By Jakirul Islam, Senior Vice President in Bank Asia Limited

A number of banks have emerged with several technology driven innovative banking solutions to accelerate the national financial inclusion drive under prudent directives and support from the central bank (Bangladesh Bank) in Bangladesh. Bank Asia pioneered Agent Banking in 2014 for rural financial inclusion under the auspices of Bangladesh Bank. The bank is extending full range of banking services to the last mile citizens across the country.

Bank Asia’s Agent Banking with a vast network of more than 5000 agent outlets is reaching more than 5.1 million customers across 64 districts in Bangladesh. Bank Asia, alone represents more than 45% of total female customers in Agent Banking. It serves more than 2.0 million social safety net (SSN) beneficiaries through its Agent Banking.

Bank Asia’s agent outlets doubled over the past three years and it added more than 3.0 million customers over the past years of pandemic. It partnered with a2i to expand agent network through Union Digital Centre (UDC) and Bangladesh Post Office (BPO) under PPP model.

 

  • Bank Asia owns more than 26% of total agent banking outlets across the industry
  • 62% of its total agent banking customers are women.
  • The agent banking pioneer ranked top in customer acquisition. More than 90% customers of its agent banking fall under the rural geography.
  • Bank Asia is the only bank in Bangladesh who received grants from the Gates Foundation and MetLife Foundation to address the gender gap and financial health within the Low & moderate income group people.

Bank Asia’s unique ‘micro-branch ‘model to make the rural economy more vibrant

Bank Asia adopted its pioneering ‘micro-branch’ model in agent banking. Recently it expanded a sizeable network for its invention of ‘rural micro-merchant’ towards building a complete digital banking ecosystem for the rural economy. Agent banking, in contrast to other branchless banking, is largely driven by an exclusive specialized agent model. This could be due to initial investment requirements to set up an outlet: An outlet in agent banking is exclusive for Bank Asia and distinctly branded by various permanent marketing collaterals and point-of-sale materials (PoSMs). This requires 10-15 times higher investment than is needed for a typical mobile financial service (MFS) agent outlet. This model focuses on the three stakeholders bank itself, banking agents and customers.

In accordance with the central bank guidelines bank must maintain a minimum ratio of 3:1 for rural and urban agent banking outlets. Bank should prefer remote rural areas, chars, islands and other geographical areas with limited accessibility for establishing new agent banking outlets where there is no bank branch or agent point within  a proximity of one kilometre (with an exception of agent on UDC).

Bank Asia has 3 categories of agent outlets 1. Individual 2. Union Digital Centre (UDC) 3. E-Post centres by Bangladesh Post Office. Individual outlets are run by the individual entrepreneurs whereas UDCs and e-post centres are run by the designated entrepreneurs assigned by the Local Government Division (LGD) and Bangladesh Post Office.

Bank has defined a fees, charges and commission structure for the agent banking services. Agents earn from the commission set by the bank for each services category.

Key customer value proposition     

#1 providing banking access to the last-mile citizen

  • Bank Asia has an agent outlet network of more than 5000 across the country. Approximately 80% of them are located in rural areas. Bank Asia reports that more than 5.0 million clients transact through its agent outlet network, which accounts for approximately 34% of the total market share among 29 players. Unbanked customers can open bank accounts at the agent outlets and make peer-to-peer transfers to other bank accounts and pay their utility bills including passport fees and other variety of payments. Currently, a significant proportion of Bangladeshis still don’t have access to mobile phones, while agent banking offering bio-metric based digital banking services without mobile phones or any device ownership dependency at customers end.
  • The reliance on agent networks has its challenges as the provider must principally control quality and service. However, Bank Asia’s management strategy pivots on its careful selection of agents. They are primarily small business owners, fresh entrepreneurs and other institutional agents (like Union Digital Centre under a2i and e-post centers of Bangladesh Post Office) in rural areas. This allows Bank Asia to focus on their ability to manage their liquidity, community standing, trust, and operating hours. Bank Asia’s agents are also required to invest approximately BDT 0.5 million, which builds ownership and motivates them to keep customers happy.

 #2 Greater convenience, ease of use and cost effective

  • Rural customers can access Bank Asia agent outlets with greater ease when compared to a bank branch and other financial service outlets. Rural customers need to travel a maximum distance of no longer than two kilometres to reach a Bank Asia agent outlet, who provide the added advantage of operating beyond typical banking hours.
  • Compared to USSD or mobile phone based financial services where simple cash-in transactions can require seven to eight menu screens and entering two to three number sequences, Bank Asia agent banking to run on bio-metric fingerprint and facial recognition system without any dependence of mobile phones at user end.
  • Agent banking fees and charges are also affordable. It offers Free of Charge (FOC) cash withdrawal in compare to the alternatives in the market for OTC withdrawal from the mobile wallets which charges 1.80% (i.e. BDT20 per thousand as per market practice) of the withdrawal amount.

#3 Building trust in digital platforms

  • Cybersecurity is a burning issue across the regions and Bangladesh isn’t an exception. In 2017, country’s mobile payments industry faced a huge challenge with the rise of ‘digital hundi’ due to some anomalies in customer KYC. Given that customer trust of digital platforms, and in particular financial transactions is already low, incidents like this do not bode well. And payment solution providers, who are relatively new supply-side actors in the financial services space, cannot afford any reputational risks.
  • Bank Asia has invested in a multi-tier security system that is compliant with latest regulations and global standards for branchless banking. As an added security measure, Bank Asia uses bio-metric authentication through m-POS to confirm all transactions at an agent outlet. Customer KYC is also cross-checked with the Election Commission (EC) NID database. Bank Asia also introduced a robotics technology for inward remittance disbursement through its agent banking. This robotics technology has significantly minimized the human error and faster the process of disbursement.

#4 Capturing the mass-market; leveraging key use-cases

The last decade in Bangladesh has seen substantial progress in terms of key underlying drivers for digitising financial services, such as more reliable internet connectivity and increased smartphone penetration. The market is supported by favourable demographics, such as a relatively youthful population and increasing income levels, with the growing middle-class segment. However, while banking agent networks exist and are growing in Bangladesh.

A number of use cases which have differentiated Bank Asia Agent Banking from other alternatives in the market. Bank Asia has been focusing on the low and moderate income group people with a vision of greater financial inclusion through social safety net payments, inward remittance disbursement and loans for rural micro-entrepreneurs. The agent banking pioneer has already made noteworthy contribution through these use cases. Both inward remittance and loan disbursement through Agent Banking experienced a significant growth over the past two years of pandemic.

Lessons learned

  • Almost 50% customers are women in agent banking, however only around 2-3% agents are women. Female customers feel more comfortable to deal with a female agent.
  • Bank faces difficulties in finding suitable women agents who can meet the application criteria.
  • Agent outlets may act as center of excellence for providing complete digital banking services (payments, purchase, transfer, savings and credit) to the rural citizens of the country.
  • Public-private partnerships with Union Digital Centers by a2i under the ICT Division and Bangladesh Post Office helped to achieve some quick wins in customer acquisition and agent network expansion.
  • Partnerships with government entities facilitate more prospective businesses for the bank within digital space.
  • Agent banking is more cost-effective than any other digital financial services in Bangladesh. Higher transaction limit, cost and bio-metric security were the top three factors for users’ preference of agent banking over MFS.
  • The range of service offering from agent banking is greater than mobile financial services (MFS) channel. Agent banking extends full range of banking services to the last mile citizens whereas MFS do serve only digital payments without any savings and loans products.

Transitioning customers from OTC money transfer to financial wellness

In Bangladesh, the OTC trend is very similar to other Asian mobile/e-money markets, such as Pakistan, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, where OTC transactions made up the vast majority of transactions and served as a significant accelerator in each market.

However, we should keep it in our mind that MFS agents offering Cash in and Cash out (CICO), money transfer and bill payments services do not essentially create access to formal savings, credit and insurance for the last mile deprived people.

Bank Asia Agent Banking has been serving the rural citizens through a right set of value chain ‘Payments, Purchase, Transfer, Savings and Credits”

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