Which DFS features matter more to women than men (research for the Gates Foundation from Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya)

Written for International Women’s Day 2020

For the past six months, we’ve been working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on fascinating gender and DFS (digital financial services) research. The project originated as a gender-sensitive evaluation of the Level One Principles — a set of principles and features to ensure digital financial services are more inclusive.

In the process, our research unearthed women’s opinions and concerns about DFS more broadly. On International Women’s Day, and at a time when DFS are so key for women’s empowerment, we’d like to surface five emerging themes we observed in the fieldwork. Our full research will be published later this year, with data from Caribou Data.

99% school fees are paid by mobile money in Côte d’Ivoire. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

1. DFS providers and mobile network operators need to be clearer about costs

Both in Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire, women in our sample (80 end users in each country, 40 male and 40 female) stated concerns around DFS transaction costs more than men — not only that they were high but also opaque and they didn’t know what they would be charged for. Men were often so aware they had developed workarounds, such as sending multiple lower value transactions below the threshold where they would be charged. One young female student in Nairobi also used this method to avoid fees but on the whole, the women we spoke to did not. Instead, female respondents complained of “hidden costs” and “losing money” in DFS.

Lack of clarity over costs leads to suspicion about mobile money in Côte d’Ivoire. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

2. Money hanging between networks leads many women to multi-SIM or physically transfer money

In both countries, cross-network transactions initiated by women were rare. In Kenya, this is because M-Pesa is so dominant so transfers to/from Airtel are infrequent. In Côte d’Ivoire, women either relied on agents to conduct transactions or “multi-SIMed” with DFS accounts from both Orange and MTN, rather than sending from one network to another. Women also reported that mobile money to bank transactions had challenges, such as money left “hanging”.

“Last weekend, I did a transaction from my M-Pesa to Equity Bank. I found that my money didn’t reach the account I was sending it to, it was hanging for two days… after two days it was reversed to me, with no message. I had to call Safaricom and Equity customer care to understand what had happened.”

In our research, women did not always see mobile to bank transactions as an end-to-end process, and often withdrew money from a mobile money account and physically deposited it into the bank. This cost them time and money but felt more trustworthy.

3. Women value real-time transactions and notifications but want control over these

Previous research has found that women tend to be more conservative about experimenting with new technology or financial products, so consistent service reliability is crucial especially in building trust in the service. One way of mitigating fear is the need for more agent interaction for women than men, where an agent will verify the transaction.

Since there’s suspicion about money being “lost in the system”, real-time transactions and notifications provide a great deal of confidence and trust. Among those interviewed, women emphasized the need for notifications more than men, because it gave them security and saved them following up. In Côte d’Ivoire, one interviewee remembered taking her brother-in-law with her for support:

“I paid a bill and have not received a message for two days. My brother-in-law and I went to the agency to file a complaint. It was found that indeed I had paid the bill by mobile money and that I had not received a message.”

Transactions and notifications of transactions are also affected by poor network quality — for example in Côte d’Ivoire, respondents felt that to send money “to the interior” they had to have an MTN SIM as well as Orange because Orange had poorer network coverage outside of Abidjan.

Even agents in Côte d’Ivoire said consistent notifications would improve their work because their female customers would feel more confident. In Kenya, however, with more advanced mobile money use over Côte d’Ivoire, women wanted better control over notifications so the men in their lives didn’t see them.

Female agent in Lari, Kenya. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

4. Agents are critical for women but quality varies

Uniting “tech and touch” is critical for women. While M-Pesa agents proliferate in Kenya ( — “You might get only one T-cash agent, or one Airtel money agent, but M-Pesa agents … they’re everywhere, everywhere is green,” said a female student in Nairobi), in Côte d’Ivoire, women reported that agent availability and quality varied.

Respondents didn’t express preference for male or female agents, but just wanted a professional who could provide advice and clarity on costs. They also wanted more standardized support rather than varied levels of help though they acknowledged personal relationships mattered here.

Purely digital products were not fully trusted: “these Tala apps, they don’t even have agents so do they really exist? How can they help you if there is no one to go to?”.

On the other hand, men don’t express this need for agents, instead preferring to conduct transactions themselves or asking friends for help.

However, this also increases women’s dependence on agents, and from an agent perspective, seems to add some pressure: one agent in Côte d’Ivoire resented the consumer education he had to provide:

“It’s not my job to raise awareness. When I did my training, I was shown how to do transactions, how to welcome clients and how to avoid risks and mistakes. I do advise clients how to reduce costs though. I earn very little. It exhausts me and brings me nothing.” Agent in Marcory, Abidjan

5. Lack of ID creates DFS dependency for women

One of the benefits of mobile money is that it often has lower or tiered KYC (“know your customer”) requirements than banking. More often than men, women lack required identification documentation — in low-income countries, 44% of women do not have an ID, compared to 28% of men.

Female respondents in Côte d’Ivoire definitely appreciated lower KYC for mobile money — as one respondent explained: “In banks they ask you for evidence of your salary, bills, things like that. We don’t have all that.” However, it is also common for women to use a SIM registered in someone else’s name and ID because it was too time-consuming to get their own ID — which often caused further problems down the line, like direct access to funds.

Going forward

We’re still analyzing our interviews (in addition to quantitative data), but these findings build on earlier literature on gender and DFS, making the strong case that digital financial service providers and mobile network operators need to understand the needs of women as distinct to those of men and invest more in consumer education and customer service. On International Women’s Day we need to remember that while DFS provide great opportunities for women’s empowerment — the ability to be economically independent — technology shouldn’t create new challenges for women.


We would like to thank our research partners on the ground:

  • in Kenya, the AFROES research team, led by Gathoni Mwai and Sylvia Oloo
  • in Côte d’Ivoire, Empow’Her research team, in particular Soazig Barthelemy, Chloe Roncajolo and Serge Couadio.

And we would like to thank the Global Centre for Gender Equality at Stanford University for feedback, in particular Nicole Figot, Margaret Greene and Angela Hartley.

Author: Savita Bailur

I’m a researcher in digital development. Currently a Research Director at Caribou Digital and Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. Previous experience includes USAID, World Bank, Commonwealth Secretariat, World Wide Web Foundation, mySociety, Microsoft Research India and University of Manchester (lectureship).

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