Project Notes: Branchless Banking in Pakistan

This is the second post in a series on Reboot’s ongoing work in Pakistan in the areas of branchless banking and financial inclusion.

For some researchers, travel in insecure regions or the mid-project client check-in are the most nerve-wracking parts of a field study. For me, it’s recruiting the local team.

Going in to each study, we know the what’s, why’s, and high-level how’s regarding the data we seek. The actual on-the-ground how-to’s, however, require the input of shrewd local researchers. Without the right field team, a study is doomed before it’s begun. This was no less true for our work in Pakistan, where a Reboot team has been doing research and analyses around how to achieve greater financial inclusion through sustainable market-based approaches. Friends old and new rallied for our cause and we now boast an exceptional Pakistani team. To Irfan Kareem and Uzma Aziz, this post is to you.


But how do you take seven relative strangers from four countries — an inclusive finance expert, an agricultural economist, a gender reform specialist, a sociologist, an interaction designer, a systems analyst, and a design researcher — and rapidly unify them in vision, purpose, and action? Some are new to financial inclusion, others to design research. Given the diverse backgrounds, how much of the broader strategic vision is productive to share with the entire field team?

At Reboot, we believe in as much transparency as is efficient. We create shared ownership of project goals by recognizing that all team members have value to contribute if they’re given appropriate opportunities. We keep to each other intellectually honest, morally accountable, and programmatically focused. Training a team on the nuances of social interaction and on how to draw out critical insights is invaluable for delivering on the field study, but infusing them with a sense of higher purpose is paramount for delivering on the broader vision.


We pursue our fieldwork in full recognition that research is never an end but rather a means to improved outcomes. We strive to map the human and social systems we examine against the capabilities of our partners and clients. To do this, we apply a bifurcated approach. Once in the field, the lead researcher has tunnel-vision focus on data collection. She must adjust scope and focus daily as data accumulates and is synthesized. Meanwhile, the lead analyst embeds with the client team to probe their capacities and current workings. Armed with a deep understanding of client realities, he rejoins the field team to ensure that data collected is additive and will ultimately interact easily with the client’s operational models .

This approach is also reflected in our engagement with study participants. The researcher is the sympathetic listener and the enthusiastic service-tester, while the analyst sits in the corner as cold-eyed observer. The former trades on empathy to connect with participants and source data. The latter analyzes observations and responses in real-time, and maps them against broader identified opportunities.


Our current efforts in Pakistan are in the areas of financial inclusion, branchless banking, and mobile service delivery, with a specific focus on innovations for vulnerable communities. These include the rural and the urban poor, as well as the victims of last year’s devastating floods.

Speaking with more than 300 individuals over three weeks, the team was able to detect patterns in attitudes and behaviours that inhibited economic empowerment, and to identify opportunities for progress in serving marginalized populations. In seeking out flood victims, we looked for key psychographic indicators on how that experience has and will continue to impact their economic livelihoods. Nearly 2 million flood victims now have access to a basic banking account, they just don’t know it. The question now is how to evolve existing banking services and delivery mechanisms so they can also benefit Pakistan’s most vulnerable communities. How do we graduate aid beneficiaries into empowered customers? How do we make savings, insurance, and credit meaningful to and useful in their lives?


To understand the social forces at play, our lines of inquiry included family power dynamics, community information flows, informal financial systems, and changing gender roles. We studied end-users as well as service-agents and stakeholders in the value ecosystem, and we sought to understand and even experience the services they were already using. We studied public-, private-, and public-private delivery models for basic services in healthcare, education, and social welfare. We also examined consumer services including informal credit lending (pervasive amongst the poor), travel (whose agencies function as international employment brokers for most), and insurance (an industry that faces similar market barriers as banking).

And we didn’t just ask people about their lives. So much as was possible, we tried to gain firsthand experiences of the services they use and the systems they operate within. By listening to others, we learn; by doing as they do, we understand. Memorable was the night I spent plying the streets of a Southern Punjab city with the local loan shark, shaking installments out of debtors. By motorbike, we did nearly 50 home- and office-visits in under two hours, and collected on all but two payments. The value of such interactions cannot be underestimated. Through many such experiences, we grew to appreciate the longstanding norms around rural service delivery and, unsurprisingly, found that ingenuity abounds in resource-constrained markets.


The team is nearing the end of our field study, and some of us will be heading back to New York for data processing and synthesis with our partners and the rest of the Reboot team. In May, we will return to Pakistan to work with our partners and clients in creating even more value out of this research. Our findings will inform the design of social and financial services for Pakistan’s rural poor, for the country’s flood victims, and, hopefully, for future emergency response and early recovery programs.

A final note of gratitude to those who made the fieldwork what it was. There were several episodes of delightful serendipity during the study. Thank you to those who stumbled across our work and chose to support our vision. From the founder of Mobile Money Karachi to Pakistan’s former Secretary of Economic Affairs to the ever so kind Raja Ayub to the various journalists we encountered — we are grateful for your curiosity, enthusiasm, skepticism, wisdom, and eagerness to help relative strangers. We look forward to updating you on our progress.

Images: Zack Brisson and Panthea Lee

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