Digital Economy

Mobile Financial Services for Developing Communities

Guest Authored by: Srihari Hulikal Muralidhar, Aarhus University, Denmark

ICTD research has been grappling with the question of how to harness the potential benefits of technology towards various developmental goals in the contexts of education, healthcare and so on for a long time. Technology’s ‘reach’ gets extended through the diffusion of smartphones and internet, as they enable new possibilities in terms of designing suitable products, services and targeted interventions. The Government of India, taking note of this trend, charted a ‘Digital India’ vision, wherein it wants to enable citizens to avail certain public services via their smartphones[1]. As a first step, under the Prime Minister’s Financial Inclusion Mission, banks were mandated to open at least one account for every household in the country. The next step in this process was linking the beneficiaries’ unique national ID and tax number to their bank accounts. Subsequent to this, the government moved welfare payments (pensions) and subsidies (such as fuel subsidies to poor households) from cash to digital, where the benefits were transferred electronically to the beneficiaries’ bank accounts. Some estimates claim that this reduced corruption and pilferage by more than 40% (Business Standard 2018). The biggest challenge, however, has been with the ‘last mile connectivity’ i.e. making certain essential services accessible to citizens. It is here that smartphones and affordable data are expected to offer novel opportunities.

One of the biggest problems with mobile money usage in India has been the siloed use. Mobile money services have been used only for particular activities because of a lack of adequate support, training, and proper integration with the larger ecosystem within which the technologies are embedded (O’Neill, Dhareshwar and Muralidhar 2017, Nandhi 2018). However, with app-based services becoming increasingly prevalent (such as Uber, Ola, Swiggy), some changes have occurred. One positive spillover is that they have enabled gig workers such as delivery executives and drivers to acquire a certain level of digital literacy wherein they have learnt to use smartphones and become familiar and comfortable using the internet[2]. Rickshaw drivers and Swiggy delivery executives, for instance, now use Google Maps as part of their everyday work. Previous studies on digital payments adoption have shown that there’s a path dependency exhibited wherein people already familiar with and using technology are more likely to perceive digital payments as beneficial and adopt it, and those unfamiliar might be hesitant because of concerns over trust and security (Pal et al 2018). However, with technological innovations changing the socio-economic landscape, benefits from technology use are enabled even for those who might not be comfortable using it through intermediated use (Sambasivan et al 2010), often by family members. 

In this context, certain initiatives such as the BHIM (Bharat Interface for Money) app launched by the Indian Government, which is based on UPI (Unified Payment Interface)[3] show some initial promise. For instance, with this app, a user can create a unique UPI ID (which can be something as simple as their mobile number@upi), link their bank account to the ID, and conduct financial transactions such as P2P transfers, bill payments, and so on. The user can also access their bank account balance on the app itself. In addition to the government-launched BHIM, private players have also entered the mobile payments market in the country, with PayTM, PhonePe, and Google Pay being the most prominent examples. Two important factors need to be considered in this context. First, urban low-income communities such as rickshaw and cab drivers in India have not used devices like desktops or laptops and will probably never use it. Consequently, smartphone adoption and use has been a case of technological ‘leapfrogging’ and enabled digital inclusion. It has also been their first ever experience with the internet. Second, a vast majority of internet users in India use WhatsApp; in fact, India accounts for the largest user-base for WhatsApp[4]. Realizing the potential that the mobile payments market in India holds, WhatsApp is set to roll out its Payments app soon[5].

The idea of a chat application with an embedded payment interface (which allows the user to directly access their bank account from the app, amongst other things) offers new possibilities in terms of development interventions even for low-literate, low-income users. That said, the point is not claim that access alone will be sufficient in achieving financial inclusion. Rather, interfaces built on top of chat-based platforms, with which even low-literate, novice users are familiar, can be a viable way of making digital financial services accessible for them. These interventions can take a variety of forms (such as assisting with accessing financial info, tracking of personal finances, and so on) and by no means need to only be about payments. It also makes sense to think about designing interventions around supporting users’ existing financial practices and not just replace them with digital technology. Previous research has also highlighted the highly collaborative nature of household financial management (Snow and Vyas 2015), and therefore, directions for future work could also include how to design for collaboration than eliminate it.


Nandhi, Mani A. 2018. Effects of Mobile Banking on the Savings Practices of Low-Income Users – The Indian Experience. In Money at the Margins: Global Perspectives on Technology, Financial Inclusion and Design. Bill Maurer, Smoki Musaraj and Ivan Small (Eds.). pp. 266-286. Berghahn Books. 

O’Neill, Jacki, Anupama Dhareshwar, and Srihari H Muralidhar. 2017. Working Digital Money into a Cash Economy: The Collaborative Work of Loan Payment. Journal of Computer Supported Cooperative Work. Vol. 26. Pp. 733-768. Springer.

Pal, Joyojeet, Priyank Chandra, Vaishnav Kameswaran, Aakanksha Parameshwar, Sneha Joshi, and Aditya Johri. 2018. Digital Payment and its Discontents: Street Shops and the Indian Government’s Push for Cashless Transactions. In Proceedings of CHI’18. ACM. 

Sambasivan, Nithya, Ed Cutrell, Kentaro Toyama, and Bonnie Nardi. 2010. Intermediated Technology Use in Developing Communities. In Proceedings of CHI’10. Pp. 2583-2592. ACM.

Snow, Stephen, and Dhaval Vyas. 2015. Fostering Collaboration in the Management of Family Finances. In Proceedings of OzCHI’15. Pp. 380-387. ACM.

Standard, Business. 2018. 190mn Indian adults don’t have bank account, says World Bank report. April 19, 2018. Retrieved from  



[2] Our own experience in the field has shown, however, that use of internet is often limited to most popular applications such as WhatsApp, YouTube, Google Maps and sometimes Facebook.

[3] Unified Payments Interface is a real-time payment system developed by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) to enable multiple financial services such as P2P transfers, merchant payments, and so on to be availed through a mobile application. Unlike M-PESA (Kenya), which is a feature phone app only, or Swish (Sweden) which can be used only on smartphone, UPI can be used by both smartphone (via an app) and non-smartphone users (via USSD code). 


[5] WhatsApp had applied for a UPI license almost a year ago but the Government is yet to approve because of concerns over privacy and data storage. The Indian Government, in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, was wary of user data from India being stored outside of the country and insisted on local data storage. Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, only recently acceded to this stipulation. 

DIODE General

Chat as an Interface for Underserved Communities

The platform economy largely relies on smartphones to distribute work to workers (who are typically conceived of as independent ‘entrepreneurs’). In the India, many platform economy workers come from low income communities from the auto rickshaw drivers on Ola and Uber to the delivery riders of Swiggy and Zomato. In parallel to the growing platform economy, smartphone penetration has rapidly increased in low income communities in India (at least in the cities) – due to extremely cheap data and the increasing availability of economy handsets. WhatsApp is a major driver of smartphone adoption (O’Neill et al, 2016). In ICTD how to provide services – for work, health, education – to underserved communities in an appropriate way is an ongoing question. The increasing use of smartphones as a tool for work and community raises new possibilities when thinking about ICTD services. In our research, we meet plenty of auto rickshaw drivers with low or no literacy but who competently use Ola/Uber to get work and WhatsApp to maintain connectivity with their network: sharing greetings and other memes, or using voice messaging.

The almost ubiquity of chat amongst smartphone users raises exciting possibilities for thinking about chat as an interface to a whole variety of services and information designed for, with and by underserved communities.

To illustrate I will share some reflections from our recent experiences designing a FinTech service for auto-rickshaw drivers. In particular why we moved from a smartphone application to using chat as an interface. The FinTech service, Prayana, has been designed to give auto-rickshaw drivers information on how they are progressing through loans they have taken out to buy their auto-rickshaws. This service is part of an ecosystem consisting most importantly of people – field agents, drivers, back office staff and community organisers – supported by technology which helps provide timely information, accessible to those with low literacy by making use of iconography, colour coding, visualisations and numbers. The Fintech service provides information, motivators and nudges on loan progress  direct to the drivers as well as to the field agents who help manage their loans. In the field agents version it also provides workflow support for the agents.

For the drivers app we originally designed a stand-alone Android application, but our experiences with the stand-alone field agents app we had deployed in 2017 raised serious questions about the sustainability of a standalone application. The field agents app required intense development effort just to keep it running: in the 12 months after deployment of the ‘stable’ version  we released 39 versions and recorded over 900 crashes! Pretty much whenever Android updated something would break. How would our partners, Three Wheels United (TWU), a small social enterprise start-up with limited technical resources, manage to sustain it once the research was done? Let alone develop the new features necessary to keep the application in line with their rapidly growing business? Worse still, whilst we could control what phones the field agents use for their work, we have no such control over the drivers phones which consisted of a wide range of handsets and versions of android. Even building a standalone app that can work consistently across such a variety of phones is a difficult task.  Finally, a standalone app would be yet another interface for drivers to learn and in our iterative tests, even as we simplified and improved the design, this remained a barrier for many drivers.

User test of Prayana with Auto-Rickshaw Drivers in Chitradurga, India

We had been doing research in another project on how Kaizala, Microsoft’s chat app for work in emerging markets, was being adapted used by resource-constrained and innovative young enterprises to support their workflows (McGregor et al., 2019). Could this provide the solution we were looking for? The advantages of Kaizala is it works on a wide variety of Android phones, including most low end ones. Further the Kaizala team takes care of ensuring it works with new Android versions. Equally important is Kaizala’s easily programmable APIs meaning virtually anything can be built on top of it and even low resource organisations should be able to build new screens and update existing ones. And finally, the chat metaphor is easy to understand and use since the vast majority of smartphone users in India use WhatsApp. We therefore built Prayana on top of Kaizala. We used Kaizala’s backend APIs for message delivery to tailor the information delivered to each driver based on their loan performance. Visual messages are triggered to appear in the chat stream at different points in the loan, e.g. when a payment is due, has been made, or a driver is falling behind or has paid off a certain amount of their loan. Clicking on these messages opens a screen, known as a card, which gives more details about the loan in a colour-coded, visual and numeric way.

Drivers found the chat interface easy to use

The custom cards gave us a blank canvas and complete control over the way we represented information. In user tests we found that chat worked much better than we hoped and drivers had an almost instant grasp of the interface. Even though we used the same screens as we had in the standalone app, drivers understood more in this chat-based interface and were much more confident about using it. Even drivers who could not read and write understood some of the information in each card! This was very positive and an improvement on previous versions. On the downside the setup was complicated, as drivers often had never used Play Store, or did not know their passwords, and we had to set up gmail accounts for many drivers – even though they will likely never use nor need email. Some drivers did not have enough space on their phone for the app – which is likely to remain a barrier to adoption. Despite the downsides this seemed like a major improvement on a standalone app and the chat-based drivers app was deployed in January 2019.

We believe our experiences have a much wider applicability and we are currently excited about the idea of chat as an interface to underserved communities. Building on top of chat greatly reduces the barriers to building new services and apps, can be done by anyone with HTML skills and reduces the barriers for end-users adoption. We can imagine all sorts of services from healthcare to career development, from community action to workers platforms. The opportunities are immense, in India at least, where smartphone penetration is rapidly increasing even amongst low income communities. We believe chat may be a great interface to workers in the digital economy.


O’Neill, Jacki, Kentaro Toyama, Jay Chen, Berthel Tate, and Aysha Siddique (2016) The increasing sophistication of mobile media sharing in lower-middle-class Bangalore. In Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development. ACM, 2016.

McGregor, Moira, Bidwell, Nicola J., Sarangapani, Vidya, Appavoo, Jonathan and O’Neill, Jacki (2019) Talking about Chat at Work in the Global South: an Ethnographic Study of Chat Use in India and Kenya. In Proceedings of CHI, ACM, 2019

Jacki O’Neill, 21/03/2019

Digital Economy

Using Digital Advances to Develop African Scholars of Business and Management

Arguably the best way to find out how well the digital economy can support development is to try and use it for that purpose. That is what I did when I in 2013 redesigned the doctoral programme of the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) of the University of Pretoria in South Africa to follow a blended learning design.

Most of the well-regarded PhD programmes in the world assume that students will be on campus and working on the PhD full-time. Universities need to obtain resources to pay a stipend to their PhD students so that students can support themselves. The PhD students benefit from the time to immerse themselves in the topic, but importantly also from being part of a community of people with similar interests.  

Unfortunately, this scenario does not describe doctoral training in Africa. Many academics in wider Africa do not have PhDs, and although that increases the demand for supervision, it also means that there is a real lack of local supervisory capacity. The few available supervisors are typically overloaded, and work in isolation from what scholars elsewhere are doing.

It is also virtually unheard-of that PhDs on the African continent are pursued full-time; there simply are not enough resources to pay for PhD studies. This is not only because of the direct costs of paying stipends, but also the opportunity cost of taking skilled people (even if only temporarily) out of a system where resources generally and specifically skills are scarce. Faculty in these locations have a heavy teaching load, and often assume responsibilities beyond what would be expected from faculty elsewhere. Committees are a bane in the life of all working professionals, but giving pastoral (and sometimes practical) care to often desperately poor students, and advising government representatives at various levels are additional tasks that devour the time of African lecturers at nominally “junior” positions.

The faculty members at African universities have typically been star students who were asked to assume lecturing duties as soon as they had completed a Masters degree. By the time they realise the importance of getting a PhD, they are professionally deeply embedded in their universities. Although they can resign and pursue a PhD elsewhere, going abroad for a PhD is disruptive from a personal perspective. Many faculty members are responsible for older family members and often also young families. Having to live far away from the people of whom they need to take care and/or having to fund expenses in expensive countries often deter faculty from seeking doctoral studies abroad. 

From a practical perspective, a PhD is needed for promotion in the academic system. More substantively, the research training that is part of a PhD allows people to rigorously examine and make sense of their world. The lack of trained scholars who are from and in Africa contributes to a vicious cycle where only very limited knowledge can emerge from a context that desperately needs a better understanding of its challenges.

But these concerns seem manageable when we take seriously the potential of recent digital developments. The promise of digital is that supervisors and students need not be physically in the same space, that communities can span multiple countries, and that libraries are as far away as a keyboard.

It was with this in mind that I redesigned the doctoral programme at GIBS to be a blended learning programme. There were on-campus sessions for a week every two months, but in the interim students had to deliver a substantial body of work online.

I used the logic of a conference in designing the programme. The on-campus sessions were filled with the energy and engagement that characterise a typical conference, while the “real work” happened before and after then. In between the on-campus sessions, students had to submit work where they showed that they had read and engaged with key texts. Given how important peer review is in the scholarly process, we expected of them to share their work with their peers – and assessed how well they reviewed the work of other PhD students, as well as how well they responded to others’ comments. In a few cases, we expected of students to work in small groups.

Most of the on-campus sessions served to further develop the work that had been delivered in the interim. Students presented (and were given feedback on) their work in progress. They in-person debated the work that they had read beforehand. They sometimes skipped class to sit and work through a knotty problem that had emerged earlier in the week so that they could benefit from the input of the group. And each on-campus had a session with an explicitly social purpose to help strengthen the support networks that kept students going through the multiple demands of the PhD, work and family.

The design works. In 2016, 2017 and 2018 respectively the number of doctoral graduates grew from three to six to thirteen. A number of them won awards – for example, the 2017 overall winner of the best dissertation from an emerging economy for the international Production and Operations Managements Society, and the Emerald award for best the doctoral study in Leadership and Organization Development. Thanks to a grant of the IDRC, we were able to support academics from wider Africa. For the four who have already graduated, it is gratifying to see how the PhD is helping their careers take off. 

But it would be wrong to ascribe the success of the design to its digital component. Not only because every successful intervention has to have multiple elements, but also because the digital element was perhaps the least reliable of all.

For PhD students who need to read (and before then, download) a mass of material, having reliable internet access is essential. For PhD students who engage with their faculty and fellow students through an online portal it is non-negotiable. Internet access exists across Africa, but it is not entirely reliable.

One Kenyan student found that her church had reliable internet, and developed the habit of taking her laptop to church to make sure that she was up to date with her online work. Another Kenyan student who was a development worker who occasionally had to go to Sudan, would simply disappear from view for weeks at a time. The fellow students of a Nigerian student were surprised when he dropped out of a conference meeting without a word of notice, but decided to continue. He showed up again ten minutes later: The power had gone off. He needed to get the generator going and then reboot the router before he could rejoin his fellow students.

Faculty had similar experiences with students from wider Africa, but faculty cannot afford to be as laissez faire as students can. Very soon it was decided that synchronous modes of conversation were simply too risky. Electronic connectedness worked well enough as long as one did not expect immediate responses. And there was a new manifestation of “the dog ate my homework”: Connectivity seemed to disappear just as students needed to submit their work. Of course we could not be sure, but it often seemed as if the less diligent the student, the less reliable the internet… It took some effort before we had developed internal processes that honoured the process of learning as well as the students who were battling with often-unreliable internet access.

Although the learning platform seemed to work well enough – there were outages, but they were planned and outages were clearly communicated – very little student activity happened on the site. Eventually we figured out what was happening: Students had created whatsapp groups and were actively connecting through those groups.

Of course, whatsapp was also made possible by digitisation. It was not purpose-built for learning, and the students’ whatsapp groups exclude faculty. (Yes, we were explicitly told that we are not welcome – that part of the purpose of those groups was to complain about us!) Who knows what happens in those groups. As faculty, we observe what appears to be epidemics of odd methodological decisions, and suspect that the origins of those epidemics can be traced back to a whatsapp conversation.

But what we cannot deny is that there is a community of new scholars who would not have existed without the internet. We know that students are able to get better supervision than they would have been able to get in their home countries, and we know that they feel agentic enough to craft a way of staying connected that makes sense to them.

As faculty, we have had to learn. We still do not know how to accurately estimate the “teaching time” for an online class. Shaky supervisory relationships tend to falter across distance, and we have learnt that managing the delicate balance between challenge and support is harder across space.

It has been possible to train people so that they are prepared for the process of knowledge creation, even when they continue to work and support family in less developed countries. The digital tools did not always work as expected, and in the end, the process worked because the students and faculty were resourceful and able to come up with solutions to technical and other problems along the way. PhD students are not the typical intended beneficiaries of a digitising economy in a developing country. It is hardly surprising that intellectually gifted and motivated people were able to overcome the technical challenges that stood in their way.

But it matters that the intellectual centre of gravity of a region is inside the region. A region where knowledge always comes “from elsewhere” is unlikely to develop. The evolution of digital tools and acceptance of digital practices had resulted in it being possible to – from inside Africa – train a growing cohort of scholars who are trying to make sense of business and management in Africa. There can be no doubt that in that instance, digital’s development potential was realised.

Digital Economy, Digital Enterprise

Surviving in the Digital Era – Business Models of Digital Enterprises in a Developing Economy

A new paper on Digital Business Models of Digital Enterprises in a Developing Economy has been published by the DIODE Ghana Team.

This study aims to explore the business models and strategies of digital enterprises in a developing economy context to understand the nature of their operations, as well as their survival tactics. A review of literature on digital enterprise models led to the adaptation of a 16 business model archetype for analyzing digital enterprises in Ghana. Using a critical realism perspective, survey data from a sample of 91 digital enterprises were used for the study.

The findings suggest that among human, physical and intangible assets, financial assets were the least used assets in the operations of the digital enterprises. This stems from the fact that the online financial business sector is still in its nascent stages in most developing economies. The findings further suggest that all digital enterprises leverage accessible and low-cost social networking services as part of their operations and use them as an avenue to engage with their target customers. The findings from this study provide guidelines to entrepreneurs who wish to venture into the digital ecosystem of Ghana, particularly with regard to the economic, financial and technological factors that enable digital enterprises to survive in the competitive digital economy.


The findings also suggest that it is important for governments to realize that there is an increasing rise in digital enterprises in the developing economies and these enterprises are creating jobs and providing business solutions locally that would hitherto be sought from developed economies. There is therefore the need for the requisite legal infrastructure and financial support that will cushion these enterprises from the fierce competitions that stagnate their growth.

The study provides a mapping of the digital business models of Ghanaian digital enterprises. This knowledge is arguably the first of its kind in the context of a developing economy. Hence, it serves as a stepping-stone for future studies to explore other areas in the digital economy, especially from a developing economy perspective.

Access Publication:

Eric AnsongRichard Boateng, (2019) “Surviving in the digital era – business models of digital enterprises in a developing economy”, Digital Policy, Regulation and Governance

Digital Economy

Questions about Digital Policies in Organizations

There are several types of IT/IS policies which govern the appropriate and acceptable use of information technologies in organizations. However, in the age of new digital business models and the upsurge of the digital economy, is there a need for specific policies to address the recent trends?

Questions we might need to ask include:

  • Is there any recent research on the digital policies in organizations?
  • What categories of policies will enable organizations to efficiently take advantage of opportunities in the digital economy? And how will these policies differ across industries/sectors?
  • What digital policies (micro, meso and macro-level) will enable organizations to positively impact on development needs in their communities and countries?

In effect, how do organizational policies catch up with the rapid growth and changes in the digital economy?