Mobile finance inclusion depends not just on the capacities of technology. It depends on the capacities of people, too.

Oral Financial Numeracy in Tanzania: An Exploratory Study is a vital milestone for My Oral Village in our fight for global financial inclusion. Financial practitioners have long assumed that even illiterate people can read and use numeric information. After all, they count cash, talk about large numbers, and even write down phone numbers. But in focus groups they are typically mixed with literate customers. Have we ever known their unique experiences? 

In 2010 with cooperative leader Vong Sarinda, I tested illiterate members of two self-help groups in Cambodia. None could find the transactions in their passbooks, or read the numbers there. In 2012 with the charming S.K. Sinha I conducted a thorough study of 20 illiterate savers and borrowers at SaveSave in Hrishipara. None expected to be able to decode their passbooks – their only transaction records. They faced two big problems. 

The first was tabular syntax. There are many cells on each page. Users lack confidence in left-right and top-bottom aggregation protocols, and can’t read the column headings. In addition, most can’t decode multi-digit numeral strings, so they can’t learn by trial and error (as a literate person might) by decoding the number and matching it to the expected transaction amount.

SACCOS members in Tanzania were better able to find cells in their passbooks with the help of OIM navigation cues.

This 2015 test in Tanzania, conducted with my colleague Hawa Mnyasenga at the University of Dodoma further systematized our knowledge of financial numeracy among oral populations (orality is similar to illiteracy but also captures the motivations behind behavior – like incentives to save in cash or learn new numeracy capabilities).

The test assessed not just the skills needed to read a passbook or use a mobile payment app to send money to a relative, but also mental calculation abilities and the proclivity to plan using a calendar or calculator. We also created a new passbook using an ‘oral information management’ (OIM) design that seeks to make financial transactions transparent, accessible and safe for illiterate users. Results with testing OIM designs was encouraging, and has since been replicated in Cambodia.