An M-Pesa Agent in Kenya. (Credit: Emilsjoblom, Flickr Creative Commons)The internet did not grow by having established old media companies jumping at the fantastic new opportunities offered by the new medium. For a long time they resisted giving their customers the convenience of immediate online access to their products; they resisted letting their customers tinker with the format (the newspaper, the CD, the TV series) when all they wanted was a component of it (an article, a song, a sketch); they were loathe to trade off lower margins for higher volumes. And when they finally started offering their content digitally, they were more interested in using the new medium to restrict their customers’ options than to enhance their customers’ sense of control: whereas before I could loan a book to a friend under a broad fair use clause, now I can’t easily share my e-book without being made to feel like an e-criminal.

Media companies were too focused on the risk of losing what they had: certain revenue streams and a certain relationship with their customers. It took industry outsiders (Apple iTunes, Amazon) to figure out a commercial path to bring the old players into the new online world.

Why should it be any different with banking for the poor? Why should we expect established banks to see opportunity where they have never seen it before? Why should we expect them to want to disrupt their comfortable business model, attractive margins and well-worn practices – which are what leads them to ignore the majority of the population in developing countries?

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