Transforming Financial Services

How mobile money is providing access to basic services to the most disadvantaged communities

UNICEF Innovation
Five-year-old Duco stands outside her shelter in Bulo-Barde internally displaced persons camp, Baidoa, Somalia
24 March 2016

UNICEF Innovation scans the near-future horizon, focusing on areas undergoing rapid changes that could have a significant impact on children. Working with the private sector and academia, UNICEF is exploring these emerging tech areas to bring value for businesses while also improving access to services and information for children.

In the following blogs posts, we explore organizations that are pioneering in these tech spaces:

  1. Mobile money services and digital currencies
  2. Sensor and wearable technology
  3. Learning and education
  4. Power logistics and transport
  5. Identity and personal data

Let’s get started with #1…

Did you know that two billion people around the world are unbanked? This means that two billion people do not have access to safe, secure, and affordable financial services.

Think about it. What would happen if you moved to a new country? Would you immediately have access to a bank account or would you have to rely on Western Union or PayPal to receive a few hundred dollars from your home country? Have you thought about crowdsourcing a study-abroad experience via GoFundMe?

With the increase of mobile money services and digital currencies, people now have the opportunity to access their money easier and faster. In the latest GSMA ‘State of the Industry Report on Mobile Money’ report, mobile money is available in 85 per cent of countries where most of the population lacks access to formal financial institutions.

Take war-torn Somalia, for example. Years of conflict weakened the country’s banking system but access to mobile money is turning Somalia into a cashless society. People can pay for basic services and goods with their mobile phones.


Now, let’s take a closer look at organizations that are transforming the concept of financial services, from Kampala to Mumbai:



A Nairobi-based startup, BitPesa is a remittance service that allows individuals and businesses to send payments to/from Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, and Tanzania through Bitcoin. BitPesa accepts Bitcoin (a digital currency) from nearly anywhere in the world and exchanges it to local currency. Upon transaction, the sender and/or recipient receive local currency in mobile money wallets or bank accounts. Within a year of operation, BitPesa had raised $1.7 million.



A fast and secure mobile phone-based money transfer, M-Pesa is used by over 19 million Kenyans (90 per cent of the adults) — from the young entrepreneur to the taxi driver. It allows users to deposit, withdraw, and transfer money to an account stored in a mobile phone for a small fee.

M-Pesa payment till
UNICEF Innovation

In order to make transactions, a user needs to have an active Safaricom line and M-Pesa account. For example, say you live in Kenya. You want to transfer Kenyan Shilling (KSh) 70,000 ($688.21) to your friend who is also an active user of M-Pesa. The cost of the transaction would be KSh 110 ($1.08).



With a mission to create an open financial system for the world, Coinbase is a bitcoin wallet platform used by merchants and consumers to transact with bitcoin. One bitcoin equals $416.79 dollars. Note that the price of bitcoin is tied to the laws of supply and demand. If more people are willing to buy bitcoins, the price goes up. If more people want to sell, the price goes down. Coinbase operates digital bitcoin wallets for over 2.8 million people across the globe. About 20 per cent of the transactions on its network involve payments or other tasks where bitcoin is used.



Stellar is an open source financial network that helps everyone connect to the world’s global economy while ensuring the integrity of financial transactions. Banks, microfinance institutions, hospitals, and startups can use Stellar. With Stellar, users can use any currencies, loyalty points and bitcoin.

With Stellar, 6 million transactions costs $0.20 total. With M-Pesa, the same 6 million transactions would have cost $2 million, just in fees. These savings are made possible because the Stellar network can be used from New York to Nairobi and that reduces the gaps, regardless of whether you are rich or poor.


Give Directly

An NGO which operates in Kenya and Uganda and makes unconditional cash transfers to people living in extreme poverty. In Kenya, Give Directly uses M-Pesa, a mobile money transfer mentioned previously. In Uganda, it uses the mobile money system called MTN.

In Kenya, once a recipient is identified as eligible, a field officer instructs him or her on how to register for an M-Pesa account. In Uganda, Give Directly facilitates procurement of IDs for recipients and works with MTN to organize village-level mobile money registration drives. Once the account is updated and verified, Give Directly sends transfers. The recipient receives text messages informing him or her of the transfer.



An online crowdfunding website that allows people to raise events ranging from life events and celebrations to challenging circumstances. GoFundMe is the world’s #1 personal fundraising website.

These organizations are creating the potential for the most marginalized populations to have a fair chance at accessing mobile money.

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