PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — One day, most if not all people living in Haiti should be able to conduct financial transactions on their cell phones thanks to an initiative currently underway by World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU).
The innovative Haiti Mobile Money Initiative (HMMI), a partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Gates Foundation) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), is managed by WOCCU's Haiti Integrated Financing for Value Chains and Enterprises (HIFIVE) program. HMMI is working with local mobile network operators and their partner financial institutions to provide Haitians with improved access to financial services nationwide. HMMI believes that access to safe and affordable financial services is an effective means to providing disaster and poverty relief and to stimulating economic development. Mobile money allows the poor in rural or underserved areas to safely and cheaply receive, send and save money, which directly contributes to improved economic well-being.
"This is a program the scope of which has never before been tried," said Greta Greathouse, HIFIVE chief of party. "We have created a competition to provide the private sector with incentives to launch payment platforms that will contribute to our goal of increased financial inclusion."
HIFIVE has been involved in the HMMI since its launch in June 2010. WOCCU oversees the program and has administrative authority over a grant from the Gates Foundation to award one or more prizes to organizations that provide mobile money services via cell phones to as many of Haiti's estimated 9.5 million people as possible.
The Gates Foundation funding provides up to US$10 million in prize money for HMMI program participants. Up to US$5 million of technical assistance grants from USAID are available to help address obstacles to the implementation of these payment systems and to assure that HMMI's objectives of increasing mobile banking availability are met.
"We have seen remote banking services work effectively in Mexico and Kenya and are encouraged by the support of our initiative in Haiti," said Brian Branch, WOCCU executive vice president and COO. "Given the challenges the Haitian people face, we believe mobile banking may be the best and, in some cases, only option for financial services as their country continues to rebuild."
Haiti's devastating earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, left 316,000 dead and more than a million homeless, half of whom still live in tent camps. Lack of a secure place to keep their money puts many Haitians at risk for robbery and assault, problems that are reduced or eliminated through a widespread cell phone banking program. Such payment platforms can help address the limited points of financial service available in Haiti, where the population in many zones may face more than a seven-hour walk to conduct the simplest financial transaction.
Service provider Digicel, based in Bermuda and serving countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, in January won the US$2.5 million "First to Market Award" for providing mobile money services within the program's parameters. The company's Tcho Tcho Mobile — tcho tcho is Creole slang for "money" — is the first service to offer Haitians an electronic alternative to carrying cash. The remaining US$7.5 million in award money will be presented to companies that help expand and grow mobile banking services.
"Haiti has a very high rate of cell phone penetration and a massive pre-existing cell phone platform," Greathouse said, indicating that nearly half of the country's population currently own cell phones. "Haitians have shown themselves to be highly adaptive to new technology, and we see a very bright future for this program."
About the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. In developing countries, it focuses on improving people's health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. In the United States, it seeks to ensure that all people — especially those with the fewest resources — have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. Based in Seattle, Washington, the foundation is led by CEO Jeff Raikes and Co-chair William H. Gates, Sr., under the direction of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett. Learn more at www.gatesfoundation.org or join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.
About the U.S. Agency for International Development
Through the U.S. Agency for International Development, the American people have provided economic and humanitarian assistance worldwide for 50 years. For more information about USAID's programs, please visit www.usaid.gov.
World Council of Credit Unions is the global trade association and development agency for credit unions. World Council promotes the sustainable development of credit unions and other financial cooperatives around the world to empower people through access to high quality and affordable financial services. World Council advocates on behalf of the global credit union system before international organizations and works with national governments to improve legislation and regulation. Its technical assistance programs introduce new tools and technologies to strengthen credit unions' financial performance and increase their outreach.
World Council has implemented more than 290 technical assistance programs in 71 countries. Worldwide, 57,000 credit unions in 103 countries serve 208 million people. Learn more about World Council's impact around the world at www.woccu.org.