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Moving money while the world stands still

  • By Timothy Roberts
  • Tuesday, April 21, 2020

“Contactless payment preferred.”
“Please, no cash.”
“We prefer VISA or debit. Cash discouraged.” 

These are a few of the messages I’ve seen posted in the essential shops that remain open near my home in Canada. In the throes of this pandemic situation, handing someone a five dollar bill is tantamount to dropping a used Kleenex in their palm. It’s not just grimy bills that are potentially threatening, it’s the need to stand close to someone–close enough for a hand-to-hand transaction, anyway–that has become taboo. And that’s a good thing: in Canada, physical distancing has helped to stabilize the number of new COVID-19 cases

It helps that even before this pandemic, contactless payments were just as common as cash transactions in Canada, and 35% of those contactless payments were done using mobile technology. Eliminating cash, at least for the time being, isn’t such a leap over here. 

But what about parts of the world where ApplePay, VISA cards or even POS chip technology are nowhere to be seen? Without the right technology to make it possible, simply telling people to avoid cash won’t help slow the spread of this health threat in some of our world’s most vulnerable areas. How can we ensure that everyone, especially those neglected by the formal financial system, can send and receive money for essential goods and services without exposing themselves or others to risk? 


Moving money out of households

In many parts of the developing world, particularly in the remote or hard-to-reach areas typically overlooked by traditional banks, mobile money is quickly gaining uniquity. Already, there are seven times more mobile money agents than ATMs. Long before a dangerous virus vilified cash transactions, the number of registered mobile money accounts in the world soared to over one billion, with Sub-Saharan Africa seeing a lift of 50 million new accounts in 2019 alone. If the barrier to eliminating cash transactions isn’t necessarily technology, then what is it? 

For millions of people, it’s basic cost. This pandemic has crushed our global economy, which has left even less for those already getting by on so little. Paying a small mobile money fee in order to buy food without cash, for example, could be asking too much from those whose livelihood has disappeared, which in turn puts families at risk and slows our offensive against this disease. Part of the solution, then, is to eliminate those mobile money fees. 

That’s exactly what’s happening. Regulators and mobile money operators in Kenya initiated this change just days after that country’s first recorded case of COVID-19. They eliminated fees for transactions below a certain value and increased daily and monthly transaction limits. Ghana soon followed suit, as did Rwanda, where regulators went even further by removing fees on all transactions. For those who rely on mobile money to protect themselves from the virus while accessing essential goods and services in an economically precarious time, these changes are vital. 


Moving money into households

What about families and individuals who need financial assistance to endure this crisis and recover once it’s over? Removing mobile money fees on transactions is only useful if you can afford those transactions in the first place. For many, especially those whose livelihood depended on businesses wiped out by the pandemic, paying for essential goods and services right now is a struggle. Many people around the world need help to meet their basic needs. 

But this isn’t the time to set up food aid distribution stations, for example, which encourage dense gatherings of people in areas hardest hit by the pandemic’s financial whiplash. These gatherings are fertile ground not only for the spread of deadly COVID-19, but for unintended violence and tragedy. We must do better than that. 

Mobile money is part of the solution. Already recognized for playing an important role in delivering aid to those impacted by humanitarian crises, mobile money operators have an opportunity to partner with public organizations and charitable groups with the goal of supporting those in financial straits as a result of this pandemic–while protecting public health at the same time. 

Many countries are working on this. As of April 10, 126 governments around the world had introduced or adapted social protection measures in response to COVID-19, with cash transfer programs leading the majority of these measures. In Kenya, for example, the government is using an existing cash transfer program to distribute additional funds to vulnerable groups, such as the elderly. In Haiti, about 1.5 million households will also receive a one-off support payment. Egypt has a similar program to distribute cash to those from vulnerable industries such as construction, agriculture and fishing. 

Mobile money is the ideal conduit for delivering these cash transfers safely, remotely and with dignity. Many countries are working fast to make it easier for individuals to open a mobile money account in order to take advantage of this option, which will prove a vital lifeline for people all over the world as this pandemic continues. 


Our current global situation has much to teach us. If we take those lessons on board today, we’ll have a far more proactive strategy in place to help us endure and overcome future threats with greater clarity. Mobile money is a key part of that strategy already, and will only become more so as its reach continues to grow. For the very vulnerable and the unseen among us, mobile money is survival.