In late 2015, a financial tsunami disguised to the undiscerning as “God’s blessing” hit Nigeria. Nigerians embraced in their millions the Mavrodi Melnikova Mavrodi (MMM) Global Scheme so called the Mavrodi Mundial Moneybox but more popularly known as MMM. For most who got involved, the Ponzi scheme was an amazing opportunity to get rich quick. Finally, there was a financial level playing field for all – rich and poor alike. “Investors” got the same percentage return on investment within the same maturity period with no bias or discrimination for who had more or less money. Whatever your investment, you got an unbelievable thirty to fifty percent return within thirty days. Simply amazing! A poor man could invest his borrowed (or fundraised) N15,000 (about $40) and in just thirty days without doing anything at all have between N19,500 to N22,500 ($54 to $62) which he could reinvest. Shoot! This was like a sure lottery of some sort. And so, many people, mostly the poor and unemployed, invested. It is estimated that about two million Nigerians signed up to the Ponzi scheme. As a matter of fact, between June and December 2016 alone, Nigerians invested over N28.7 billion (over $79 million) in MMM, according to the Nigeria Electronic Fraud Forum, NeFF. And so, more and more people invested. They did so until the scheme crashed and Hurricane Mavrodi hit. As at December 2016, Nigerians had lost N11.9 billion ($33 million) to the Mavrodi scam according to NeFF. The architects of the scam were nowhere to be found. Many cried. A number died. The losses were grave and many are yet to recover. No wonder news of the demise of the MMM mastermind, Sergei Mavrodi, came to many bitter Nigerians as very pleasant news. As if to say vengeance had been served. People took to social media to celebrate his demise as though it meant a release of their lost monies. While Hurricane Mavrodi spelled doom for many, there is at least one positive discovery that came out of the sad situation that not many might have paid attention to. And no, it is not about controlling greed or some moral hogwash about karma being king. I think those lessons are quite clear. The Mavrodi case presents an exposition into the untapped possibilities of financial inclusion in Nigeria. Imagine the penetration and “success” MMM had especially with the poor. Simply amazing. Banks and financial institutions have been struggling to penetrate this demographic for years. With millions of dollars in marketing expenses and products development plus thousands of working hours down the line, bottom of the pyramid market penetration is still disappointingly low. They have been unable to crack the market penetration code for poor people. MMM on the other hand, cracked this code so well they didn’t even need any advertising. The sheer organic spread of the scheme was nothing short of pandemic. It was totally viral. Some of the lessons financial services providers can learn from MMM about financial inclusion are: Use of Language: The communication for MMM was very easy. Invest an amount and in thirty days, get a guaranteed return of thirty to fifty percent. Easy! No stories, no financial jargons. No man/woman in suit and tie using fancy words on you. Just simple and basic communication. To effectively include and engage the poor in financial services, their language has to be spoken. Financial institutions need to speak not just the dialect of the target group but also engage with them at the most basic level. There must be no complications or ambiguity in communicating what the financial product does. Ditch the suit and tie, go to where the customers are and engage without trying to sell them a product. Understand their business/work and develop a product that truly eases things up for them. Simplicity: Registering for the scheme was so easy, you could be done in two minutes or less. Registration was as simple as opening a social media account. There is a simple form and the website loads in just over one second. Talk about ease. Convenience plays a huge role in investment. Make it easy for people (especially the poor, women and youths) to enroll in financial investment programmes or services. Banks make customers fill a bunch of forms for them to make an investment that will probably yield only 3% -7% interest a year. However, with MMM where “customers” made 30% – 50% of their investment a month, registration took less than two minutes. I guess this sits well with other dichotomies of life. Promotion/Adverts: MMM relied on the most successful form of advertising – word of mouth. I don’t think I ever saw an MMM ad but I also don’t think I can count how many people invited me to join MMM both by word of mouth and through numerous WhatsApp messages. It became a trusted platform absolutely in spite of all the warnings the Central Bank and other financial regulators and pundits spewed. Why? People heard about it from family, friends and relatives who were beneficiaries. They saw the proof of its legitimacy. The Central Bank of Nigeria and all the other doomsayers could shove it for all they cared. If my sister says it works then it works. That’s power financial institutions need to tap into. Create really good and beneficial products and engage the core stakeholders (customers). If the product is as good as you claim, it won’t take long to spread like wildfire. Support: MMM had a very effective support system. Users created WhatsApp groups in their thousands to support members. Individuals who invited people to join the platform were available for calls at any time of the day. The support system was solid. Users supported each other because they knew that the support was necessary for them to cash out. Conventional banks have customers wait about 15 minutes on the line before they can even speak to an agent using their own airtime. It is either that or you send emails or do the traditional bank walk in. All these stressful and inconvenient methods no longer cut it. Banks need to learn from the MMM support framework and employ it for good. Reliable Product: As earlier mentioned, one of the biggest reasons for the massive MMM subscription was the proof of profit. People could clearly see the benefits of the scheme. The product was reliable, at least in its early days. Banks need to create financial products and solutions that truly work with tangible proofs and testimonials that aren’t told by employees but narrated and shared by customers and beneficiaries leading to the kind of organic and viral growth that MMM had. Incentivize: MMM had an interesting model in that both existing and new members benefited from someone joining. So everyone smiles to the bank. This meant customers were actively looking to bring others into the scheme because they knew their profit sort of depended on it. So the introducer and the introduced gained. The same can apply to financial products by financial institutions. Financial service providers need to stop being lazy and put their creative thinking hats on to create genuinely beneficial products for both customers and operators. For example, Zoto, an app that leverages Nigeria’s mobile revolution to facilitate anytime, anywhere payments was launched in mid-2015 and grew to over one million users in two years. Apart from the fact that the app actually works, I argue that the incentives provided on the platform account for its growth. At the initial stage, referrers got a thousand naira for up to twenty people that registered on the platform using their referral code. That immediately made the app popular among young people and students. A similar model is applicable to the millions of bankable Nigerians that have no access to the types of formal financial services delivered by regulated financial institutions. If the potential customers see that a financial product benefits them for enrolling as well as for inviting others, they will embrace it easily. Actual Inclusivity: Arguably the biggest lesson from the MMM scheme is the non-discriminatory model. Do you know that the MMM registration form has no space for sex/gender, current income or religion? I guess, to Mavrodi, that was not important, everyone is equal. The simple registration form did not care to know people’s economic status or income. Those conditions that conventional financial service providers won’t compromise on didn’t matter to them. Yet the platform traded over one hundred million dollars in its less than two years lifespan. While data is important, MMM showed us that everyone matters: male and female; rich and poor; young and old; believer or atheist. People just want their financial needs met in an easy manner. The Ponzi scheme dealt a terrible financial blow to many families and individuals who lost to the scam. However, it also exposed the fact that people, including the poor, are looking for investment opportunities. Everyone wants to manage and grow their money. It showed us that financial institutions need to get more creative to solve the problem of financial exclusion. According to UNCDF, Financial inclusion is positioned prominently as an enabler of other developmental goals in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, where it is featured as a target in eight of the seventeen goals. These include SDG1, on eradicating poverty; SDG 2 on ending hunger, achieving food security and promoting sustainable agriculture; SDG 3 on profiting health and well-being; SDG 5 on achieving gender equality and economic empowerment of women; SDG 8 on promoting economic growth and jobs; SDG 9 on supporting industry, innovation, and infrastructure; and SDG 10 on reducing inequality. Additionally, in SDG 17 on strengthening the means of implementation there is an implicit role for greater financial inclusion through greater savings mobilization for investment and consumption that can spur growth. Do you disagree with me? What are your thoughts on financial inclusion in Nigeria? Do you see any correlation between MMM and financial inclusion? I would like to know. Share your thoughts in the comments section.
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