The Smartphone Moment
Nearly a billion adults are functionally illiterate today. Their future and that of their children could be enhanced — massively — by digital financial inclusion. Smartphones are rapidly disbursing, and it is widely predicted that by 2020-2025 they will achieve nearly universal distribution.
But the move towards digital financial services, beginning late in the 2000’s decade, has yet to adapt to the fact that most illiterate individuals cannot decode multi-digit numeral strings. One result has been hundreds of millions of dormant accounts, and an ‘over-the-counter’ sub-industry that perpetuates the dependence of illiterate users on literate agents.
Adopting New Financial Behaviors is Harder Than Adopting a New Phone
Digital financial inclusion demands deep behavioral changes. Consider another widely diffused technology of literate culture: cash. Cash has linked humans in a global trade network for centuries. But the oral world is giving up pre-cash habits and practices slowly and grudgingly, and is very reluctant to adopt cash as a store of value. One reason is that active use of savings accounts, or cash-based microenterprise planning, require the manipulation of large numbers. Buying chickens and storing timber are much easier on oral numeracy skills, and less stressful.
Digital Finance Can Be Usable
… and My Oral Village is making it that way. Our solutions, and our research, address usability for oral financial services users first and foremost. We are designing payment apps that can be safely and confidently used by adults who cannot decode place value notation. And we are designing financial numeracy games for cheap smartphones and tablets to help people acquire unfamiliar skills that are vital for the financial security of their families and household in a relentlessly deepening cash economy. We are also excited about the potential for savings groups, because the members provide a crucial input for each other that a phone and agents cannot: peer-to-peer learning.