“Finally a bank we can trust”

February 6, 2020

Mama Bank, a bank for women in business in Papua New Guinea

© 2019 UNCDF John Rae
© 2019 UNCDF John Rae

by Erica Lee

A “sense of safety”, “trust”, and “confidence” are words used by the women of Morata settlement to describe their experience with a new biometrics banking system introduced in 2019 in Papua New Guinea.

In less than a year over 1,500 women of Morata in Port Moresby are now active users of the Mama Bank Access Points (MAPs) – a mini bank set up by the Women’s Micro Bank Limited (WMBL). Unlike WMBL’s normal bank branches, the Mama Bank Access Points operate using a tablet connected to a biometrics (fingerprint) reader. A new customer is on-boarded onto the system after their fingerprints have been scanned. The MAP is manned by a team of three staff, who assist customers with their transactions. There, instead of using a signature, customers use their fingerprints to transact. 

This new banking system has brought renewed confidence and trust in banking services, especially for women who cannot read or write and thus previously used a simple ‘tick’, or other symbols or keywords as a form of their signature. Banking using a ‘tick’ is extremely unsecure and the women in this community shared many stories about their savings being withdrawn without their knowledge.  

Accessing microloans through the Mama Banks

The Mama Bank Access Point is giving Morata women new economic opportunities and many have now started microenterprises. Take 65-year-old florist Tonga Manzie for example. She has been arranging flowers and supporting her family since 2012. Now she has decided to really branch into new business ventures.

In addition to her flower business Tonga and her eldest daughter used their savings to start a small poultry farm. In May 2019 they had 65 chickens ready for sale and 70 chicklets, which sell at PGK 40 (US$ 12) each. Tonga now also sells bilums, traditional material and food packs at a makeshift stall in front of her home.

Speaking to Tonga, you get a sense of the fact that she has many great ideas and that she is excited about the new business possibilities. Growing her business didn’t seem like a possibility until she opened her first-ever bank account in March 2019. She says that Mama Bank has encouraged her to save more of her earnings and that she is also keen to take a small loan from the bank to expand her business even further.

“I opened my first bank account when Mama Bank opened in Morata. Before this, I was always afraid to go to bank branches in Port Moresby, such as in Waigani or Boroko, because I didn’t feel safe to bank there. I would save my earnings in a tin which I hid in my kitchen. Now that Mama Bank is in my community, I don’t have to travel by bus, which can be very costly and sometimes very dangerous for women,” she said.

Tonga says that she makes about PGK 400 (US$ 120) profit a week from her sales and tries to bank at least once a week into her savings account. 

Monica Mark shares similar sentiments about using the new biometric system.  The 53-year-old runs a small piggery, a chicken farm and sells eggs and potted plants from her home.  Though Monica opened her account with WMBL in 2017, the new Mama Bank Access Point with the easy to use biometric system has really has really made it easy to deposit more regularly.

“Previously I used a ‘tick’ as my signature, but now when I go to the bank, I use my fingerprint. I feel that it is safe and good for women like myself.  I like the fact that my account is connected to my fingerprint, which only I have,” she said.

In an article by Business Advantage PNG, WMBL General Manager Gunanidhi Das said that the bank considers women entrepreneurs can play a key role in improving the quality of life of their families. Das added the microfinance industry recognizes women as better re-payers of loans than men, adding that when women are able to progress economically, the benefits also trickle to more members of their family and community.

As of December 2019, the Mama Bank had given 150 microloans to women in Morata, helping them start small businesses or expand their current microenterprises. 

Derisking innovation for financial inclusion

The Mama Bank pilot project was made possible through financial support from the Pacific Financial Inclusion Programme through funding from the European Union and the Australian Government. Initiated five years ago by the late Janet Sape, WMBL is the sixth women’s only bank to open in the world.  Janet’s vision was to create easier banking services for women, especially those who traditionally would not be considered by commercial banks, because they lacked formal identification and security.

Currently, WMBL has a customer base of over 41,000 women, an increase by 65% since last year, most of which can be attributed to customers who have opened accounts at one of six Mama Bank locations.

The Mama Bank brings banking services closer to larger rural communities where many essential services still cannot be found. The first of six Mama Banks opened in Morata, Port Moresby in March 2019, followed by other locations in Wewak, Madang, Maprik and Goroka. 

At the start of the project WMBL’s biometric banking system was the only one of its kind being trialed in the Pacific by a microbank. The response within Papua New Guinea has been very positive and recently Bank South Pacific, the biggest bank in PNG launched a similar initiative for their customers.

In September 2019, to further the work that WMBL is doing for women, the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) provided a concessional loan of PGK 830,000 (US$ 244,000) to the bank. These funds will be be used to grow the loan portfolio for women entrepreneurs through the Mama Bank Access Points.