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From Under the Mattress and into the Bank: Increasing Financial Access for Women in Nigeria

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This post was co-authored by Mary Ellen Iskenderian, Women's World Banking, and Joe Saunders, Visa Inc.

A growing chorus of voices is calling for a shift away from cash-based economies in the developing world. For governments, non-governmental organizations and companies focused on expanding financial access to the underserved, it is fast becoming a top priority. Not only is it too costly and unsustainable to reach people who rely solely on cash-based financial services, but relying solely on cash severely limits economic and social growth.

Nearly 2.5 billion people -- almost half the world's adult population -- do not have access to formal financial services. Without basic payments and savings accounts, money is often kept in cash under the mattress then moved around from person to person, drastically increasing the risk of theft or loss. Even a task as simple as paying a bill -- in person and via cash -- can be unsafe, costly and time-consuming. The implications of this financial exclusion are significant and far-reaching, reinforcing the cycle of poverty and slowing economic progress.1

In emerging economies around the world, this can be a particular challenge for women. In Nigeria, for example, nearly 77 percent of women lack access to financial services. 2 Yet, they often serve as the primary financial managers in most families, expected to stretch meager and irregular incomes to meet daily household needs, not to mention long-term budgeting for life's unexpected shocks.

It is remarkable: Even with all of the challenges facing women living in poverty, they still manage to save 10 to 15 percent of their income. Providing safe, effective and convenient tools that are tailored to their needs will increase the amount they are able to save and accelerate their long-term investments in their communities.

Improving access to financial services, including savings accounts, can make all the difference. Women are savers, and research has demonstrated that they are more likely to reinvest their savings in their families and communities. Recognizing this, last year the Central Bank of Nigeria announced a commitment to reduce the country's financial exclusion rate from 46.3 percent to 20 percent by 2020. 3

But there are significant challenges. How can commercial financial institutions provide access to savings for low-income women in an economically sustainable way? How can technology and innovation play a role in breaking down the barriers -- such as physical distance from a bank branch -- to provide greater access to savings?

With these questions in mind, Visa and Women's World Banking are partnering with Diamond Bank and Enhancing Financial Innovation & Access (EFInA) to help develop a commercially viable, accessible savings product that serves the financial needs of women in Nigeria.
The project will roll out in three phases, beginning with in-depth research to identify what services women need most to improve their financial lives. Next, an innovative pilot program will introduce mobile technology that represents a significant breakthrough in democratizing access to financial services. Mobile phones are commonplace in Nigeria, and recent regulations have opened up the ability to provide mobile financial services -- truly a game changer for women facing mobility constraints.

Finally, the savings product is anticipated to be launched nationwide following a successful pilot, and will be supported by financial education programs designed specifically for women.

Our big bet is that this and other projects around the world will help other companies and governments see that investing in underserved women not only represents a potentially lucrative untapped market, but also will improve the lives of families for generations.

WATCH: Advancing Financial Inclusion for Women

1 Banking for Billions: Increasing Access to Financial Services, Barclays Social Intelligence Series

2 EFInA Access to Financial Services in Nigeria 2010 Survey

3Maya Declaration, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CX7sx-7ykxs

Mary Ellen Iskenderian is president and CEO of Women's World Banking (WWB). Joe Saunders is chairman and CEO of Visa, Inc.