Mobile money is a digital wallet technology that allows cash to be stored on standard, non-smart cellphones. It’s hugely popular in East Africa, but because plans and services vary from country to country, there can be problems with cash access while crossing borders. These problems can be especially difficult to navigate for refugees, who’ve been forced to flee their home nations and cross land borders by foot. Their accounts may not work in new countries, under new networks and plans. If they carry physical cash, they often become targets of scams and robberies—or the carrying a lot of cash raises questions with authorities. “When they get to a border point, they are inherently vulnerable,” says Tori Samples, cofounder and CTO of Leaf Global.
Leaf—the winner of the developing world technology category in Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards—is a money storage solution that allows these individuals to carry digital cash into Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, where Leaf currently operates. “It is a digital wallet that goes with the customer wherever they go,” Samples says. “Think of it as a global Venmo account.” Money stays protected in the Leaf wallet for as long as they need, and they can receive cash from relatives living in those countries at any point during their journeys. It builds on an already trusted technology, and one that’s booming as cashless payments become more prevalent: mobile money has seen a 400% increase in adoption during the pandemic.
“Intra-Africa is still generally the most expensive corridor in the world to move money between,” Samples says. Leaf keeps remittance costs down: Though it operates on any phone, not just smart phones, it’s powered through blockchain technology, allowing for minimal fees and fast transfers. (They use stable coins, pegged to fiat currencies such as Rwandan Francs or Ugandan shillings, which keeps volatility low.)
On average, refugees remain in exile for 17 years before they find permanent homes. New African countries become their temporary residences for a long time, so they have to work or set up businesses. “That’s where the financial flows get really interesting,” Samples says, because they go from receiving money from family to sending it out, once they start generating an income. Leaf has 2,570 active customers, who’ve performed 31,500 transactions worth $213,000.
With help from secured grants from the National Science Foundation, the U.N., and the Vatican, Leaf hopes to create a lending product to help refugees as they set up enterprises in new countries, so that these unbanked or underbanked folks can “really start to create an economic identity.” It also hopes to expand services to Tanzania and DR Congo, and then to help some of the world’s 79.5 million refugees and migrants fleeing other parts of the world, such as Syria and Venezuela.