The aging herder stooped as he looked closely at the scanner. The teller told him to put a fingertip on a small rectangle of glass. He followed her instructions, but nothing happened.
She asked him to use another finger, but still no response from the small machine. He tried each finger and followed with a sigh each time the scanner failed. When the teller asked him to start over, he spoke back, loudly enough that other clients turned to look at him.
An executive sitting at one of the desks noticed the growing frustration. He walked up to the herder, speaking to him softly. The herder held up both hands, palms up, in front of the bank executive. The executive began massaging fingers worn thin by decades of farming and tending livestock.
Human contact brought warmth to the fingertips, expanding the skin. The executive then placed the herder’s finger back on the scanner and a green light flashed. With his identity verified, the herder withdrew the funds he needed to buy food before the market closed.
I heard this story on a recent visit to Kenya. While there, I met Milkah Chebii, payments specialist with FSD Kenya and with executives at banks that manage the payments for the government initiative called Inua Jamii (which means “uplifting family” in Swahili). This program fund provides stipends for the elderly and people living with disabilities. The four largest banks in Kenya compete to serve the 1.2 million people in the country that receive these payments.
Allan Waititu, Group Director for Special Projects and a member of the executive team at Equity Bank, told me about his regular trips to remote rural areas to visit the branch offices and business agents that handled these accounts. As the person in charge of Equity’s participation in Inua Jamii, Allan wants to make sure the systems he set up to distribute these payments work correctly.
Allan soon found that even when the software and the hardware function correctly, the system can fail when a scanner cannot read the smooth fingertips of people who spend their lives working with their hands. He soon learned methods like massaging fingers that enable fingerprint scanners to recognize the loops and whorls of an aging finger.
Allan’s story confirmed a principle I have learned from decades of visiting financial institutions that seek to serve those living in poverty. The banks and microfinance institutions that serve this client base the best have senior executives that visit these clients regularly.
Over the past decade, I have participated in programs that seek to identify those financial institutions that serve their clients well and help them generate positive results for their families. Each of these initiatives has rigorous methods for conducting assessments and generating ratings.
However, I have a simple way to make a quick assessment. I ask the senior executives how often they spend time in the field talking to their clients.
The CEO of one of the largest microfinance banks in India told me that he spends a week a month staying in remote areas and meeting with staff and clients. He also instructs his senior managers to do the same. “We can’t understand our client’s needs unless we spend time talking to them,” he said.
This blog examines how finance can become a tool of liberation. Allan Watitu exemplifies one of the key steps to make this happen – those who want to provide financial tools that help liberate families living in poverty need to spend time with those families. Only then can they develop and adapt products and services that meet their needs. The personal connections help them see what’s working and what’s going wrong and then modify their operations to serve their clients better.
And sometimes this means training the branch staff how to massage the fingers of clients whose lifetime of work has worn down the skin on their fingers. As Milkah told me, this is just one of the untold stories of how a human approach can create a positive relationship between banks and people receiving government payments.