Overcoming challenges in the field: Haiti's mobile money program


March 31, 2011

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    Erin Wildermuth/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Jean Phillip Janvier, a vendor in Saut d'Eau, Haiti, who is helping Mercy Corps' Mobile Money program succeed by conducting cash-outs at his small local store. Photo: Erin Wildermuth/Mercy Corps

One of the more inspired advantages that Mercy Corps hopes to bring to vulnerable communities via mobile money is easy access to financial services. A good number of places with high cell phone penetration are many miles from the nearest banking institution. By allowing users to bank on their phones they will have access to these services without ever leaving their homes.

As is the case with any new idea, the practice is never as simple as the theory. In order for families to use their cell phones as an electronic bank they need to feel confident that — if they need cash — there is somewhere they can go to cash-out (trade their mobile money for physical cash). In an ideal mobile money ecosystem, every vendor would be willing and able to support small cash-out needs. Then there would be one vendor or institution given “agent status.” This agent would facilitate the cash-out feature for all the smaller vendors, travelling to a larger city and bank to manage their own cash flow.

In helping to develop a nascent initiative in Haiti, Mercy Corps was fully aware of the problems associated with playing a first-movers role in mobile money. We were confident that our community mobilization strategy would help to overcome these difficulties. In mobilizing beneficiaries and vendors in Saut D’Eau — where Mercy Corps is integrating mobile money and unconditional cash grants — we were sure to communicate the needs and difficulties associated with being a vendor or beneficiary to each group. In this way, we eased any tensions that might arise between participants of the program.

Finding an agent who was willing and able to support relatively large vendor cash flows in a town as small as Saut D’Eau was an impossible task. Without a local agent, vendors were wary to cash-out beneficiaries because they would have to travel to Mirebalais — the nearest town with a bank — every time they wanted to turn their mobile money into physical cash. The team was considering allowing Mercy Corps itself to act as an agent in order to relieve this tension when we met Jean Phillip Janvier, a local vendor who assured us that he would be able to conduct cash-outs.

With one large vendor onboard the other vendors started to come around. A month into the disbursement of our unconditional cash grants six of our eight vendors had voluntarily conducted cash-out transactions. Jean Philip clearly took the lead, having been involved in 86 percent of all beneficiary cash-outs.

Jean Phillip lives with his wife and young child. One of his sisters was killed in the January 2010 earthquake; his remaining three siblings go to school on Saut D’Eau. Jean Phillip used the profits from Mercy Corps’ program to pay a younger sister’s school fees.