Ina Fried

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Gates Foundation, U.S. Government Back Cellphone Banking for Haiti

Haitian cellular provider Digicel has received a $2.5 million grant for a project to allow people in the impoverished and earthquake-stricken country to use their mobile phones for banking.

Digicel is the first recipient from a $10 million fund set up by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the project is designed to speed up the arrival of cellphone banking in Haiti. The effort follows other mobile banking projects such as the M-PESA program in Kenya.

For now, the Haiti Tcho Tcho service, as the banking program is known, allows customers to make deposits and withdrawals at retail outlets, as well as transfer money between Tcho Tcho accounts. Over time, the service is designed to expand to bill payment and international transfers, as well as the ability to pay for government services.

Bill Gates has been a big advocate of establishing banking and savings in emerging markets as a means of breaking the cycle of poverty in developing countries, and cellphones have shown particular promise as a means to provide authentication as well as to deal with the fact that many of the poor live in remote rural areas, making traditional branch-based banking not economically feasible. He touted the Kenyan program during a tour of U.S. colleges last year.

The grant comes at just about the one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake on that island nation. Even before the quake, only one in 10 Haitians had access to a traditional bank. Digicel got the grant for being the first company to set up a mobile banking service in the country. A further $1.5 million will go to the next operator to launch service there, while the remaining $6 million will be handed out proportionally to the companies that handle the first five million transactions.

U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten said that the move is part of America’s effort to provide long-term assistance “to help the Haitian people build back better.”

“The role of innovative companies like Digicel will be critical to ensuring the sustainability of our investments here,” Merten said in a statement.


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