The booming digitalisation in developing countries, especially on the African continent, is one of the main factors behind the increase in financial inclusion witnessed in the past ten years. In Sub-Saharan Africa for example, 42.6% of the adult population had an account in 2017 compared to just 23.2% in 2011 with almost 21% of adults having a mobile money account, based on data from the Global Findex.

This trend represents a unique opportunity for financial service providers (FSPs) to better achieve their mission and reach out to more clients. Technology can help traditional microfinance institutions to overcome challenges such as high operating costs (forcing MFIs to focus on high-density urban centres) or high operational risks (due to manual and paper-based processes).

There is no doubt that digitalisation in today’s financial inclusion market is not a choice but a necessity. One question remains though: how can microfinance providers digitalise intelligently and, above all responsibly?

Over the past ten years Advans has had the chance to implement and test multiple digital technologies to improve the financial inclusion journey for its clients. In Côte d’Ivoire for example, a USSD mobile banking solution has enabled access to saving accounts to over 19,000 cocoa farmers in remote areas with 1,120 of these clients also benefitting from digital school loans in 2018 for an amount of €180,000.

In neighbouring Ghana, digital channels have especially increased account usage, with 33% of client interactions being made through the Advans USSD1 mobile banking service and an average of 4.3 transactions per month per active client.

Meanwhile, in Cameroon, the implementation of an agent network across the country has enabled Advans to offer to its clients more proximity and reduce congestion in branches. Finally, this year in Nigeria and Cambodia, Advans subsidiaries are launching mobile applications allowing clients to manage all of their transactions instantly online. In Nigeria, mobile banking services will help grow the portfolio by an estimated 5% in 2020 to 10% per year from 2021.

These experiences have not been without challenges and have taught Advans a number of valuable lessons in terms of digital transformation.

Firstly, a one size fits all model is not viable: each of our markets and all our clients are evolving at a different pace. Even though Advans shares experiences between subsidiaries, it always follows a model of piloting, testing then scaling products or channels, ensuring that digital services take into account clients’ evolving needs and expectations. Client research and feedback are therefore key at all stages, from thinking about developing a new service to roll it out, and constant performance monitoring of any service is essential to identify areas for improvement.

Secondly, microfinance clients remain a specific target with often lower use of technology, lower financial literacy and trust issues to be considered. In light of this, digital tools alone are not enough to create a meaningful and sustainable relationship with clients. Instead, it is crucial to take a high-tech and high-touch approach, with first and foremost an omni-channel offer for clients, and additional services such as financial education, customer care (for example through call centres) and on field agents as solutions to ensure that clients fully benefit from financial services.

In short, any FSP that wants to digitalise responsibly has to start with understanding customers’ needs in order to design and offer services which are in line with their everyday reality.

Advans digital transformation is in motion. Now that the group has developed a set of channels and business models it can scale the activities that work best. In all subsidiaries where the business case stacks up, Advans aims to launch or scale in priority a combination of digital channels for client interaction. This will help Advans to increase its outreach in a more sustainable manner, driving efficiency and encouraging client usage based on convenience and low transaction costs. As well as mixing physical and digital touch points, Advans will create new digital propositions and partner with digital players to seize upcoming opportunities in its markets.

Given the pace of change around us, the path to success for FSPs relies on the ability to remain agile: listen to the market, listen to customers, react timely and grab opportunities when they arise.

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