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Mercy Corps mobile wallet innovation brings purchasing power to Haitians' cell phones

Haiti, December 26, 2010

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Kimberly A.C. Wilson

The Oregonian
December, 2010

BLOCKHAUSS, Haiti -- As a rule, there is nothing sexy about humanitarian food aid. String the letters USAID in front of a program that distributes beans and rice to the needy after a natural disaster, and you have a formula for lifesaving do-goodery that rings, well, a little dull.

Enter Mercy Corps; 16-year-old Etienne Emanie, palming a green cell phone; and Dorcent Larousse, the 37-year-old owner of Dieu Tout Puissant market, the biggest store around, where business is suddenly brisk in this destitute outpost high in the hills above the Bay of Saint-Marc.

...Called a mobile wallet, the program unveiled this month marries technology with old-fashioned food aid. It might not seem groundbreaking to those of us accustomed to checking in for flights, buying movie tickets and transferring money to cover the monthly mortgage payment, all on a cellular phone. But this is Haiti, where there are roughly 9 million people and just 400,000 bank accounts, fewer than one account for every 21 nationals. Cell phones, however, are ubiquitous, thanks to enviable service plans that charge only for outgoing calls. More than 86 percent of the population has access to at least one cell phone.

"This puts power into the hands of people who receive aid," says Brian Oakes, country director for Mercy Corps...