a researcher asked you about your income, how much you save or where you hide your money around the home?

In Afghanistan, even acknowledging the existence of money presents a problem — in a country with high levels of poverty and a very recent history of violence, visible displays of wealth present a juicy target. On more than one occasion participants talked us through the myriad of ways in which they were robbed and conned, and examples of everyday graft.

It takes a while to figure out what a study has revealed, to know what should be put into the public domain. But as the food cart trundled its way up the aisle my first take was this: there will come a point when the idea of using mobile phones for banking will be as globally prevalent as credit and debit are in the U.S. today. The need is there, and mobile technology is ideally suited to personal transactions. I also recognized that — for the researcher intent on pushing themselves and their field — the further you step outside your comfort zone the easier it is to realize what you don’t know.



JanChipchase.jpg Jan Chipchase is Executive Creative Director of Global Insights at Frog Design. Based in Shanghai, he leads the company’s design research practices across the globe. His work is widely covered in the media including The New York Times, The Economist, Nikkei and Business Week, and he is a frequent keynote speaker on design and design strategy at events ranging from design conferences, governmental & C-level events through to TED.

The Afghanistan Mobile Money project was funded by the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion with generous support from Frog Design and with in-field support of Panthea Lee, and the project’s local fixers and participants. Jan sits on the advisory board of the IMTFI and FrontlineSMS:Credit.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones – and technology more broadly – is being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.