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Mobile Microfinance: Its Time Has Come

By Fritz Nelson, Techweb TV Very few of us get to see our daily drudgery contribute to something politically, environmentally or sociologically charged, to a cause with greater implications than the outcome of driving the machinery of Brand X or Company Y; sleepless nights re-imagining business processes, building customer portals, re-negotiating a key vendor contract, all for company, livelihood, or a write-up in HR's internal newsletter. So when opportunities arise to serve that grea

By Fritz Nelson, Techweb TV

Very few of us get to see our daily drudgery contribute to something politically, environmentally or sociologically charged, to a cause with greater implications than the outcome of driving the machinery of Brand X or Company Y; sleepless nights re-imagining business processes, building customer portals, re-negotiating a key vendor contract, all for company, livelihood, or a write-up in HR's internal newsletter. So when opportunities arise to serve that greater cause, if only in minor ways, the jump is decisive, headfirst. Nobody gets to define what's meaningful for you, but the technology industry is filled with a lengthy list of options, and among them, microfinance stands out because its appeal crosses many industry segments, touches lives swaddled in depravity, and attends to our need for social relevance. It appeals to technologist, humanitarian, capitalist and impoverished.And for me, Microfinance touches every industry I get to cover as a journalist: Financial services (especially banking), telecommunications (especially mobile) and IT. Last week at Mobile World Congress, all three leaked into one another again with some new research from The World Bank's global microfinance center, CGAP. CGAP is an independent policy and research center, and is co-funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also teamed up with the GSMA on the Mobile Money for the Unbanked program (MMU), earmarking $12.5 million in grants, some of which will go to research that makes a business case for mobile and banking expansion, and some of which will go directly projects in the developing world.

Here's our video discussion with CGAP. The CGAP and GSMA announcements escaped broad attention, much of which was directed by those of us thirsting for an extra mega pixel or two on the latest cell phone camera, or that extra few megabits per second squeezed out of a mobile broadband connection ... or whatever those dancing girls were helping sell, with those really long legs and ... oh, sorry. Back now.

It escaped fanfare because it's so easy to be enticed by Verizon and AT&T racing to deliver 4G somewhere, if only in trials; it's easy to fall under the mesmerizing trance of the press conference locomotive, teasing us with promises of geo-targeted advertising and the latest short-form film shot just for the iPhone. Yet in places that most people don't even realize exist, the technologies that appeal to our need to socialize and connect and buy and follow and be entertained, are also transforming the meaning of commerce and promising to change lives.

From CGAP's press release: "CGAP estimates that 150 million poor people around the world receive regular social welfare payments from their governments. Yet less than 25% of beneficiaries receive their benefit into a bank account through which they could save, make payments, and build assets."

Another statistic: There are more than one billion people in the world who have a mobile phone, but not a bank account. CGAP estimates that we could reach almost a third of these people with technology within three years.

If the do-good nature of this is difficult to swallow in this economic climate, or in an industry (banking) that has seen far too many failures, consider the upside: reaching the unbanked, CGAP projects, represents a $5 billion opportunity. But just as promising, mobile networks offer a five-fold increase in transaction cost savings, not to mention the savings that come from not having to build more bank branches - most of which would be impossible to reach in the poorest, rural areas of the developing world. Also, corruption goes down when local officials are no longer in charge of doling out cash.

I'll continue exploring this topic in more depth, so share your thoughts, experiences, examples and ideas. Meanwhile, you can follow our video subject's (Mark Pickens) blog at http://technology.cgap.org.

Fritz Nelson is executive producer of Techweb TV, a sibling operation and partner to Bank Systems & Technology.

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