3.1 Adapting Products and Services to Meet Girls’ Needs

Some of the most practical research that has emerged over the past year on adolescent girls relates to conducting market research on financial services that are relevant to them in diverse contexts. The Population Council, an NGO that uses biomedical, social and public health research to shape more effective policies and programs to improve lives, partnered with the Asante Africa Foundation to look at the differing needs of urban and rural AGYW in using savings and accessing financial education. The Asante Africa Foundation, a Kenya-based organization committed to increasing the school attendance and academic performance of children in rural areas, used the research to conduct a pilot, with several resulting lessons of direct use to practitioners who support adolescent girls.

Lesson Learned No. 1: Girls have greater success in achieving economic empowerment when they are equipped to make healthy lifestyle choices.

Recent research finds that many adolescent girls and young women do not know of their health, reproductive, and economic rights and what their options are when they confront various scenarios. Accordingly, organizations should look at how they can partner with others to offer young girls a variety of training and services that meet their diverse needs whenever the organization itself does not have the core competency to provide the service directly. Comprehensive programs often achieve significant results. For example, the Population Council found in Kenya and several other countries around the world that outcomes of health trainings are greater when combined with financial education. The resulting financial empowerment is thought to offer adolescent girls the agency and means by which to improve their health-related behaviors.

Lesson Learned No. 2: When assessing girls’ needs in accessing financial and other services, practitioners should consider the following factors:

1.  What are girls’ short- and long-term goals in using the financial service? 

The research mapped AGYWs’ sources of income, expenditure and ability to save, while seeking to understand what are AGYWs’ perceptions of savings in terms of use and meeting their personal goals. The research identified that girls have multiple strategies by which they save, and in rural areas their ability to save is very seasonal as it is tied to the agricultural calendar.

Whether or not a formal savings-based system linked to a bank is of use to adolescent girls in a particular context depends on many factors, including their ability to reach a bank.  However, if the girls do not have long-term goals or the financial means by which to set aside funds for the longer term, then a savings group or other more community-based approach may better suit their needs than having a formal bank account.

The research also raised interesting questions in terms of the hierarchy of needs for adolescent girls and young women who live in rural areas, and whether a savings strategy was important particularly when they are under 18.  Over 68 percent of AGYW’s reported in this initiative that the majority of the funds (averaging $6 USD per girl per month) were used for personal items such as clothing (underwear and socks) and sanitary products, with treats and other clothing coming in last.

2.  The costs involved with establishing financial services for this population group, and the returns that come from different savings strategies to both service providers and adolescent girls

In Kenya, girls under the age of 18 have to have co-signers to establish savings accounts in formal institutions. It can be a challenge for girls to find an appropriate guardian, who also has time to go with the girl to the bank, particularly if there are not financial institutions in the area where the program operates. There are also costs to both the girl and the financial institution in setting up the account, which may not be justified, depending on frequency of account use and the time period for which the girl will use the account.

The returns from formal savings accounts are low, vis-à-vis the potential returns girls could earn in community-based savings groups.  Girls’ tolerance for risk and the rate of return needed to incentivize them to save should therefore be considered in addition to potential returns from different savings strategies.

Lesson Learned No. 3: Community engagement and buy-in is critical to successfully reaching girls.   

There can be significant suspicion particularly, in rural areas, by parents and husbands when girls are engaged in programs. If not addressed, this can limit girls’ ability to engage, as they will not have support from their families. Additionally, when introducing a new program or service such as savings or an agricultural technology, there is often a need to build understanding and buy-in and reasonable expectations, while critically staying attuned to what girls and community members want.

Engaging national and regional leaders before entering a community can assist in setting the stage, by building community understanding. Ideally engage community leaders, parents, guardians, and the potential adolescent girl participants in program design discussions to build the local acceptance and support girls need.

In Kenya, the Asante Africa Foundation partnered with local schools to implement the program, which helped to quickly establish community buy-in.