Looking Forward: Mobile Money in Haiti

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From July 2010 to July 2011, I worked at a cell phone company in Haiti, Digicel, where I designed, tested, and implemented the first mobile money product in Haiti, TchoTcho Mobile.   Digicel had explored the idea of launching mobile money before the earthquake occured in January 2010; however, the impetus to launch when they did was in large part due to the Haiti Mobile Money Initiative, a $10 million incentive fund launched in partnership between USAID and Gates Foundation.



The scaling phase of this award is still in process, and it was recently announced that the two existing mobile money products, TchoTcho Mobile and T-Cash, have reached 1 million transactions combined (press release here.)  Despite this impressive achievement, for those carefully watching the progression of mobile money in Haiti, it has clearly not reached a tipping point where a significant percentage of Haitians are using the product.  As Dalberg put it in their recent report, ‘there is more to be done in establishing these services,’ and operators are still grappling with the challenge of ‘build[ing] a critical mass of active users around a well-designed and well-supported service delivery model.’  The same report outlines many of the challenges that the operators have faced in terms of consumer education, regulatory, and partnership issues.  Digicel’s specific operational challenges were very openly and honestly discussed by the former CEO Maarten Boute at the GSMA Mobile Money for the Unbanked Working Group in Barcelona in February of this year, and the video of that interview can be found here.

So what can be done?  With the incentive prize coming to an end, there is a question of how the development sector can continue to engage with mobile money in Haiti and to support the adoption of the product throughout the country.  I am often asked this question: What can we do? because of my experience, and one of my first answers is: Everything in Haiti takes longer than expected, and a little patience goes a long way.  However, with deeper thought, I have come up with a few ideas that I believe can be practically implemented, and which aren’t the commonly cited solutions – which include more customer education and lower the legal transaction limit of 10,000HTG (250 USD), both of which are critical parts of the equation.

  1. Build products that address the need for security - I truly believe that mobile money in Haiti will be a success because I saw in my time at Digicel that there is real demand for the product.  This demand first and foremost came from the need for secure ways to store and send money, which do not yet exist in a country which has a high amount of theft.  I saw that many of our customers were using TchoTcho Mobile to save small amounts of money on a weekly basis.  In another situation, we interviewed market retailers who were using the service to immediately deposit cash after making a large sale, so that they were not targeted by thieves due to the visibility of the sale.  This real demand is there and can be accessed with proper communication of the value proposition, and with well-trained and accessible agents.
  2. Encourage the platform providers to open up their systems –  Allowing 3rd parties to build apps on top of the existing platforms is the quickest way to expand products and services  - think Twitter, Facebook, and the iPhone – 3 of the most successful products in recent years, all of which have driven usage through 3rd parties (think Farmville!)  Currently, it is extremely hard to integrate the TchoTcho Mobile back end (provided by Yellow Pepper) with any other system, even a bill payment system for say, a water company.  This change would take time and a bit of resources, but could make a substantial difference.
  3. Conduct research on how to make retail payments (or bill payments, etc.) work – I recently met with FinMark Trust who are doing a similar study in Zambia in order to try to jump start the mobile retail payments industry there. Research is a good use of donor money in this situation because the operators are short-staffed (per Maarten’s comments in the above video) and therefore having an outside party provide research on how to enter new markets with value-added services (VAS) can help to kick-start new projects.
  4. Recognize the potential for a non-MNO actor to enter the market – This is absolute blasphemy coming from someone who spent a year working at the MNO and fully believing in the strength of the MNO to drive mobile money.  I still believe that Digicel can drive TchoTcho Mobile and that the product will be successful.  At the same time, I am now working with innovative start-up companies such as Mobile Transactions in Zambia, and I see that they can create different, creative products for new market segments (more on this on the CGAP Technology blog.)  MNOs are great at delivering mass-market products, such as airtime or peer-to-peer transfers, which are accessible and useful to almost everyone.  There is less evidence that they are able to successfully develop and provide services to smaller population segments, such as smallholder farmers or savings groups.  Development actors can help MNOs do so, as is the case with Grameen app lab in Uganda, while at the same time companies such as Mobile Transactions are proving that a 3rd party can find a viable business model in serving these different markets.

So despite the challenges, mobile money is and will continue to move forward in Haiti.  There are already many exciting new initiaves which are using mobile money to rebuild houses (with UNDP), to provide funds to purchase food (Food for Peace), and to help parents in Cite Soleil send their kids to school ( Ti Manman Cheri ).  These current initiatives show the potential of the service to grow through partnerships, which can help to address each of my points above by encouraging innovation from a wide variety of actors.  I personally will continue to support growth of mobile money in Haiti through on-going support for Fonkoze through my current position at MEDA, and as an active observer, consultant, and a passionate believer that Haiti can and must be supported with sustainable, lasting solutions.

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  1. Pingback: Thoughts about Interoperability in Mobile Money «

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