NAIROBI—In the village of Kakuyuni in rural Kenya, there are no financial institutions. Residents often have to spend up to 90 minutes on a matatu—a somewhat uncertain form of public transportation—to make deposits into accounts at the nearest branch of Universal Traders SACCO (UTS), their closest credit union. The challenge in making the trip over Kenya's rough roads often reduces their interest in utilizing the credit union. With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) has come up with an alternative that brings complete credit union services directly to members.
"It's called ‘branch in a backpack,'" said Jesus Chavez, manager of the WOCCU's SACCO Growth Program in Kenya to members of the Kakuyuni Dairy Farmers Self-help Group this week. "This is another step in new transaction technology that will help us better serve people without easy credit union access."
A collection of high-tech electronic equipment, anchored by a Dell laptop computer with 160 gigabytes of memory, make up Chavez's "backpack branch." Rounding out the basic lineup is an inexpensive computer-mounted camera, a portable scanner and point-of-service (POS) device with biometric capabilities. All fit neatly into a standard-size backpack that can be hauled with ease into any villages like Kakuyuni, whose members live too far from the nearest credit union branch to visit on a regular basis.
The laptop serves as the branch's engine, with the mounted camera used to take pictures of new members in the field. The small scanner, which connects via USB port to the computer and taps its battery power to function, is used to copy legal documents required to enroll SACCO members. The POS device, which scans the print on each member's thumb or finger of choice, allows the credit union representative to verify the member's identity for each transaction.
The device also sends the transaction's information for processing to the mainframe at WOCCU Services Group, WOCCU's for-profit subsidiary that shares its development program's Nairobi office and supports the high-tech initiative. The technology saves members countless hours of travel to and from their credit unions to conduct simple transactions, Chavez said.
The small laptop has limited battery life, which led the WOCCU program director to add a Powergorilla and Powermonkey to each of backpack branches. The two devices, produced by Powertraveller Ltd., headquartered in the United Kingdom, are batteries for the laptop and POS device, respectively. They are rechargeable using small portable solar panels that fit into the backpack. WOCCU pays about US$1,300 for each "branch."
The new backpack branch interacts with members' existing cell phone banking capabilities, an interactive technology that WOCCU introduced in Kenya in March 2007. The devices use M-PESA, a software program created jointly by Kenya telecommunications provider Safaricom and the United Kingdom's Vodaphone. "M" stands for "mobile" and "pesa" is Swahili for "money."
"This year M-PESA has introduced online bill-pay," said Chavez. "The company also just announced that it was going international."
On Wednesday, WOCCU signed an agreement in Kenya with I&M Bank House to support the program SACCOs with clearing services required to make the backpack branch a viable option. However, Chavez is also ready to take his SACCOs the next step in high-tech transactions by introducing a smart card that includes the member's identifying thumb or fingerprint on its memory chip. The device also can act as a stored-value card, enabling an easier transfer of funds through ATM or backpack branch usage.
"It's called ‘virtual wallet,'" Chavez said. "Members just have to remember never to leave any of their fingers at home."
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 105 countries serve 217 million people. Learn more about World Council's impact around the world at www.woccu.org.