Financial inclusion is making great strides
AS THE EBOLA virus was devastating parts of west Africa in 2014, Sierra Leone’s difficulties were compounded by its emergency-response workers going on strike. They were risking their lives, but were often paid erratically and not in full. Sometimes they travelled long distances to collect the money, in cash, to find that it had been disbursed to an impostor, or that the official paying it out would take a cut. So the government switched to making the payments digitally, to the workers’ mobile-phone accounts. That way they were paid in a week in full, rather than after a month with deductions. Thanks to lower costs and reduced fraud, the new system was millions of dollars cheaper. The strikes ended; lives were saved.
According to a report by the Better than Cash Alliance, a partnership based at the UN of governments, companies and organisations promoting digital payment, Sierra Leone was well placed to make this change in two respects: about 95% of the country was covered by a mobile-phone signal; and 90% of the emergency workers had mobile phones. Even so, the obstacles were formidable. Only 15% of the workers had mobile-money accounts. Opening one could be hampered by a lack of documentation, made worse by the country’s severe shortage of surnames (most people share just ten of them). Biometric identification, such as fingerprints, raised fears of infection from the Ebola virus (a problem that was solved by facial-recognition technology). But they got there in the end.