New report on mobile money in Haiti by InterMedia

InterMedia have recently released a report for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation entitled 'Mobile Money in Haiti: A Baseline Analysis of Access, Use and Barriers to Adoption' (July 2011).

Based on 1,008 face-to-face surveys across Haiti's departments, the report confirms our own findings presented in our April 2011 report on early adopters of mobile money in Haiti: the importance of security issues, the predominance of 'me-to-me' transactions over more traditional remittances, and willingness to try the new technology.

InterMedia also found that education about mobile money and ease of access to mobile money agents will be key to the success of mobile money. The report presents some very interesting and useful data about domestic remittance routes, mobile money users' education levels, and their experiences in dealing with agents.

Given that during both ours and InterMedia's research periods (until April 2011) there were very few mobile money agents outside of Port-au-Prince, I was curious to see what InterMedia had discovered about mobile money adoption outside of the capital city. InterMedia's report indicates that while most Haitians have heard about mobile money (especially through the radio or television advertisements), this familiarity does not necessarily translate into an understanding of what mobile money actually is (see page 31).

Indeed, InterMedia's data suggests that mobile money subscribers are not given sufficient information about their new accounts (either by advertising, pamphlets or agents themselves - see page 30). I suspect that many  subscribers who lived outside of Port-a-Prince had not actually been able to use mobile money at all, because did not have an agent nearby.

I also think it is likely that recipients of cash-for-work payments and food aid who reside outside of Port-au-Prince had not yet gained access to the full mobile money service, and so would not know how to deposit or transfer money. Counting them as mobile money subscribers is potentially misleading: using the service regularly (to receive money or food) does not mean that they know how to use its products.

I would also like to draw attention to the report's suggestion that it is easier to sign up for Voila's T-Cash's than for Digicel's TchoTcho Mobile. While this is correct, insofar as anyone can register for T-Cash's mini-wallet over the phone, customers must register for T-Cash's full wallet in person. Hence comparable products require comparable effort to obtain.

More pertinetly, ease of opening an account is only useful if mobile money agents are available in your local area. Last month one of our researchers reported to us that she could no longer find a single functioning T-Cash agent in Port-au-Prince. When were were in the field they were located in UniTransfer offices, but they had shut down.

I was also very interested to see InterMedia's table on page 31 comparing the levels of trust that Haitians hold for various institutions. While 65% of Haitians trust mobile phone operators 'much/very much', only 43% trust banks to the same extent, 42% trust the Central Bank of Haiti, 37% for international NGO, 14% for  electronic payment service, and just 8% trust the Haitian government.

This parallels our research findings: the level of trust for mobile phone operators is so high that people will sign up for their products, regadless of whether they understand them or need them.  Telecommunications companies provide services efficiently that poor people want, and this is precisely why they are trusted, and why they are ideal providers of products for the BOP.

Compared to telcos, the Haitian government and international NGOs are both in a very bad position. This does not augur well at all for rebuilding Haiti: a nation cannot live on mobile phone services alone. Both the Haitian government and international NGOs need to work on their image problem.

To achieve this they not only need to be seen to not be doing anything damaging (such as practicing corruption or introducing cholera); they also need to be seen to be doing something that benefits the population.

In his latest book, Paul Farmer argues strongly that the Haitian government needs a massive re-injection of development funds that have been siphoned away since Aristide was in power.

I agree with Farmer wholeheartedly. While services like mobile money are an excellent initiative, and enthusiasm for it may prove to be warrented, we should not lose sight of the fact that governance is a major priority for Haiti as it seeks to rebuild and fortify against the next catastrophe around the corner.