Through a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the United States Agency of International Development has created a $10 million banking fund to jumpstart financial services in mobile banking in Haiti. “Mobile Money” will provide the delivery of cash assistance to Haitians devastated by the earthquake and help lift them out of extreme poverty.

“The earthquake had a devastating impact on Haiti, as we all know,” Paul Weisenfeld, coordinator of USAID’s Haiti Task Team told the AFRO in a recent interview. “But one of the things that are less known is the destruction of the infrastructure of the financial sector. So, reactivating the ability of people to just simply make payments and do things that are necessary for daily life we think is critical.”

According to USAID, mobile money will provide a safer and more cost-effective method of dealing with Haitian finances. These services, which they can take advantage of by using their mobile phones, will lessen the risks at hand when making transactions because of the secure connections and will help Haitians use banking services that many of them have never taken advantage of before.  The agency believes the initiative also provides positive long-term effects for Haitians’ finances in the future.

One-third of the country’s ATM machines and bank branches were knocked out of service by the quake, according to The Washington Post, but about 40 percent of the country’s population has cell phones. According to the Post, cell phone companies plan to upgrade their networks in the country and hope to turn Haiti into an all-wireless nation.

“We hope it will reduce costs of financial transactions for the poor in Haiti,” Weisenfeld said. “Ninety percent of Haitians have never used a bank…This mobile money initiative is something where there are almost no costs for receiving and storing money and it’s something that you can use all over the country, once the network is set up. We think the long-term impact will be bringing more people into the financial services sector.”

The initiative will disperse awards to companies that implement financial services in the country. The first company to launch a mobile money service will receive the highest award of $2.5 million. Subsequent companies to launch their services will receive $1.5 million. Thereafter, another $6 million will be awarded after the first 5 million transactions take place, divided accordingly to the companies that contributed to the total number of transactions.

Currently, Kenya, the Philippines and Zambia have mobile money programs, which have been successful. The agency believes once the program is implemented in Haiti, it will mirror the outcome of its predecessors.

“Kenya is the star of this type of program,” Weisenfeld said. “We’re learning that it’s great to get lessons learned from another developing company to try to apply them someplace else. There are nine million users of the mobile money initiative in Kenya and it covers 40 percent of adults. For us, this is just an opportunity to take advantage of new technology, to take advantage of something that’s innovative and to do business differently in a way that President Obama and the USAID administrators are very keen on doing.”

Gates Foundation representatives said they’re hopeful that the same education about the service that worked in Kenya can be successful in Haiti, which is similarly less technologically sophisticated.

“We are basing a lot of hope and expectation on what we’ve seen happening in” Kenya, Amolo Ng’weno, a deputy director for the foundation, told The Miami Herald. “They had a small minority of people having bank accounts, credit cards were almost unknown and the mobile money services worked for people who are not in the banking system. . . . We are hopeful and optimistic we’ll see the same in Haiti.”

 

Gregory Dale

AFRO News Editor