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Testing out mobile money in Haiti

Haiti, November 30, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Kokoévi Sossouvi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Jokebed Auguste. Photo: Kokoévi Sossouvi/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Kokoévi Sossouvi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Benita Bellevue. Photo: Kokoévi Sossouvi/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Benita tests out her mobile wallet. Photo: Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Helping restore earthquake-stricken local economies in Haiti through a mobile banking solution that uses mobile phones. Photo: Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps

Jokebed Auguste, 31, and Benita Bellevue, 29, walk side by side as we make our way to the Market St. Pierre, a local convenience store in Mirebalais. Here in Haiti's Central Plateau, they are team leaders in Mercy Corps' cash-for-work program, which provides temporary jobs to locals who use the wages to meet their families' post-earthquake needs.

For a while now, I’ve been telling Jokebed and Benita about the "mobile wallet" (or bous selilè in Creole). They understand that it means something like being able to receive and store money on a phone, making purchases with a phone, transferring money to other people, and still keeping some of the money on the phone if desired.

Actually, they have already received money on their phones before. Three weeks ago, they received their cash-for-work payment using their mobile phones. Before that, I held a training for them and other community members, which showed them in pictures all the things they would be able to do with their "mobile wallet." But I can tell they are still a little bit dubious.

We enter the supermarket, and the purpose of the day is explained once more. We are here with our mobile network operator and bank partners to do a test of mobile wallet functionalities at a merchant location.

We'll test four functionalities:

  • Purchase of goods
  • Peer to peer money transfer
  • Cash-out
  • Cash-in

Jokebed and Benita activate the wallet functionality on their phones, and I transfer 50 gourdes (about US$1.25) to them to run the test with.

As we go through the various scenarios, the atmosphere in the store is incredibly lighthearted. Making purchases requires a series of commands on the phone which are very similar to those of the cash-out that Jokebed and Benita are already familiar with from the day when they received their payments by mobile phone. So they go through with use-case with nonchalance, showing a level of confidence that impresses me.

When we try the peer-to-peer money transfers, it creates the playful dynamic of setting off simultaneous messaging on both the sender and receiver's phone. Their unconventional ringtones made everyone laugh.

The cash-out process — where Jokebed and Benita transfer funds to the cashier and he gives them cash from the register — goes off without a hitch. The system works and it’s easy to navigate.

The cash-in process — when Benita gives the cashier money that he will add to her phone — doesn't go as smoothly. The cashier makes a mistake in keying Benita’s phone number and the money never arrives on her phone. The bank can resolve this through a number of behind-the-scene adjustments. This is why we're testing this process — to work out both human and technological errors.

Despite this glitch, the ladies are still enthusiastic about the service. They can already see the future.

Jokebed says “I would pay for everything with the wallet: my son’s school fees, the beauty parlor, buying clothes. It would be a great way to pay a taxi, various goods and services while traveling from place to place. I’d be less worried about loosing my m-wallet than my usual wallet. When your wallet is gone, there’s no way to get the money back, when the m-wallet is gone you can call the customer service center to block your phone.”

The next day is payment day. Jokebed and Benita will receive their last cash-for-work payment. The project that they were hired to do — 30 days of work to rehabilitate a road — is complete. In line outside the bank, with their teams, they’re both still talking about the mobile wallet test and how they see mobile banking as a safe way to store money.

Benita says, “I like the ability to have the money virtually on the mobile wallet and then make it liquid when you need it.”

“I also like the cash-in option as well," says Jokebed. "Haitians are often making small informal payments to one another but the money is spent quickly. With the mobile wallet cash-in option, there may be less of a tendency to spend that money.”

Soon our mobile money partners — Voilà and the Haitian bank Unibank — will release their mobile wallet service commercially. The product is called T-Cash (for telephone cash). I think I know who the first two users of the service in Mirebalais will be.