Mobile Phones and Financial Services in Developing Countries: A Review of Concepts, Methods, Issues, Evidence and Future Research Directions

Richard Duncombe and Richard Boateng


Research concerning mobile phones and financial services in developing countries has undergone rapid growth in recent years.  This paper seeks to improve understanding of this expanding research area and in so doing consider the potential for mobile phone applications for the delivery of financial services for the poor.

The current state of knowledge is assessed by reviewing the content of 43 research articles drawn from both peer-reviewed academic journals and non-peer reviewed studies and other practitioner-orientated sources.  A framework is developed that categorises and analyses the research according to a socio-technical spectrum, identifying levels of analysis and differentiating research activity according to a lifecycle model that incorporates financial needs, design and applications, adoption and adaptation, and impact.

Positive aspects of research to-date are identified, most noticeably the high level of practitioner involvement in research publication and the strong links that have been forged between the mobile phone industry and the research community.  This, however, has also caused research to become too narrowly defined and largely a- theoretical.

Hence, research weaknesses and gaps are also identified suggesting that issues relating to financial needs and the measurement of impacts have been comparatively neglected, whilst application design and adoption have received greater attention.  Emphasis tends to be on devices and new ways to deliver services, but ignores the broader context of financial services for the poor and tends to be technology-led.  In order to correct this imbalance in research, the paper identifies key research gaps relating to concepts, methodologies, issues addressed and evidence presented and provides pointers to future research directions.

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Educator's guide

Synopsis questions

  1. Why is m-finance research worth investigating? [Section A].
  2. What categorisation frameworks can we use when overviewing m-finance research? [Section B]
  3. Describe the way in which past m-finance research was selected and analysed in the review. [Section C].
  4. Summarise the focus and issues found in past m-finance research. [Section D].
  5. How are conceptual approaches categorised in the review? ;How does the review differentiate the ‘depth of theorising’ of the conceptual approaches identified? What are the different research methods represented in m-finance research? [Section E].
  6. What are the key research gaps identified in m-finance research? What are some of the recommendations for future research directions in m-finance research? [Section F].

Development questions

  1. In what other ways could m-finance research be approached?
  2. What is your own viewpoint on the use of mobile phones for the delivery of financial services in developing countries? How might your viewpoint affect any research you do on the subject?
  3. Why do you think, at this stage, this area of research is skewed towards design and adoption issues, rather than needs and impact?
  4. From amongst the theoretical approaches discussed in the paper, which can make the most useful contribution to: a) m-finance research? b) m-finance practice?
  5. How would you assess the methodological approaches of the studies surveyed?
  6. Should academic research drive the approaches of practitioners or should practitioners drive the research agenda?
  7. What topics/research questions do you think should be prioritised for m-finance research over the next five years?