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Posted on December 18, 2015

From insight to action: five lessons from a year of applying Kenya Financial Diaries

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“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”

-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

If releasing findings from the Kenya Financial Diaries project proceeded like a lot of other research, we would have written a report, presented it at a launch event in a fancy hotel (which, admittedly, we did in August 2014) and called it a day. But rather than having one report sit idly on our website waiting to be downloaded, we really wanted to do more to kick-start a fresh conversation around why financial services matter for ordinary people and to help Kenya’s financial sector incorporate the insights into their work. We hoped this research might be able to influence the sector’s thinking about its current and potential customers and what financial challenges really needed solving. We hoped this research might encourage providers to develop solutions that really matter for and resonate with low income clients.

With these goals in mind but without much of a blue-print of how to achieve them, we embarked on an all-out assault to get as much out of the Financial Diaries data as possible, in as many forms as possible and with as many people (who were willing to listen) as possible. Over the course of a year, we prepared six thematic reports, wrote a number blogs, shared findings in small workshops with over a dozen financial providers, presented at countless industry events, held two innovation workshops and made the quantitative datasets public. The remarkable thing is, there is still more we can do (and are doing) with the data.

A year of dissemination and stakeholder engagement is a long time, but we realized that without it, the impact returns on the research investment would never be realized. Looking back on this year, what did we learn?

  1. Stories stick.

Numbers matter. They speak to our logic and assure us that phenomena we observe span many individuals rather than just one. But we have found that it’s the stories—and the lessons they hold—that stick in people’s memories and have inspired action in the weeks and months after a presentation. Part of what makes these Diaries stories so powerful is that they are not abstracted personas; they are specific individuals in specific, detailed, messy circumstances. We recognize ourselves, our friends, our relatives in their personalities and their perceptions. They come to life precisely because they are real and our interviewers were able to take the time to get to know them as they are.

  1. Diaries worked best at inspiration.

In trying to leverage findings from the Kenya Diaries for innovation, we found it helpful to frame brainstorming sessions around the distinct classes of money problems that Kenyans face and how they think about and manage financial challenges. This was excellent fodder for dreaming up new ideas for services that could be helpful and relevant in the market, but that is not enough to fully develop new products. Diaries were just the inspiration.

For example, the Diaries really drove home the importance of finding some better solutions to help parents manage to keep up with school fees. The research gave us some ideas about what kinds of options might be helpful for parents, including solutions that could be offered at school itself. But, our research on consumers told us nothing about the needs and challenges of schools. One school told us they had experimented with electronic payments, but that many parents didn’t use the system. Paying remotely made it impossible to come in person to negotiate personalized payment terms. Diaries offered us only the seed of a new idea; the research doesn’t substitute for a full design process.

  1. Smaller, institution-specific, in-person engagements achieved the most.

We shared Diaries insights in many forms: publications, big public lectures, topical events, and organization-specific workshops. Those small workshops, typically with just 5-10 key decision makers within an organization, tended to be the most powerful. It is from these engagements that we heard later about significant shifts in strategy and new product lines actually taking shape. These smaller engagements helped us shape our message to the specific needs and concerns of each institution and help the management see their work in a new way. Publications and public events generated the initial interest that provided an opening to engage more directly with individual organizations. But, if we had stopped at the public event, we imagine that the ultimate impact of the research would have been muted.

  1. But, the gap between inspiration and iteration is enormous.

More detailed and focused research, planning, and modeling are needed to develop and test new ideas. All of that can take a significant amount of time and investment, one that not every institution can make. A few of the organizations we shared our insights with were inspired to pursue a new product or significant change to their existing services. A year later, they are still working to operationalize those new ideas.

We worked with a few partners to take forward ideas inspired by the Diaries and often quickly hit the limits of what Diaries insights could offer in terms of design. Working with one provider looking to provide small loans, we were asked, “Will people feel comfortable giving personal references for a loan of KSh 2000 (about $20)?” We don’t know. “Should we send text message X or Y?” We don’t know. The nitty gritty of design—especially of new products—requires iterative testing. There are many questions the Diaries cannot answer.

  1. Bridging that gap requires an enduring commitment.

What we do know is that after inspiration and before iteration, there has to be a commitment to action that results in an allocation of resources that can allow the iteration process to move ahead. The key to being able to carry some of the inspiration of the Diaries out into the industry was having an institutional home for the project within FSD Kenya. Organizations first inspired to make a change because of the Diaries could—if they needed it—find support at FSD Kenya to take it forward. FSD Kenya is increasingly working with partners eager to innovate to flesh out, test, and build business models, new ideas and approaches – some of which are beginning to make their way into the market.

Have findings from the Kenya Financial Diaries project shaped your thinking or work in any way? How might we better support the industry with insights from the project? Join the discussion and leave us your comments!

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