For decades, families living in rural communities in India have struggled to access high-quality financial services. As the nation developed and rapidly introduced modern banking infrastructure, remote regions were excluded from this financial progress.
In rural communities, banking was all-too-often characterized by long distances to the nearest branch, over-crowded branches, and poor customer service.
To address this exclusion and the challenges of last-mile delivery, banks hired and trained banking correspondent agents—employees who connected villagers in remote areas to banking services. But one large problem remained: Due to cultural and social norms, women did not feel comfortable accessing financial services from men—and the banking correspondent agents were almost entirely male.
Recognizing this gap, Opportunity International and CDOT (Centre for Development Orientation and Training), a financial services organization in India, with support from key partners like Cisco Foundation, worked together to develop Women as Agents of Change—a strategy designed to recruit and train women as agent bankers.
The Agents of Change program recruits entrepreneurial women to become banking agents who work from small shops or offices and earn commissions on transactions. Equipped with tablets or smartphones to provide banking services in hard-to-reach communities of India, this network of female agent bankers connects rural women to financial services—and does so with remarkable success.
As one agent explained, “Women who never visited a bank or attended community meetings are now coming out of their homes.” And research shows that “female agent bankers served more women in their communities and that traditionally underserved groups of customers generally preferred visiting female agents over male agents.”
Since its initial pilot in 2017, Agents of Change has grown from 50 agents to nearly 400. Studies prove that female agents are more approachable, trustworthy, and better at maintaining confidentiality. They also serve as role models for other women in the community and become a catalyst to bridge the financial inclusion gender gap.
Now, after being ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, India continues to face significant economic fallout. In response, the Women as Agents of Change program is expanding—leveraging digital tools to train 50 more agents, who will then train and mentor 100 apprentices. This growth will help even more women in regions with some of the highest levels of female financial exclusion access essential services to help them support their families, take ownership of their finances, and plan for the future.