Behind the Scenes: What is it like conducting research in the field?

You may have read the working paper produced by US-based Tufts University on how mobile money can help to promote financial inclusion and boost savings rates amongst remote communities in Ghana (download). The SWIFT Institute recently spoke to the authors of the paper, Jenny Aker and Kim Wilson of the Fletcher School, Tufts University, to find out more about their personal experiences in the field, and why they chose Ghana.

There were several countries Jenny and Kim could have selected for their field work, but the choice of Ghana over other possibilities was as much opportunistic as strategic. Mobile money was partially developed there already – an existing infrastructure was in place but uptake was not very high, especially in the villages and rural areas. Jenny had lived in Ghana for five years while working for a non-governmental organisation (NGO), so she already had an appreciation of the system and how things are done in Ghana. Many of her NGO contacts were still around and proved to be invaluable in providing insights into the workings of the government and the private sector mobile network operators. “Choosing the right villages was a stroke of luck” said Jenny, “as a personal contact knew of a set of villages that had established cash-based savings groups”. She explained that the existence of a financial activity in progress meant that the villagers were likely to be more receptive to the benefits of mobile technology and how it could help with their savings.

The research was carried out around the harvest period, and had to fit round the working lives of the people. It meant an early start for Jenny and Kim who were up at 5am every day to catch the villagers before they went out into the fields, and then on to the local towns to sell their produce. The Ghanaians are hospitable people and would offer Jenny and Kim a welcoming drink every morning…elsewhere, this might have been milk or water, but in the area where they were working, millet beer was the local speciality. This strong start to the day was served in a hollowed-out calabash, a kind of gourd, which was passed around everyone present.

Jenny and Kim spent the rest of their days either meeting people in the towns or back at the convent where they were staying to develop their questionnaires and design educational posters. They found that many of the concepts they took for granted were not intuitive for villagers, many of whom were not literate. It was hard, for example, for some to comprehend the PIN system, which is essential to making the mobile money concept work. To address this Jenny and Kim filmed many simple skits in the local language to illustrate how to respond when the mobile network was down, or to reassure people their money could still be accessed even when the mobile phone itself was lost or stolen. They found that villagers were very reassured by sketches and simple stories to understand the questionnaires. “If you really want to penetrate these rural areas which is important for remittances to work” said Jenny, “you don’t need anything fancy and overcomplicated…just simple communication so the people understand how mobile money can help them”.

Jenny and Kim registered themselves for mobile money too, as it was the only way to pay for the costs associated with their fieldwork. “We depended on using mobile money ourselves” explained Kim. “Without using the system ourselves, I really don’t know how we would have managed to pay for simple things like gas” The alternative would have been to put money on a bus, give it to a friend or take it themselves, all options that were inconvenient, risky or both, Time spent in the towns allowed Jenny and Kim to observe many personal interactions that added context to their research, such as consumers who gave insights into what they were saving up for, the local registration agent who was dispensing advice on all kinds of issues as she registered new users, and field registration agents whose self-esteem was clearly boosted by being affiliated with the network operator. “In fact” said Kim “an interesting study for the future would be what motivates the network operators’ agents – what are the most suitable incentives that work for them?”

Research in the library is interesting, but as you can clearly see, research in the field provides an entirely new perspective rich in insight and experience.