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Getting on the grid

 

Sitting down for dinner last night with a group of colleagues, I took out my cell phone and placed it on the table next to my plate.  It was practically an unconscious reflex (let’s ignore for a moment my gross mealtime etiquette violation here), and it took me a second to realize I had done it. “Why did I just take my phone out,” I finally said. “I don’t get any cell service or Wi-Fi signal here.”

We were in the village of Annai, Guyana, deep in the country’s interior and about a 40 mile (65 kilometer) drive from the Brazilian border. Internet service is nearly nonexistent in this region, and cell phone service can be spotty.  In my case, traveling for work with my US-based cell phone that doesn’t work abroad, I was completely off the grid for about 24 hours, something which rarely happens these days. It was an odd sensation that brought on a mixture of anxiety (what was I missing??) and freedom. I reached for my phone throughout the day as if feeling the pangs of a phantom limb, and by the end of it I had gamely decided that it was a welcome break to be off the grid for a while.

But what happens when you are living your entire life off the grid?

For the people we were visiting in Annai, being off the grid isn’t a break from reality, it is reality. This has tremendous implications for the provision of formal financial services, which often rely on internet connectivity to function. Moreover, in parts of the country with low population density and difficult terrain that inhibits travel – as is the case in Guyana’s hinterlands – setting up brick and mortar bank branches simply does not make business sense. As a result, Guyana has one of the lowest bank penetration rates in the region, with only 0.2 commercial banks per 1000 sq. km.

With this challenge in mind, I was traveling with Mobile Money Guyana, a subsidiary of Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company (GT&T), in order to learn more about a potential solution that could change the way that people in Annai do business. With a new GT&T cell tower in the village, mobile phone subscribers are gaining access to mobile money for the first time. For many migrant workers in the area, who come to the interior for jobs in mining or forestry, mobile money can open up new opportunities for them to transfer money to family back home without having to travel hours to the nearest bank in Lethem, or, as we heard from one shop owner, by entrusting cash to a passing bus driver and hoping that it makes it to its destination.  Mobile money is possible in Annai because it works in an environment where brick and mortar financial institutions cannot. Mobile Money Guyana agents record transactions by hand using  baby blue colored ledgers, and while the records are available for them to download online the majority of agents don’t have regular access them. Even so, financial transactions using the mobile money platform are done in real time, and are available using any kind of cell phone with a GT&T connection.

When it comes to solving the access to finance challenge in remote, rural areas, GT&T has shown that it’s necessary to think outside of the box. New technology is combined with hand-written ledgers, creating a solution that is appropriate for the local context.  It remains to be seen whether or not GT&T’s mobile money product can gain widespread acceptance in these remote areas, but all signs are promising. In an environment where access to finance means bringing services to rural areas with low population densities over rough terrain, mobile money could be a game changer.

This post originally published by FOMIN.

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