Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Resisting the devil: using mobile money in Haiti

As I boarded a plane bound for Haiti in December 2010, I received a text from one of my research assistants that says that Voila had just launched its mobile money service, T-Cash. It was followed closely by Digicel’s TchoTcho mobile. The advent of mobile money in Haiti is interesting and exciting. As an anthropologist I was curious to see how this new technology was going to change internal migration and remittance patterns between Port-au-Prince and the provinces. My interest in mobile money is also personal. As a Haitian with friends and relatives living in different parts of the country, the prospect of sending money electronically is particularly welcome. With mobile money I no longer have to rely on expensive money transfer services, bus drivers who offer remittance services, or send money with friends and relatives who are travelling back to their home towns.

Once in Haiti, I set out to register for both services. Registering for Voila’s T-Cash required sending a text to their dedicated number using your Voila phone. Within a few minutes you receive the secret pin required for withdrawal and transfers. Digicel’s TchoTcho Mobile is a little more bureaucratic as it requires in-person registration with a valid state-issued ID and a photocopy of said ID.

As with any new service, there were some kinks that both companies needed to work out. Although both companies boast agents throughout the country, or Port-au-Prince in the case of Digicel, finding an agent is not always easy. On the day I registered for TchoTcho, I had to visit four agencies. At the first store we were told that the agent had been called away elsewhere; the second agency did not have an internet signal, while the third had sent their laptop out for repair. However, six weeks on, it is easy to find functioning TchoTcho agencies, even though Digicel has not officially launched their service and are not advertising. T-Cash is another story: while we have found numerous businesses with the T-Cash sign on the front of their shop, few of them are actually operational.

Digicel and Voila’s tariffs for transferring and withdrawing money are similar except that Voila offers a lower maximum that one can hold on a T-Cash account. While it may seem odd that customers have to pay to withdraw their own money, so far we have not heard any complaints about the fees. Prior to mobile money, the only safe place to hold money was the bank but banking was a time consuming undertaking. Mobile money offers a middle ground between the bank and cash. With mobile money, money is available but one is able to save. As JosuĂ©, an artist, explained to me, “If I have money in my pocket, I will use it on beer, cigarettes and women, but if it is not there I cannot spend it as fast. After all, money is the devil, it makes you do crazy things.”

Safety issues are one of the main attractions to mobile money in Haiti. Discussing the risk of being mugged, Max, a plumber and TchoTcho customer, told me that an advantage of mobile money is that you can deposit your salary at an agent near your job and withdraw it at an agent in your neighborhood. Not only do you not run the risk of your money being taken away from you as you travel from your job but you do not have the stress of travelling with money. Max went on to say that he likes the fact that TchoTcho agents are located in regular businesses. If he walks out of a restaurant or a clothing store, no one will know that he just withdrew money.
Another one of mobile money’s attractions is the ability to top up your phone account from your mobile money account. Using mobile money, you save the 10% tax that you pay when you buy a phone card. Mobile money is also economic in terms of time and convenience. Prior to mobile money I could only top up my phone using a phone card or a Pap Padap vendor. These transactions are limited because they require agent which is not always available either because of where I am or because shops are closed. While online top up is available, it is not an option for many people because it requires internet access and a credit card, two luxuries that are not readily available in Haiti. No story could illustrate the significance of mobile money for topping up your phone as this scenario presented by Samuel, a 19 year old university student. He said, “Have you ever been talking to a girl late at night and just when the conversation gets interesting you run out of money on your phone? At this hour there is not a store open or an available Pap Padap or Direk Direk vendor. Even if there were, you would be too scared to go out at that time. With Mobile money you can continue the conversation without losing momentum because once lost, you cannot recapture that moment.”

Whether to keep the conversation going with your girl, transporting your salary across town, hiding money from yourself or sending money to your ninety-year-old aunt in Carrefour George, mobile money is definitely a welcome addition to the financial landscape in Haiti.

--Espelencia Baptiste

--Photo #1: Espy topping up mobile money. Photo credit: Erin B. Taylor, 2011.
--Photo #2: I can sign up for Tcho Tcho while I get my drink on. Photo credit: Espelencia Baptiste, 2011

No comments:

Post a Comment