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50 for 50: The Role of Biometrics in Financial Inclusion

By Opportunity International

On International Women’s Day 2011, Opportunity International launched its “Banking on Women” Campaign, an initiative designed to build awareness of the transformative impact of financial services on women’s empowerment. Among its multiple education and fundraising elements, the campaign described the latest innovations related to increasing financial accessibility, one of which was biometric technology

A few years earlier, in 2003, we had opened the Opportunity International Bank of Malawi and quickly became “a pioneer in using innovative technologies, such as mobile banks, biometrics, and smart cards to help the poor gain access to financial services.” Savers and borrowers used their fingerprints to access their accounts—and soon, hundreds of thousands of people were banking with Opportunity.

Two decades later, biometrics—physical characteristics that can be used for identification—has continued to evolve and remains a powerful tool in financial access worldwide.

As of 2017, 1.7 billion adults around the world were unbanked, and 56% of those individuals were women (Global Findex, 35-36). Bank accounts provide present and future security to individuals and their families; however, for many families living in extreme poverty, formal bank accounts have remained out of reach. They are left with unsatisfactory alternatives: paying high fees to savings collectors or hiding money around the house, leaving it vulnerable to theft.

Yet, despite the importance of having a trustworthy bank account, accessing financial services through traditional methods is often impractical and unattainable. There are still 773 million illiterate adults worldwide who are unable to create signatures needed for traditional transactions (UNESCO). Additionally, many people have difficulty producing government-issued credentials or identification, making it difficult to even get started. Recent estimates suggest that one billion people around the world do not have basic ID credentials (World Bank).

A key innovation in Opportunity programming, biometric identification, overcomes many traditional identification, banking, and account management challenges. Individuals with no reading education or those who do not have or regularly carry government-issued credentials—like a driver’s license or birth certificate—can still open, manage, and access accounts.

With just a fingerprint, individuals can secure and control their finances.

Biometric technology is improving banking access while also increasing the security and efficiency of financial systems.

Working in concert with Opportunity’s other innovative financial tools—such as mobile banking and our agent banker network—biometric technology will continue to break down barriers to financial accessibility worldwide. Families who have been traditionally excluded from formal financial services can now approach their future with confidence.

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