The Key to Success in Digital Finance: Empowering Agents

MCE Social Capital
5 min readJul 5, 2022

Camilla Nestor, MCE’s CEO, teaches a financial inclusion course at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. Each year the course features a writing competition, giving students a chance to write a blog on a topic of their choice related to financial inclusion. It’s inspiring to see the talent and smarts in the next generation of impact leaders! The article written by this year’s winner, Myung Eun Hyeon, is featured below. Myung is a second-year student pursuing a Master of Public Administration at Columbia SIPA, and hopes to leverage her degree to build financial empowerment globally.

Photo Credit: Apollo Agriculture (Kenya)

With 1.7 billion people still without access to formal financial services, digital finance is a more efficient and affordable method to provide the unbanked with greater financial security and resilience from economic disruptions. However, most underserved populations have many factors that hinder them from proactively engaging in mobile money; they might live in rural parts of the country, where internet access is unreliable, or face cultural barriers to using smartphones and financial services. An integral part of digital finance is the agent at the front line of every mobile money development. They can provide the “touch” which underserved populations prefer due to their low technology savviness, limited product understanding, and lack of trust in the financial providers. Hence, agents can act as an instigator and a bridge, encouraging those populations to sign up for mobile money and connecting them to the necessary financial services by providing reliable transactions.

Given the significant role agents have in enhancing customer experience, to deliver consistent, reliable, and responsive services, they must be empowered, as empowered agents are more likely capable of and committed to providing an experience that generates value to the customer. The following two cases of agent empowerment in digital financial services (DFS) demonstrate the delicate precision required to navigate the intricacies of incentivizing agents. By successfully motivating their agents, the DFS providers ensure that the customers truly benefit from their services, with access to agents knowledgeable of the product and the digital landscape and enthusiastic to complete the transactions.

Photo Credit: Zoona (Zambia)

A Zambia-based fintech company, Zoona, boasts the highest transaction volumes in the country. First launched in 2009, it differentiated itself by heralding a robust agent network that employed young entrepreneurs, particularly women, as their agents. To elaborate, Zoona provided the agents with the rights to the Zoona franchise business, working financial capital, and business management tools, allowing the agents to start and own a sustainable business that also thrives at providing exceptional customer services. Zoona incorporated agents as their key customer segment, engaging them in a rigorous training program designed to build entrepreneurial skills and an understanding of liquidity to ensure customers have a pleasant interaction and an efficient service. As a result, Zoona has many high-performing, dedicated agents. One could argue that the high performance of Zoona agents is driven by the high commissions they earn. However, the high profits are anchored on how Zoona covers the setup costs by providing Zoona-branded booths and loans while also supporting the use of social media, which contributes to building a significant amount of agent empowerment.

Photo Credit: BTPN / Rahmad Gunawan (Indonesia)

BTPN Wow! is a low-cost mobile savings account launched by the Indonesia-based bank, Bank Tabungan Pensiunan Nasional (BTPN), to target the unbanked who live in areas that are difficult to reach. Leveraging a human-centered design process, BTPN created BTPN Wow! as a product with simplicity and ease of access through their know-your-customer procedure. By the end of 2016, it had over 2.9 million registered accounts and more than 170,000 mobile agents; yet, only one in three accounts were active. In response, BTPN developed “Susan,” a smartphone application designed to motivate and empower agents based on gamification and a goal-based reward system. BTPN specifically designed the app to increase the agents’ motivation, which they found to impact customer experience and usage directly. When agents were more knowledgeable and motivated to answer questions about the cash-in and cash-out service, customer engagement increased. As such, Susan rewards the agents with points when they serve customers. Depending on the number of points, they can progress to higher levels starting from Bronze, Silver, Gold, to Star, which correspond to multipliers of incentives. The most used features on the app are checking and redeeming points and the incentive report, implying that the gamification feature successfully motivates agents to enhance their performance to gain better incentives.

Zoona and BTPN Wow! employ different mechanisms to improve agent empowerment. In aggregate, their success is grounded because they both recognized the critical role the agents can play in customer engagement and worked to improve the system to empower them. Both Zoona and BTPN Wow! leverage intrinsic empowerment and reward them extrinsically by connecting it to a monetary incentive system. For Zoona, it first consolidates a strong sense of ownership in the agents, then facilitates the intrinsic motivation with a higher-than-average commissions level. For BTPN Wow!, Susan intrinsically empowers agents to perform better than themselves and their peers continuously, then awards the performance through different levels of incentives. Both of their successes highlight that, as agents play an integral role in connecting the underserved population to digital finance, the most immediate and direct solution to encourage usage of digital finance would be to strengthen the agent network through empowerment.

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MCE Social Capital

MCE is a nonprofit impact investing firm that mobilizes capital to generate economic opportunity for women and rural families living in poverty.