Four Lessons Learned in Piloting Mobile Money for Paying 8 Million Work Days

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From 2013 to 2016, I worked on a pilot to pay 8 million of work days in two districts in India through mobile money. The Government of Odisha in India decided to move from cash to mobile money for MGNREGS, a scheme World Bank has called world’s largest social safety net. I learned four lessons from this experience that can help you partner with Mobile Network Operators.
MGNREGS Design
Back in 2013, MNOs didn’t have direct payment bank licenses from Reserve Bank of India, India’s banking sector regulator, like they have today. So, MNOs partnered with banks to provide mobile financial services that allow consumers withdraw cash from their mobile wallet.
Through this partnership, we could reach 57% of MGNREGS workers who were getting their wages through banking system in rural Odisha.
The process we designed sounded simple.

  • Step 1. MGNREGS MIS will send an invoice with worker details and amount along with cash over network to the bank which will in turn send it to the MNO. MNO will credit the amount in the worker’s mobile account.
  • Step 2. Worker then visit her nearest mobile retailer who then triggers a withdrawal request for the worker mobile number. Worker receives a onetime password (OTP) to share with mobile retailer. A successful authentication sends a message for disbursement to the mobile retailer, and notification of withdrawal to the worker.

However, the reality when working with governments and MNOs is never that simple. We faced four challenges that gave us key learnings:
Leadership Matters
Leadership can play a vital role in social sector projects that are highly complex and take months to finalize and implement. Whenever we faced crisis throughout the project, timely inputs and actions from one MNO helped us move ahead quickly.
But another MNO abruptly withdrew from the project when the MGNREGS project changed fund transfer modes from the central pool account to beneficiary bank accounts.
Each MNO is Different
Both the MNOs followed the same government regulations, but their approach and practice varied widely. A case in point is how MNOs followed the Know Your Customer (KYC) compliance, a process to register a worker to open her mobile and bank accounts.
One MNO accepted the MGNREGS job card, because it was permitted by the guideline issued by the Department of Telecommunications. The other MNO refused to do so because the same job card didn’t carry worker’s photographs.
MNOs Are Not Very Flexible
MNO processes are distributed and complex, and they loathe to change them for anyone. For example, one MNO would scan and send the worker registration documents to their central document processing center to verify them before a mobile account can be activated and they would not change this process even though it delayed our recipient onboarding process.
Processes Are Very Hard to Scale
We found it nearly impossible to introduce a new process and then scale it up without significantly changing it. Since the project was aimed at low literate population, we fought hard to introduce a group and individual digital literacy training and assessment sessions.
The idea was to deliver these trainings through MNO’s agents and “gram mitra” (friends of villages). The MNOs implemented the trainings in some villages in the initial phase, but they didn’t continue the training when project went to larger scale, causing digital literacy issues across the program.
By Atanu Garai, founder of SocialWell Technologies
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