Collection No 4
After two hours on curvy mountain roads, and an hour on a stone-cobbled, one-lane track, our team arrived in the village at the top of the tea plantation.
Our plan was to interview the new branchless bank agent for the tiny village of 85 households, meet some of his customers, and learn about the lives of tea laborers. We arrived at the house of Maman, the agent and community leader, at the planned time and sat down on his carpet to begin our chat. A few minutes in, two gruff looking men, wearing leather jackets and smoking cigarettes, invited themselves in and sat down among our circle. The local interview participants looked tense and mumbled some words of greeting. As the interviewer, I asked our translators to ask the newcomers to introduce themselves — initially thinking I could explain to them that we were conducting an interview and that perhaps they could come back later if they had business with the Maman or his family. Our translators relayed that one man was the security guard for the tea company, the other was a local policeman. Their business was to know everything that happens in the town and determine if they approve. They were not just interested in the interview, but in the product we were representing and piloting in their village. They explained there had been scams in the village before: Ponzi schemes, payroll embezzlement and false cooperatives — to name a few. They wanted to know if this branchless bank thing was legitimate. The interview turned from our team being the leaders, to being interrogated.
For the next hour we talked to the two officials about their concerns, about the nature of branchless banking, and about our desire to understand the needs of their company employees in order to design products that could serve them better. We asked them what would make a successful product in their eyes. As we talked, the research team started to understand the roles of these two men in the company village; they were there to keep the peace and protect their employee-citizens, yes, but also to extract their share of any business that was going on. It seemed that not even legitimate business could exist in the town without their intervention. They offered several ideas about how a mobile banking product should be integrated into the payroll process of the tea company to provide automatic savings plans for employees. We wondered if they were hoping they could get a cut of it? They said it had to be guaranteed that people had access at all times to their money. Could we take that seemingly obvious statement at face-value?
Appeased by our explanations, the security guard opened up and told us a bit about his side activity as a leader of a gold purchasing arisan. Arisans are informal savings schemes where each member in a group will pay a sum of money into a pool every month for as many months as there are members. In a typical arisan, each month there is a drawing for the pool of money. Over the duration of the scheme, each person will win the pool. In the guard’s arisan (far from a tea picker’s price range), each month a piece of gold jewelry was purchased and awarded to the lucky draw recipient. Adjustments to the investment amount were made each month according to the price of gold: members had to pay more if the price went up, but it didn’t sound like they paid less if the price went down — that careful timing and speculation probably being a means for the guard to profit from the scheme.
When we had exhausted the guard’s stories, and the policeman had moved away from the circle, apparently finished with his inquiry, we asked permission to continue our interview and also talk with people in the village. Permission granted, we switched gears back to our discussion with Maman. He cautiously explained how the two officials operated in the village. They would stop by periodically to check on him and get some “cigarette money.” Although completely unplanned, the interruption gave us valuable insights into the political nuances and balance of power in the company town, information that we would probably not have uncovered otherwise. Being able to adjust to these official and unofficial pressures within communities will be a critical part of designing and deploying a viable banking product. We are taking the experience as a lesson for the research team to be open to unexpected interactions and to be able to restructure our line of inquiry on the fly to add as much context as we can to the ecosystems we are dealing with.
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