In early 2011, USAID, in partnership with Mercy Corps, began making payments for emergency food supplies via cell phone-based “mobile money”.   The Kenbe-La e-cash program is assisting more than 5,500 beneficiaries in the St. Marc region of Haiti.  Working with one of the largest cell phone companies in Haiti, Voila, and Unibank, Kenbe-La provides low-cost cell phones to beneficiaries and trains them to use e-cash for their food purchases.  Each month the Haitian recipients receive $50 (US) via SMS (text) message.  The money can be used at more than 50 local businesses to buy four staple products- rice, beans, oil and maize.

Haitians are learning new and innovative banking techniques. Photo Credit: USAID/Haiti

In addition to receiving the e-cash payments, Haitians are learning new and innovative banking techniques: the beneficiaries of the Kenbe-La program are trained on how to save money, make efficient use of their staple foods, and use cell phones as a financial tool.

The Kenbe-La program also works with the vendors to train them to do business using mobile money. They are able to accept e-cash for their products via cell phone and obtain hard cash at a Unibank branch.  Using their e-cash register and a unique pin-code, local business owners are seeing significantly increased sales and profits.

This past Monday, I met store owner Dona Fifi in her shop.  Dona Fifi was one of the first vendors to accept e-cash as tender and reports that besides increased sales she appreciates the fact that she is no longer at risk carrying cash to the bank.  She is currently one of the only e-cash vendors in her community and hopes that her continued participation in the program will only serve to broaden her client base.  Dona Fifi serves as a role model to other small business entrepreneurs and knows the first-hand benefits of USAID’s use of mobile money payments.

While a complete cost-benefit analysis is unfinished, Mercy Corps believes that this program is reducing the amount of labor it takes for them to process payments in these sort of emergency feeding programs.  It also enables participants to avoid spending large amounts of time traveling to the Mercy Corps’ office, waiting in line to receive payment, etc.

Meanwhile, USAID and the Gates Foundation are working to expand mobile banking to the entire country.  By creating a series of “prizes,” our two organizations have spurred the two major cell phone companies in Haiti to invest millions in mobile banking infrastructure, training and marketing.   We visited a Digicell office to watch as company staff enrolled Haitians in the mobile banking program.  More than 100,000 mobile money transactions have already been completed with many more likely in the months ahead.  This will enable “banking services” to be provided to the remotest of areas in Haiti, reduce chances of robbery of cash held by individuals, and reduce transaction costs.  Both the use of technology and the methods of encouraging its use are illustrations of the “new” USAID at work.