I’ve Seen the Future (in Haiti)

Mobile phone subscribers per 100 inhabitants 1...
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Cash is so 20th century.

I’ve been experimenting with a 21st-century alternative, using money on a cellphone account to buy goods in shops. It’s a bit like using a credit card, but the system can also enable you to use your cellphone account to transfer money to individuals or companies domestically or internationally. And it’s more secure because a thief would have to steal not only your phone but also your PIN to get access to your money.

What’s really astonishing, though, is the site of my experimentation with “mobile money.” Not in the banking capitals of New York City or London, but in this remote Haitian town of St.-Marc.

Mercy Corps, through a United States government-financed program, is providing food for people here in St.-Marc who have taken in earthquake survivors. The standard method would be to hand out bags of rice, or vouchers. Instead, Mercy Corps will be pushing a button once a month, and $40 will automatically go into each person’s cellphone savings account — redeemable at local merchants for rice, corn flour, beans or cooking oil.

I took one of these phones and walked into a humble little grocery shop with no electricity — “Rosie Boutique,” named for the owner’s little daughter — and became the first person to make a cellphone purchase there. I typed the codes into my phone, and then both my phone and the store’s phone received instantaneous text messages saying that the transfer was complete. The food was now mine.

“It doesn’t get any cooler than this,” said Kokoévi Sossouvi, the Mercy Corps program manager. She’s right — and the technology isn’t just cool, but could be a breakthrough in chipping away at global poverty.

You see, the world’s poor face a problem even bigger than being fleeced by bankers. It’s being ignored by bankers.

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