Some of the poorest African countries in the world are leaping ahead of developed nations thanks to their adoption of mobile financial solutions. One billion people in Africa do not have a bank account, yet all own or have access to a mobile phone  which gives them access to a variety of financial services previously unavailable to them.

Kenya is the ultimate success story of how mobile money can dramatically transform a country’s economy where now over 70% of households and more importantly over 50% of the poor, rural populations are using the service. Between 2010 and 2013, mobile money services expanded to other African countries like Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Tanzania, but onlookers were dismayed by the pace of adoption. The DRC for example is one of the most promising mobile money markets in sub-Saharan Africa, due both to an enabling regulatory environment and its sheer commercial potential as only 4% of the population have a bank account.  Yet out of approximately 16 million  mobile phone users only 11% have adopted mobile money services . Why is this?

For DR Congo’s large rural population, transportation and infrastructure challenges, combined with the fact that 30% of bank branches are located in the capital of Kinshasa, means financial inclusion remains a tall order. The majority of people are “unbanked” denoting that they do not possess a bank account and can only share funds person-to-person with cash. So why have the Congolese not jumped at this chance for financial evolution?

In answer to this complex question, ÉLAN RDC, a private sector development programme in the DRC funded by the UK government launched a consumer behaviour study. Research was undertaken in four major provinces and revealed some interesting problems in the adoption of these services, particularly for poorer consumers. Those who have little education, many of which are women, possess an over-arching mistrust of the network operators and a lack of understanding of how products work. This confidence is not helped by the poor quality network coverage even when some do attempt to use these services.

Furthermore there are many limitations to the agent network. In the DRC, ‘agents’ from the mobile phone operators are sent out onto the streets to be the face of the company and are expected to assist consumers in their use of the network’s services. In focus group discussions, some mobile money users mentioned problems with agents who did not fully understand the services, were unable to register customers or had insufficient cash for withdrawals, posing trust and credibility problems for customers.

In particular it was women, the traditional managers of household finances who had the least understanding and trust for mobile money. They failed to see the values they wanted in an operator such as convenience, reliability and security.

ÉLAN RDC shared these results with three of the top mobile network operators in the DRC who have launched mobile money services in the past few years. It was clear that in order to increase the usage of their services they must reassess how they educate the population about them as well as proving a high-quality agent network to build trust.

Forming partnerships they have developed targeted education campaigns to increase confidence and understanding of mobile money services, particularly for women. Other aspects such as marketing strategies and agent training will also be developed. With these changes the wider population will be able to use these tools to increase their cash flow through their mobile phone and ultimately begin to grow their incomes, catching up with the forerunners like Kenya.

Despite the challenges, the study also found that 71% of mobile users who had not used any mobile money service before had an intention to use the service in the next three months, if they could be coached in its functions. This need and desire of people to learn about mobile money presents the opportunity to significantly scale up financial — and mobile financial — literacy in the DRC. Instead of having to carry around large amounts of cash, fast, efficient financial transactions can take place far away from the physical branches of the banks, meaning that the people living in rural areas can finally benefit from and take full advantage of the systems available to help improve their lives.