Banking on the unbanked

Melissa Chua
17 May 2011

Best Community Telecom Project

M-Paisa by Roshan (Afghanistan)

Last year's winner:Fist year
Business segments:2G, mobile voice, data
President:Zahir Khoja
Key shareholders:Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (51%), Monaco Telecom International (36.75%), TeliaSonera (12.25%)
Key stats:4.8m subs; 200,000 M-Paisa users

Most people take for granted receiving their full wage each week or month. But not in Afghanistan, where salaries are largely disbursed by hand through couriers toting sacks of cash. Corruption runs rampant in the war-torn country, and the average worker receives just 70% of his actual wage after the sum has made its rounds through various middle men.

Enter M-Paisa, the mobile money system that holds the potential to reduce corruption and, over time, facilitate restoration. M-Paisa, which means "mobile money" in Persian, is Afghanistan's first mobile money transfer project and brings basic financial services to the country's largely unbanked population.

The system was launched by carrier Roshan in conjunction with the First Micro Finance Bank and is compatible with any entry-level mobile phone. The service comes equipped with an IVR-enabled user command menu to cater to Afghanistan's largely illiterate population.

Deep-seated mistrust in Afghanistan's financial institutions exists, which is something M-Paisa hopes to help eradicate over time. "Mobile operators have helped lay the foundation for renewed trust in financial institutions, and word of mouth is the most effective tool in propagating this trust," said Zahir Khoja, president of M-Paisa at Roshan.

A pilot program in 2009 that used M-Paisa to pay police officers their salaries received such a positive response from employees that it has today been expanded to 24 districts across the country. M-Paisa is being increasingly adopted by private organizations as a safer and cheaper method of wage disbursement - commission rates for M-Paisa transfers are typically less than those charged by money agents.

Roshan tied up with various retailers to create an ecosystem for e-money in neighborhoods and encourage the spread of M-Paisa.

Through M-Paisa rural residents also have access to microfinance loans without having to visit one of the country's approximately 300 banks, which are mostly in urban areas. Loan repayments can be made through the topping up of M-Paisa accounts at any authorized agent located throughout the country. Top-tier merchants like airlines also offer a 10% discount when payment is made through M-Paisa.

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