Mobile money is a digital wallet technology that allows money to be stored on standard, non-smart cell phones. It’s extremely popular in East Africa, but as plans and services vary from country to country, there may be issues accessing cash when crossing borders. These problems can be particularly difficult for refugees, who have been forced to flee their countries of origin and cross land borders on foot. Their accounts may not work in new countries, under new networks and plans. If they are carrying cash, they often become the target of scams and theft – or carrying around a lot of cash raises questions with authorities. “When they arrive at a border point, they are inherently vulnerable,” says Tori Samples, Co-Founder and CTO of Leaf Global.
Leaf, winner of the Developing Country Technology category at Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards, is a money storage solution that enables these people to transport digital money to Kenya, Uganda and in Rwanda, where Leaf currently operates. “It’s a digital wallet that goes with the customer wherever they go,” says Samples. “Think of it as a global Venmo account.” The money stays safe in the Leaf wallet for as long as it needs it, and they can receive money from relatives living in those countries anytime during their trip. It builds on technology that is already reliable, and which is booming as cashless payments become more mainstream: Mobile money has seen a 400% increase in its adoption during the pandemic.
“Intra-Africa is generally the most expensive corridor in the world for transferring money,” says Samples. Leaf Reduces Costs of Sending Remittances: While it works on any phone, not just smartphones, it’s powered by blockchain technology, allowing for minimal fees and fast transfers. (They use stablecoins, indexed to fiat currencies such as Rwandan francs or Ugandan shillings, which keeps volatility low.)
On average, refugees remain in exile for 17 years before finding permanent accommodation. New African countries become their temporary residences for a long time, so they have to work or set up businesses. “This is where the cash flows get really interesting,” Samples says, as they go from receiving money from the family to sending it, once they start generating income. Leaf has 2,570 active customers who have completed 31,500 transactions valued at $ 213,000.
With the help of guaranteed grants from the National Science Foundation, the UN and the Vatican, Leaf hopes to create a loan product to help refugees set up businesses in new countries, so that these unbanked or under- banked people can “really begin to create an economic identity. He also hopes to expand his services to Tanzania and DR Congo, and then help some of the 79.5 million refugees and migrants around the world who are fleeing other parts of the world, such as Syria and Venezuela.