Finance's helping hand: making refugees self sufficient

                         (Source: The Banker) 

                        (Source: The Banker) 

"The world's refugee camps are often home to displaced entrepreneurs who set up small enterprises, driving the business case for financial services. But getting providers to take notice is a tough call, exacerbated by problems of access and identity, James King reports."

Through its investments and global partnerships, the Omidyar Network is tackling one of the biggest obstacles around refugee IDs – that of interoperability. In essence, this is the difficulty facing a refugee or migrant when every service provider or agency they encounter requires a different form of identification. Developing a foundational and interoperable form of ID would enable refugees to access a far wider suite of services and opportunities. But to achieve this, regional and global co-operation from various stakeholders is needed.

“We want governance structures that allow the interoperability and portability of digital IDs across multiple markets,” says Ms Anderson. “There are a variety of stakeholders working to address somewhat different aspects of a similar problem but often in silos. Identity is an issue that needs to be solved at scale. For this to happen, actors must work in a more collaborative and consensus-building way,” she adds.

Reaching this endpoint will take time and will demand an effective intersection between technology and regulation. In the meantime, other private sector actors are looking at the steps that can be taken on the ground. Increasingly, issues of refugee financing are attracting the attention of fintechs and start-ups who have been sold on the business case. Leaf Global Fintech, a Nashville-based business, is a case in point.

Co-founded by Nat Robinson and Tori Samples, both of whom had prior experience working with refugees in Africa and the US, Leaf aims to address the refugee challenge virtually. The company, which is focusing on Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, partners with local banks and mobile money operators to ensure the safe passage of funds for a refugee crossing the border between two jurisdictions. It achieves this by using blockchain technology. 

Ms Samples says: “There’s a lot of hype around blockchain. We are using it to facilitate cross-border transfers rather than storing any value on it.”  For example, a user in the Democratic Republic of the Congo can open an account with Leaf via SMS, cross the border to Rwanda and receive their savings through a partner institution. In doing so, the company is addressing one of the key impediments facing mobile money networks in the region.

“Mobile phone penetration across east Africa is high. Mobile money accounts are growing much faster than bank accounts. That’s also an avenue that we are looking to tap into. But the issue with mobile money is that it doesn’t cross borders. The issue with that is that it’s offered through national telcos,” says Mr Robinson.

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(Leaf is a #CF20 company and is an integrated financial services provider whose mobile platform enables the conversion of physical to digital fiat currency through blockchain technology. Refugees deposit cash at a mobile money agent in their home country and then send that money into a Leaf account. The company stores the transaction on the blockchain and works in partnership with regional banks to safeguard currency.)