Smarter Cities

Where Mobile Phones Have Become The Banking System

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, people have come to rely on the ability to do basic financial transactions anywhere. The downside is when cellular connection crashes.

Congolese rely on their mobile phones everywhere. (File Photo -Kinshasa)
Congolese rely on their mobile phones everywhere. (File Photo -Kinshasa)
Thaddée Hyawe-Hinyi

BUKAVU — All mobile network operators in the Democratic Republic of the Congo now offer financial services to their clients, allowing them to quickly send and receive money anywhere. These services have become much valued by locals, especially those who live far from big towns and bank branches.

The technology is also used by the Education Ministry to pay the wages of teachers who work in remote areas where there are no banks. The teachers receive their salaries directly on their phones and can withdraw the money at any counter of the operator Vodacom.

"We don't need to show our ID to withdraw money," explains Alfred Muhindo, a student and a customer of Airtel money. "We just need to know our account's password. The payment, however, depends on how much you want. Wherever you go, the branch needs to have enough money."

Any transfer below $50 is free, with fees running between 60 cents and $1.40 for larger transfers. Many clients also use this system as an electronic wallet. It's possible to store money on your account by adding calling credit, which can be converted in cash at any time.

"The system is available wherever you are," explains a student at the Catholic University of Bukavu, a city in the eastern part of the country. He is waiting for a transfer from his parents, so he constantly checks his cellphone. The service is great for students because it allows them to receive even small sums of $5 or less, and is cheaper than the commissions of transfer companies like Western Union or Money Gramm.

There is, however, one limit to the service: network coverage. Users would like to see the connectivity of their phone carriers improved, both for better communication, and now also so they can withdraw money at any moment.

"When the connection doesn't work — and it happens often, sometimes for a whole day — then everything is blocked," explains Charlyn Mbonimpa, a stay-at-home mother. The same problem also affects transfer companies. Another issue is that small branches often don't have enough money for their clients, which forces them to go to bigger kiosks.

The system is pretty secure, as long as the phone's owner keeps the transaction passwords secret. If nobody knows the password, "it's difficult to lose money," says Déolsu, a kiosk owner in Bukavu. But if a client gets his phone stolen, he should know that he must go immediately to a branch and have the number blocked, and order a new SIM card.

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