Financial Inclusion in Nigeria is a Product Management Problem.
According to EFINA and The World Bank, over 60 million Nigerian adults are financially excluded and consequently lack the access to the sort of financial services they need to live their best lives and thrive. The same organization, fully supported by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has assumed an active position, directly funding and advocating the use of innovative financial solutions and technology to solve the problem. An informed guess would put their investment into the sector at above $10 Million, directly funding ventures like Diamond Yello and Mobile Microfinance.
The impacts of these projects have been negligible at best, asking questions on the viability of the products that were funded.
These two projects are symbolic and represents the collective failure of the rest of the players within the Digital Financial Services (DFS) space. There is a palpable disconnect between products and its markets. Sometimes, analyzing the products released by the Commercial Banks or the DFS Providers, one is tempted to almost believe that we have not been listening enough to the customers. Indeed, most products are created in the Boardrooms and subsist entirely on the assumptions of either a business development team and then relayed to the IT Team. For instance, I think we can make bold to say that in the Nigerian context, grappling with infrastructural deficiencies, Artificial Intelligence does not currently have a role to play in deepening financial inclusion.
I was introduced to Product Management as an organizational role in 2017 and in those two years, I have been humbled by how little I know about developing successful products. I also discovered that within most DFS Organizations, the role is not given the requisite emphasis. This would seem inimical to organizational growth as it would seem to suggest that organizations roll out products from their blindside. Recently, I came across Josh Busuttil’s ‘A Practitioner’s Guide to Product Management.’, which is a deeply revealing work on how the best Product Manager’s emerge, the expediency of product management for technology organizations and the competencies required to deliver on the job. The book got me thinking deeply on what we could have gotten wrong in the space.
Why are most DFS products a difficult sell to the financially excluded, despite most organizations capturing its as one of their mandates?
I came upon an answer. Product Management in Nigeria is an emerging role and the experts within the field might also be learning what it takes to deliver on the job.
The tenets of Product Management assume that the Product Manager is the CEO of the product, wielding a measurable understanding of the User Experience, Business needs and Technological capacities. He should be the one to talk to the potential customers about what they need and how they would love their products delivered. He should be the creative glue, crystallizing the needs of the customers then linking it to the technological capacities while ensuring that the business needs are not foregone.
For instance, we cannot be rolling out internet-based products to the excluded that mostly live in the rural communities lacking internet networks. We cannot access the excluded when the road networks might not be there. It then makes sense that a successful DFS Product that will provide answers to the poser must be one that tackles the challenges first. Product Managers cannot place the cart before the house. Josh Busuttil alluded to this with the Segway example. We cannot solve a problem that does not exist, that would be bad business, neither can we solve a hydra-headed problem by only severing one of its head.
Product Managers in Nigeria must place our context at the front burner. What worked in China or Kenya might not work here. We are grappling with unique problems. Therefore, we must provide answers to the questions before we churn out a product or ensure that the product answers the questions while giving the prospective customers sufficient reasons to pay for it.
A typical viable DFS product that could work will be layered on top of a robust agent network that will be incentivized differently (commission-based structure might not work because of low transactions in rural areas). These agents will not only provide payments and remittance services but will also function as a conduit for their DFS principals to roll out other profitable banking products like microloans, account opening, insurance and micro-savings and investments. This product should be thoroughly unbundled and made accessible via USSD channel for Over the Counter Transactions. Digital Wallets (not necessarily based on mobile numbers will drive it) while a tech-based, automated agent network manager keeps track of agent performance and preliminary troubleshooting.
This product has potentials.
However, irrespective of results, Product Managers in Nigeria have to start taking responsibilities and also account for their context. Organizations have to start trusting them more. It would be a shame to have someone wielding such levels of competence and not involve him in matters that could literally decide if an organization lives or dies.