Mobile Banking for the Poor
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
At a press conference this morning in Mumbai, mobile-banking company Obopay announced an alliance with Grameen Solutions — an alliance with an extraordinarily ambitious goal. In ten years’ time, the companies said, they would like to see 1 billion of the world’s poor — people living on less than $2 a day — receiving banking services via their mobile phones. It probably won’t happen, but it would be amazing if it did.
Mobile banking is not new, of course, although it is still young. What sets this particular initiative apart are three things: its global ambition, its emphasis on the poor, and the central role of microfinance institutions (MFIs).
Mobile banking is of course banking, and banking is regulated nationally, not globally. As a result, it’s hard to scale mobile banking across borders — but that’s precisely what Obopay and Grameen are trying to do. They’re starting in India and Bangladesh, with a small core team of engineers looking carefully at what works and what doesn’t in the real world. They will then offer that expertise to anybody in the world who wants it, and plan to entrench themselves as a “center of excellence”. If MFIs in Congo or Nicaragua want to team up formally with Grameen and Obopay, that’s fine; if they just want to talk to them to get advice on how to proceed on their own, that’s fine too.
In any event, the system being set up by Grameen and Obopay is designed from the beginning to be able to handle payments and remittances not only nationally but also internationally. The problem of domestic remittances is often overlooked: large cities like Dhaka are home to millions of migrants who would love to send money back to their families elsewhere in the country but who are unbanked and have no real means of doing so. The ability to remit money domestically with little more than a text message could be revolutionary.
Then, of course, there’s international remittances — which already account for an enormous part of the annual capital inflows into many countries around the world, especially in Central America. Compared to Western Union or banks, the ability to send money directly from mobile phone to mobile phone is orders of magnitude easier and cheaper.
Then there’s the emphasis on the poor. Although the poor are more likely to be unbanked and therefore in need of mobile banking services, they haven’t been directly targeted by many of the first wave of mobile banking providers.
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