Fast Company has a fantastic article, Out of the Rubble, Into the Lab, in this month’s issue. A peculiar innovation taking place in Haiti is the focus of the article. You see, one very interesting aspect of Haitian life is the widespread use of cell phones. Most Haitians have them. Cell phone service providers Voilà and Digicel are two of the most visible brands in Haiti. If you visit a major city or town like Port-Au-Prince you’ll see billboards for the two companies more often than you’ll see even Coca-Cola or Fanta. You’ll also see hundreds vendors clad in lime green or red (depending on the company they represent) peddling pay-as-you-go cards. Anyway the popularity of phones coupled with the lack of secure banking mechanisms has created an opportunity for cell phones to be used as digital wallets.
Thanks to contributions by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development, these mobile cash systems are beginning to take off. Other NGO’s like Mercy Corps have set up programs to pay Haitians to work on various cleanup projects. They pay these workers through the mobile phone system. A nice benefit to receiving payment through a phone is that Haitians no longer have to deal with long bank lines nor do they have to worry about being robbed while carrying cash.
Of course, money management won’t be the only function cell phones will be used for in Haiti. However, social entrepreneurs are now faced with the unique challenge of taking advantage of their widespread use to bring about progressive change. Some even see potential for Haiti “to become the first “copper-free” country in the world.” Personally, I am very excited to see how this develops and to discover what my role or contribution to the system could eventually be.