Mobile Phones Empowering the Rural Poor through Mobile Banking

 Mobile Phones empowering the rural poor
Vestine in her shop

Mobile phones are as numerous in Rwanda as the beautiful panoramic views of its famous “Thousand Hills”.  This was all the more confirmed as Vestine Nyirabagande, Urwego Opportunity Bank’s (UOB) client, sat with a mobile phone on her lap.  She laughed when asked how many of her neighbors have mobile phones.  “I don’t think there is anyone in this area who doesn’t have a mobile phone!” she said.

Vestine has only been a client of UOB for four months, but is already experiencing the advantages of financial security.  UOB is a Christian Micro-Finance bank that is motivated by Jesus Christ’s call to love and serve the poor.  It provides loan and savings products, financial services, and training to help its clients improve their lives, economically, socially, and spiritually.  

Recently UOB received a grant for its future Mobile Banking Initiative.  This generous grant came from Building an Inclusive Financial Sector in Rwanda (BIFSIR), a joint project of United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) and United Nations Development Program (UNDP).  BIFSIR’s objective is to contribute to the capacity building of the various stakeholders at the macro, meso, and micro levels, with a view to supporting the development of sustainable, quality, and diversified financial services that are accessible to less advantaged Rwandans, both in rural and in urban areas, and to improving their economic and social status.   

UOB’s intention for Mobile Banking will help carry out BIFSIR’s objective by enabling its clients to access a variety of services more easily and conveniently through their mobile phones.  Each service would be delivered at an affordable price, thereby increasing UOB’s outreach to the under-banked.    

UOB’s CEO, Jeffrey J. Lee, commented, “Outreach is one of UOB's triple bottom lines.  It is natural for us to think of Mobile Banking to accelerate outreach to rural clients who have limited or no access to formal financial services.  BIFSIR's funding will surely enable us to expedite this effort.”     

Vestine, a widow with four children, lives in the rural area of Ngororero, which is surrounded by beautiful green mountains with small farms scattered throughout the landscape.  She has kind eyes and a sweet smile.  As we sat in a market that descended down the hillside, she recounted her story (Daniel K. RYUMUGABE, UOB’s Director of Transformational Impact, interpreting) about how UOB has helped improve her life:   

Every morning I wake up at sunrise to get my children ready for school and start my business day.  Before I joined UOB I sold vegetables and had difficulty clothing my children and providing them with food.  My children attended school, but paying their school fees was a burden.  With my first (and current) UOB loan of $240 I was able to open a retail shop where I sell everything from potatoes to cosmetics.  Already my business has helped improve my family’s life.  My children say, “This is what we’ve been waiting for!”  

Vestine is a part of a UOB Trust Group which provides training that teaches her how to manage her business so that it can grow and expand.  A Trust Group is a collection of entrepreneurs who encourage one another, receive training from UOB staff, and compensate for each other if one is unable to meet a scheduled loan repayment.  Vestine said, “The training is helping me not to worry about my business or my family life, and it creates hope for the future.  UOB’s staff emphasizes dedicating everything to the hands of God.  So, the first thing I do every morning is pray for my family and business.”             

When asked about her goals in regard to her family and business Vestine’s immediate response was, “To make sure my children finish school! One of my children has completed secondary school, one is currently in secondary school, and the last two are in primary school.”  Her next UOB loan will be $500, and with pride and aspiration she stated, “I want to eventually double my store’s inventory.  It is important for my business to continue succeeding so that I don’t have to beg on the streets.”             

As Vestine recounted her many achievements accomplished in such a short time, we inquired if there is a service or product that UOB could provide to assist in her business’s growth.  She explained that presently she uses another mobile phone provider’s version of Mobile Banking to pay bills and school fees, and once even made a payment towards her UOB loan.  She continued by saying, “It would be appreciated if UOB could bring Mobile Banking services to this area!”       

“If UOB had Mobile Banking I could send in my loan repayment if I was going to be late or away for a Trust Group meeting,” she said.  She proceeded to say that currently she saves her personal money ($40) in a different bank from UOB, but she said, “Taking money to another bank is not good!”  She explained, “The bank that I save my money in is slow in processing my cash deposits and withdraws, and their customer service is poor.  I love UOB and admire how its staff treats me, processes my loan, and conducts the weekly Trust Group meeting.”  The nearest UOB branch is one hour away, which is inconvenient because of the time spent traveling and away from her business.  With UOB’s Mobile Banking service Vestine will be able to safely save and have access to her money in a UOB branch.                            

It is evident that business people, like Vestine, in rural areas are already recognizing the ease and convenience of Mobile Banking.  With BIFSIR’s grant, UOB will be able to provide affordable Mobile Banking services and aid clients in transforming their businesses.  “BIFSIR hopes that the support provided to UOB for the Mobile Banking initiative will increase access to sustainable financial services to urban and rural low income Rwandans.  We hope that many more youth and women, like Vestine, will be able to move out of poverty with the support of sustainable and accessible financial services,” says Amani M’Bale, BIFSIR’s Chief Technical Advisor.  The provision of Mobile Banking services ultimately fulfills both BIFSIR and UOB’s objective to empower those who are financially underserved and equip them to advance in the fight against poverty.