Accounts aren’t the Point of Financial Inclusion

Digital Financial Services should leverage Emotional Engagement and Timely Nudges, or they’re just wasting time and resources

Financial Literacy education has been historically weak in Myanmar, so Opportunities NOW has joined with USAID to respond to this burgeoning need. Read this post about an exciting new digital financial services tool recently launched for the Myanmar market.

tl;dr Summary

To engage with Financial Literacy needs at the Base of the Pyramid, an innovative tool should be emotionally engaging, contain simple and effective messaging, and nudge the user at timely intervals. Any digital tool being built today should take advantage of the capabilities readily available: it should leverage notifications, AI, interactive content, and include an intuitive UX. Anything else will fall shallow of the deep impact necessary to make progress on the issue of Financial Literacy.

Financial Inclusion is all the rage in the development space today, and for good reason. Increasing use of formal financial instruments at the Base of the Pyramid is an essential step in combatting and undercutting the usurious system of informal lenders that keeps households in the cycle of poverty.

Just give them accounts?

But for many, formal account sign-ups have become a proxy for poverty alleviation, as if the ability to safely store, send, and receive money is in and of itself the chief marker of economic development. Even the latest innovations in the space are mostly targeted at promoting formal accounts and eliminating cash for elimination’s sake.

As our favorite Internet-comic-blog puts it:

Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there’.
Accounts = Inclusion?

Yes, people who have accounts with formal institutions are “financially included”. But having an account at a bank, microfinance institution or other financial service provider does not in itself prevent people from bad money management, or prepare them for times when emergencies and unexpected events wipe out their cash reserves. For this, financial literacy and sound financial education are a necessary, if often forgotten step in the process.

Check the Box

On the other side, financial education conducted by many formal institutions has been reduced to flip chart concepts and cookie cutter knowledge transfer. Many non-bank financial institutions check the boxes to show they have provided financial education, yet go no further than providing a detailed explanation of loan terms and client responsibilities to a room of 40 borrowers who are just looking for the cash infusion that will get them to the next harvest. To these financial service providers, financial education is often no more than a time-consuming set of theories that meet minimum requirements of client protection.

efficiency at all cost!

Financial education is ripe for genuine innovation

The direction of financial education

The most recent research is showing that the tired models of the two sides — the “give them accounts” and the “check the box” crowds — are not effectively meeting the financial empowerment needs of the Base of the Pyramid. What is required is an approach that is immediately practical and practicable. It must be emotionally engaging, and simple enough to be memorable. And perhaps most importantly, it must timely.

This approach cannot be achieved through a 15 minute session before clearance to receive microcredit, or through an annual lecture-style training. And it won’t be achieved by just giving them a savings account, or the ability to send remittances on their phone.

Read on for an approach to financial education that we think meets these requirements for effectiveness.

Emotional Engagement

So much about today’s financial education is abstract and theoretical. Teaching the tools of accounting and budgeting isn’t effective when removed from the reality of everyday household finances. Explaining the complex concepts of loan terms and interest and savings accounts to a person who has never worked with a formal institution before isn’t likely to result in retained knowledge.

Knowledge must connect emotionally to the user.

Evoke emotion. Laughing is good. So is crying.

At ONOW Myanmar, our approach is a memorable character, and an adventure game where the app user gets to help the woman along her business journey. With EOS Group, we developed an intriguing storyline along the Choose Your Own Adventure format, where smart business and financial management concepts are taught along the way, in the context of the day-to-day decisions Myanmar’s micro-enterprises face everyday. The character is relatable and someone to be aspired to, allowing women across Myanmar to connect to her and her family in a dramatic and effective way.

Simple and effective messaging

The next step in effective financial education is short and actionable messaging that is immediately practical and practicable — these are called Rules of Thumb.

Long form curriculum just won’t do. Yes, financial management is complex, but explaining every term and every tool at length is a waste of your time and theirs. Women at the Base are busy too, just like you, but they have way less margin to survive on. They don’t need to know all the ins and outs of financial management. Just give them a short message that they can take home with them.

Save 300 Kyat per day.
Keep your personal money and business money separate.
Use a loan to invest in your business.

These are simple and graspable, and they are especially memorable when delivered effectively. And they change behavior.

Timely nudges

The importance of nudges

This one is a tough one to crack, but perhaps the most important. Messaging is especially effective when it is well-timed to be delivered in sync with the challenges women face — those events that most threaten to derail their delicate balance of cash flow. The right message at the right time can alter a catastrophic choice — one that might drain the family’s savings, or push them to a usurious money lender with 20–30% monthly interest rates.

These messages are needed precisely when formal institutions and support organizations are most removed from women. But digital technology can help.

Innovation in financial education

Opportunities NOW’s Maung Sa Yin Kaing (Mr. Finance) is a Facebook Messenger Bot that both teaches and learns. It can suggest simple messaging content based on user interaction, and can tell stories that are emotionally engaging. And most importantly, it can provide financial messaging to users when they are most in need of a small nudge to make the correct financial decision.

Myanmar’s mobile phone revolution has been mostly an app-less revolution. Users don’t want to use bandwidth to download, and don’t want to use precious local memory on large and bulky apps. Any project banking on a purpose-built app is destined for delete. But chat is alive and well in Myanmar, on multiple services. Maung Sa Yin Kaing lives in chat. And its intuitive messaging style feels like talking to family.

Maung Sa Yin Kaing is the kind of emotionally engaging approach to financial education that Myanmar’s millions of women micro-entrepreneurs can actually benefit from.


Financial institutions have incentives that will cause them to promote accounts. Their missions dictate that their products are the best solutions available, and their bottom lines and impact reporting require that they demonstrate uptake of their services. I get that. And that’s OK. Yes, formal financial service use should increase.

But account uptake is an imperfect proxy for financial inclusion. If the industry settles for information on accounts and loan terms as meeting the requirements of financial literacy, the industry is sadly myopic.