We are so used to thinking of ‘New India’ as a vibrant, progressive economic giant, that we would find it hard to believe there are areas where we underperform, compared to countries that are more financially and politically challenged than us.
Mobile money plays an important role in financial inclusion. Bankers favour mobile transactions over cash because they are secure, transparent and cost efficient. They also represent the first step towards accessing a larger world of financial services and products. After gaining a comfort with basic mobile transactions, users are expected to evolve towards using a suite of financial services like insurance and credit, and subsequently, to an m-commerce model where they are able to digitally trade their own products, or buy what they need, including making payments in local shops through mobile phone.
The recently published Financial Inclusion Insights Survey, which surveyed 45,000 Indians, paints a disappointing picture of the status of mobile money in the country. Only 0.3% of Indians have ever made a mobile transaction, although upto 85% of adults have access to mobile phones. This stands in stark contrast to countries like Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, the African markets where mobile money has truly taken off.
(Source : Financial Inclusion Insights Report)
This data forces us to take a really hard look at why India has not tapped into the huge and obvious potential of the mobile as a tool of financial inclusion.
One answer to this question lies in the restrictive government policies that have prevented services like M-Pesa from taking off in India, the way they did in other countries. But if we reflect further, there is a deeper reason. We have always thought of data enabled services as an offering for urban, English speaking elite, rather than for the masses. This is reflected in the lopsided development of internet in this country, where English websites still dominate in a land of nearly 1 billion non-English speakers. When local language websites started coming in, it was as an afterthought and a reaction to the large number of vernacular users coming online. Are we set to repeat the same story with mobile? I hope not. But if we want to write a positive story for mobile money in India, we need to be proactive and not reactive. One of the key facilitators for people to come online, is access to relevant content. Unless it’s in a language that they understand, it’s not going to be relevant. The digital divide and financial inclusion are deeply interlinked issues and need to be resolved together, to truly bridge the gap between the haves and have nots.
When we think, and design mobile applications in vernacular language, and with a user interface that is unique to our cultural understanding, rather than borrowed blindly from international examples, then we will truly be designing relevant mobile apps for the Indian masses. Otherwise, digital India will remain an elitist and not an inclusive India.
***Views expressed here are personal