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Moving the Market for Financial Services through Formal Domestic Remittances Learnings from Amret Challenge Fund Investment

What you will find in this case study:

  • To ensure that a service remains competitive, providers must pay attention to assessing and catering to customers’ needs at service touch points. In particular, convenience and ease of access should be considered.
  • Forging partnerships with existing players in the market can assist in overcoming regulatory and organizational limitations to expand service access and usage in the market.
I MOVED TO PHNOM PENH IN 2000 TO WORK AT A GARMENT FACTORY. MY PARENTS LIVE IN RURAL KANDAL IN SOUTHERN CAMBODIA, SO I ALWAYS USE AMRET TO SEND MONEY TO THEM.

Srey Mom is a client of Amret’s remittance service, where she sends money monthly through Amret’s mobile teller. Her parents use the money for personal expenses including food and medicine as well as to support the education of Srey Mom’s youngest sister.

While being employed at the garment factory, Srey Mom accumulated some savings and started a grocery shop which she now owns and manages. Today, she continues to use Amret’s remittance service through a mobile teller who visits her shop every month to make safe and convenient transactions to her parents in Kandal.

AS I LEARNT ABOUT AMRET’S SAVINGS ACCOUNT, I WAS TOLD THAT THEY ALSO HAVE A REMITTANCE SERVICE. SO I DECIDED TO SWITCH TO THEIR REMITTANCE SERVICE TOO. IT IS TRUSTWORTHY AND CONVENIENT. THE SERVICE FEE IS ALSO AFFORDABLE.

Many Cambodians like Srey Mom migrate from rural to urban areas in search of better livelihoods, for themselves and their families back home. The garment sector employs approximately one million workers, forming nearly seven percent of Cambodia’s total estimated population. Over 80 percent of textile and garment workers are rural-urban migrant women settling in areas like Phnom Penh, Battamband, Kampong Cham, and Siеm Reap, and contribute a significant proportion of their earnings to their families in rural areas. Amret recognized the market need for a safe and affordable way to send money home and developed the Family+ account –a savings-linked domestic remittance product for families.

To launch the product in the market, Amret applied for a matching grant from the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) Shaping Inclusive Finance Transformations (SHIFT) in ASEAN programme under the ‘Fostering Innovative Business Models for Women’s Financial Inclusion’ Challenge Fund window in April 2016. After a competitive selection process, the project was approved by SHIFT ASEAN’s Investment Committee and initiated in September 2016 with a committed investment of US$ 294,000 from Amret matched with a US$ 245,000 grant from UNCDF.

Throughout implementation, Amret drove the uptake of formal remittance channels through its savings-linked remittance product. They also adapted their business model to remain competitive and ensure that their target market (i.e. women working in garment factories) had access to a convenient service.

Overview of the Domestic Remittance Market in Cambodia

Although there is a growing migrant population working outside of Cambodia, domestic migration is a key source of remittances with 26 percent of the adult population remitting money within the country. Cambodia is rapidly formalizing its remittance market through the use of mobile and digital remittance services. Of the 3.6 million people who use mobile money services, 98 percent use them to either send or receive remittances. This has been enabled by the country’s expanding telecom infrastructure and growing rates of mobile phone ownership, where mobile subscription rate hit 173 percent in 2017, which is the highest in Southeast Asia. Financial service providers have therefore leveraged on the digital space to deliver affordable financial services.

Mobile money in Cambodia commenced with the launch of Wing by ANZ Bank in 2009. Six years later, five companies SmartLuy, Metfone’s eMoney, True Money, Asia Wei Luy and AMK’s Mobile Money transfer had proliferated the market. The acceptance and adoption of mobile money has been increasing and is expected to grow steadily, with domestic money transfer service being the key business driver of e-money providers. The main draw of mobile money is its convenience – 59 percent of UNCDF FinScope respondents in 2015 claimed that mobile money is convenient to use. Mobile money agents have been deployed extensively to provide convenient cash-in and cash-out options for users who do not necessarily have a bank account, while also increasing awareness and acceptance of this mode of transacting.

Importance of domestic remittances for the growing migrant labor force in Cambodia

Growing urbanization in Cambodia has led to a much greater proportion of women migration to urban hubs where they are able to find formal jobs and send money home to their families, who often live in poor, rural areas. One of those formal job opportunities would be to take up employment at a garment factory. The garment sector is a key part of the economy, contributing nearly 11 percent of GDP and 78 percent of merchandise export revenue. It provides an entry opportunity into formal employment for almost one million people, where 46 percent are below 25 years of age and 85 percent below 35.

Even if women move to cities to seek formal employment and gain a steady income, they lack the access and capacity to save using formal financial services. Among the key reasons are limited awareness of owning a savings account, low financial literacy and a preference for informal savings. Recurring deposit accounts, or the bundling of financial products with formal savings accounts, can enable workers, such as those in the garment sector, to save in a disciplined manner and can be used as an investment tool to meet various needs, such as saving for their dependents’ expenses.

However, integration between different financial services in Cambodia has been low, meaning that the depth of financial products (i.e. payments, savings, credit and insurance) accessed is limited. Within the population with access to financial services, 49 percent of adults only use one type of financial product and 36 percent of Cambodian adults use two types of financial products (FinScope 2015). This has also translated into significantly different uptake across services. For example, despite the tremendous usage of mobile money for domestic remittances, as many as 22 percent of Cambodian adults have inactive saving accounts without deposits or withdrawals in the past one year.

Overview of Amret’s Family+ Service Project

Recognizing the opportunity to encourage savings and safe domestic remittances amongst migrant garment workers, Amret jump started the Family+ pilot project with support from UNCDF. Through this project, Amret provided a low-cost and convenient remittance service linked to savings accounts of the sender and recipient. The service connected remittance senders and receivers to additional formal financial products, i.e. savings accounts, thus providing an opportunity to build a financial history for accessing credit and other financial products in the future.

ABOUT AMRET

Amret is one of the leading microfinance institutions (MFIs) in Cambodia serving micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) and low-to-middle income populations with a focus on rural areas and agriculture. Amret is a well-known MFI that serves over 497,000 clients in 158 branches across Cambodia, carrying a loan portfolio of US$ 933 million.

The Family+ service was developed with the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) in 2015 using human-centric design principles and Amret tapped on UNCDF's Challenge Fund to launch it to its new target clients.

The AMRET Family+ Savings account business model (only one party, either the sender or receiver, needs to have an AMRET account)

The service enables women clients to send and receive remittances safely, conveniently and affordably. After setting up a savings account, clients can make frequent money transfers with just paying a low one-time annual fee. Prior to this project, Amret had mainly served clients in rural areas; through the Family+ product, it was expanding its client base to target women factory workers living in urban areas. Amret was also able to identify remittance corridors that previously remained untapped by formal financial service providers.

Clients could access the service through a wide network of convenient “touch-points”, including a mobile app, local Amret branches and mobile tellers (i.e. Amret Mobile Savings Officers [MSOs]). A key part of the service were these mobile tellers who could personally visit the factories and meet clients. The remittance transfers are then linked to Amret savings accounts set up by both senders and receivers, who are allowed to send or receive up to US$ 500 every month.

Amret therefore enabled its clients to make frequent money transfers at a low cost. The user-friendly banking app also provided a number of different services, including SMS updates, guidance on designing personal savings plans, automatic reminders of savings goals and a visual interface showing deposits and transactions.

Stories from the field: Meet Sok Phea

Just like Srey Mom, Sok Phea moved to Phnom Penh in 2003 seeking employment at a garment factory. While being employed at the garment factory, Sok Phea was able to save, take a hairdresser vocational course and eventually started her own hair salon in 2010. Since 2017, she has been using Amret’s remittance service through the mobile teller to support her niece back in rural Takeo, in Southern Cambodia, as well as her older brother who works as a Cyclo driver in Phnom Penh.

She usually sends one million Riels (US$ 250) every month through this safe and convenient channel. Since her niece lives close to an Amret agent, it is easy for her to receive the transfer, which she uses to support her personal expenses and join an informal savings group.

Since introducing the product in 2017, the number of remittance transactions facilitated by Amret has grown exponentially and exceeded one million by the end of 2019. By 2019, the average transaction size has also increased to $480, resulting in an estimated US$ 553 million of domestic remittances sent.

Family+ Implementation Learnings

Although the use of mobile tellers was identified as an opportunity in the service design and piloting, Amret found it challenging to compete with the convenience provided by mobile money operator agents. Many of the customers Amret tried to reach, such as garment workers, could not use the service during working hours and this caused a low uptake among potential customers. The characteristics of the account, particularly the lack of flexibility in the registration process and transfer amount, also contributed to this. Amret learned lessons from these challenges and adapted the business model to offer customers greater flexibility. The Family+ accounts were integrated into their existing Convenient Accounts, allowing a wider group of clients to access the remittance service.

To increase the accessibility of their service, Amret has tapped on the extensive network of mobile money operator agents available in Cambodia, namely Wing and TrueMoney agents, to increase customer reach. Through UNCDF's Customer Journey Action Research trainings in Cambodia, Amret realized the significant presence of dormant accounts amongst its customers. The partnership with Wing and TrueMoney was therefore proposed as a solution to address this challenge, and also helped to make up for the lack of an agent network license due to Amret’s status as a formal microfinance institution in Cambodia.

After partnering with these mobile money agents for the remittance service, the number of transactions increased significantly as shown in the above graph, from an average of 37 per month in 2017 (with 20 percent being sent via mobile money agents), to 67,283 transactions per month (with 97 percent being sent via mobile money agents) in 2019.

The Mobile Savings Officers are still operating today as they continue to support sending domestic remittances from urban areas to friends and family in rural areas, providing an important financial safety net to last mile local communities.

Through this a few key lessons were learnt:

  • Assess customers’ needs at service touch points in terms of convenience and ease of access to ensure competitiveness of service.
  • Forge partnerships with existing players in the market to overcome regulatory and other organizational limitations.

COVID-19 Update

With at least 180 garment, footwear and travel goods factories in Cambodia grinding to a halt as a result of COVID-19, the importance of the garment sector cannot be understated, where over 150,000 workers have been affected. This has a direct impact on domestic remittances, and the livelihoods of the two million Cambodian family members who depend on them. In the wake of COVID-19, UNCDF continues to work to address the digital financial inclusion needs of garment workers in Cambodia and the wider ASEAN region to protect livelihoods and improve financial health.

About the United Nations Capital Development Fund

The UN Capital Development Fund makes public and private finance work for the poor in the world’s 47 least developed countries (LDCs).

UNCDF offers “last mile” finance models that unlock public and private resources, especially at the domestic level, to reduce poverty and support local economic development.

UNCDF’s financing models work through three channels: (1) inclusive digital economies, which connects individuals, households, and small businesses with financial eco-systems that catalyze participation in the local economy, and provide tools to climb out of poverty and manage financial lives; (2) local development finance, which capacitates localities through fiscal decentralization, innovative municipal finance, and structured project finance to drive local economic expansion and sustainable development; and (3) investment finance, which provides catalytic financial structuring, de-risking, and capital deployment to drive SDG impact and domestic resource mobilization.

UNCDF’s Shaping Inclusive Finance Transformations (SHIFT) in ASEAN programme is supported by the Australian Government.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of UNCDF, the United Nations or any of its affiliated organizations or its Member States.

Credits:

Created with images by The Ian - "Fish trading activities, Traditional markets" • Nicole Shin - "untitled image" • Taylor Simpson - "untitled image"