With their colorful costumes and tall stature, the Maasai people of the Great Rift Valley region of East Africa are perhaps the most photographed tribe in the world. Their fierce adherence to an ancient way of life is glorified in coffee table books and travel magazines the world over. The Maasai people of East Africa live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania along the Great Rift Valley on semi-arid and arid lands. The Maasai occupy a total land area of 160,000 square kilometers with a population of approximately 1.2 million people.
I visited the Maasai people of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in 2014. Whilst they live within the confines of the roles they play as glamorous tribals for visiting tourists, they are reportedly constantly battling government initiatives that erode their way of life and meager livelihoods.
Indigenous people such as the Maasai worldwide are between 300-500 million, embody and nurture 80% of the world’s cultural and biological diversity, and occupy 20% of the world’s land surface. Some indigenous people strive to preserve traditional ways of life, and at the same time seek greater participation in current state structures.
But all is reportedly not well for these pastoral farmers since the land they grace has been under threat by mining and wildlife concessions for nearly 50 years. Local indigenous councils have been battling with authorities during this entire period: it seems like both their luck and existence are running out.
An additional problem for the Maasai apparently is the discovery of vast quantities of helium in the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley. The BBC News in June 2016 reported this find as a “game-changer”, especially as previously-known world supplies are running out.
A group of researchers from Oxford and Durham universities in the United Kingdom, working with the Norwegian helium exploration company Helium One, have discovered what they believe is a vast supply of the element in an unlikely place.
“Their research shows that volcanic activity provides the intense heat necessary to release the gas from ancient, helium-bearing rocks,” according to a statement from the University of Oxford.
“Within the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley, volcanoes have released helium from ancient deep rocks and have trapped this helium in shallower gas fields.”
Robert Richardson, Professor of Physics from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, won the 1996 Nobel Prize for his work on “super fluidity of helium”, and has issued a warning that supplies of helium are being used at an unprecedented rate and could be depleted within a generation.
Professor Richardson warned the gas is not cheap because the supply is inexhaustible, but because of the Helium Privatization Act passed in 1996 by the US Congress. The Act required the helium stores held underground near Amarillo in Texas be sold off at a fixed rate by 2015 regardless of the market value, to pay off the original cost of the reserve. The Amarillo Texas storage facility holds around half the earth’s stocks of helium – around a billion cubic meters of the gas. The US currently supplies around 80% of the world’s helium supplies.
Richardson said it has taken 4.7 billion years for Earth to accumulate the helium reserves; we will have exhausted them within about a hundred years of the US’s National Helium Reserve having been established in 1925.
Helium is used in hospitals in MRI scanners as well as in spacecraft, telescopes, nuclear research and radiation monitors. Until now, the precious gas has been discovered only in small quantities during oil and gas drilling. Using a new exploration approach, researchers found large quantities of helium within the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley.
Prof Chris Ballentine of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford, said: “This is a game-changer for the future security of society’s helium needs and similar finds in the future may not be far away.”
The discovery was reported in the US journal Popular Science.
“To put this discovery into perspective,” Prof Ballentine continued, “global consumption of helium is about 8 billion cubic feet per year and the United States Federal Helium Reserve, which is the world’s largest supplier, has a current reserve of just 24.2 billion cubic feet.”
The Tanzania find could reportedly thus be sufficient to meet global demand for nearly seven years, and may be more than twice as large as the US helium reserve.
This latest find, estimated at 54 billion cubic feet of helium ($3.8 billion), is a major shot in the arm to global helium reserves which have been running dangerously low, with prices rising by 500% in the last 15 years, according to Global Risk Insights (GRI), which provides expert political risk news and analysis on events affecting business, investment, and economic climates worldwide.
While this scientific find has excited scientists the world over, the other side of the equation is the possible land-use stress to the Maasai people under whose land this discovery has been made. But the Maasai are no strangers to land grabs since the time they moved into the Rift Valley from South Sudan during the 15th century.
During the 16th century, their presence ranged from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean and from the highlands near Nairobi to the Serengeti plains in Tanzania. There they peacefully co-existed with other tribes and often times came to the aid of their neighbors during Arab slave raids. The British, who arrived in the late 18th century, saw the Maasai as a nuisance and negotiated a 1904 treaty to move the Maasai to a piece of land in the Rift Valley.
In the 1950s, in a deal that was very similar to the previous dealings, the British successfully convinced the Maasai to move out of the Serengeti land to the Ngorongoro highlands where fellow Maasai already lived in order to create a better wildlife corridor. The Maasai lost the best dry-season rangeland in their area to the benefit of all the wildlife among which they had lived for so many years.
Realistically, the major priorities of the governments of Kenya and Tanzania are economic growth, and both have relied on tourism and other projects to obtain this.
“Modern society demands resources to maintain a standard of living commensurate with people’s expectations, and a suitable level of environmental quality is inherent to this standard. Trade-offs are inevitably made between the activities that provide energy, minerals, timber, and food and the need and desire to preserve ecosystem services. Such trade-offs are often highly controversial and politically volatile,” writes Lee Gerhard of Kansas Geological Survey, in a conference presentation entitled Meeting Societal Resource and Environmental Requirements into the Twenty-First Century.
The author, a chemical engineer by training, has investigated and determined that there is no chemical way of manufacturing helium, and that current supplies originated in the very slow radioactive alpha decay that occurs in rocks. Commercial helium is produced as a byproduct of natural gas processing. Most natural gas deposits also contain smaller quantities of nitrogen, water vapor, carbon dioxide, helium, and other non-combustible materials that must be removed via “upgrading” to produce natural gas with an acceptable level of heat energy.
Once the helium has been separated from the natural gas, it undergoes further refining to bring it to 99.99+% purity for commercial use. The question remains if the helium found in Tanzania would require large operations for upgrading it.
This author also believes that the environmental impact of recovering the helium gas can be reduced by newer drilling technologies such as lateral drilling and gas fracking without disturbing the land above. In my opinion, the Tanzanian government needs to actively seek the cooperation of the Maasai society while trying to create a formula for sharing royalties.
These profits I believe should be invested into the Maasai society through a structured program to prepare them for modern society through vocational education and other cottage industry enterprises. An international NGO should be used as a vehicle for this equitable transfer. I envisage that in doing so all aspects of the helium issue can be attacked: global scientific progress, GDP growth, and most importantly, allowing the Maasai to earn royalties while holding on to their culture, which is a heritage that belongs to all of us globally.
During my planned travels through Maasai lands and the Rift Valley areas in the near future, instead of capturing images of their enactments of various ceremonies popularized by travel magazines, I am planning on spending time inquiring about their progress with the government agencies regarding the helium issue. Watch this space for more.
Forbes Africa | 8 Years And Growing
As FORBES AFRICA celebrates eight years of showcasing African entrepreneurship, we look back on our stellar collection of cover stars, ranging from billionaires to space explorers to industrialists, self-made multi-millionaire businessmen and social entrepreneurs working for Africa. They tell us what they are doing now, how their businesses have grown, and where the continent is headed.
Since its inception in 2011, and despite the changing trends in the publishing industry, FORBES AFRICA has managed to stay relevant, insightful and sought-after, unpacking compelling stories of innovation and entrepreneurship on the youngest continent, in which 60% of the population is aged under 25 years.
Many of those innovations have been solutions-driven as young entrepreneurs across the continent seek to answer questions that have burdened their communities.
Always on the pulse, FORBES AFRICA has chronicled and celebrated those innovations – prompting the rest of the globe to pay attention and be fully engaged.
A prime example of this is the annual 30 Under 30 list, which showcases entrepreneurs and trailblazers under the age of 30 from business, technology, creatives and sports. In 2019, we had 120 entrepreneurs on the list, finalized after a rigorous vetting and due diligence process to well laid down criteria.
We have always maintained the highest standards of integrity in all our reporting.
As we transition into the next milestone, FORBES AFRICA reflects on the words of civil rights activist Benjamin Elijah Mays, who once said: “The tragedy of life is not found in failure but complacency. Not in you doing too much, but doing too little. Not in you living above your means, but below your capacity. It’s not failure but aiming too low, that is life’s greatest tragedy.”
With the transformation in the media landscape, the recent awards given to the magazine for the work done by a hard-working, determined and youthful team, serve as a reminder that we are doing something right.
Early this year, FORBES AFRICA journalist Karen Mwendera received a Sanlam award for financial journalism as the first runner-up in the ‘African Growth Story’ category. In January, FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil, received the ‘World Woman Super Achiever Award’ from the Global HRD Congress.
In reflecting on the last eight years, this edition revisits a few of the strong, resilient men and women who have graced our covers.
For some, fortunes have literally changed, as witnessed in the fall of gargantuan African empires such as Steinhoff. Of course, there have been massive moments of triumph too, which have seen some new names feature on the annual African Billionaires List. There have also been moments of tragedy with former cover stars passing away.
Africa is ripe for the taking and is seen as the next economic frontier. The unique position the continent finds itself in will no doubt give FORBES AFRICA plenty to report on. Here’s to more deadlines and debates for the next eight years.
– Unathi Shologu
Having A Ball With Data
Stephan Eyeson started a basketball business at the age of 19. That venture failed, so he tried the data business instead. He is working and playing hard.
First, the facts.
Africa has a data problem. For all the talk about data being the new oil, the continent comprises about 12.5% of the world’s population but only accounts for less than 1% of research output, according to global information and analytics firm, Elsevier.
And Survey 54, an AI mobile survey platform solving the problem of data collection on the continent, wants to offer a solution. Founded by Stephan Eyeson, Survey 54 focuses on providing good quality data essential for governments and private businesses to accurately plan, fund and evaluate their activities.
READ MORE | Owning The African Narrative
“Data in Africa is such a prevalent problem, in a sense of when you are going to start up a business, it is hard for you to get consumer data on say ‘how many people eat out in Lagos every day? what is the transactional value? what are the types of things that people eat? what do they want to eat etc?’ All these things are available in the West but for people who want to move into Africa for business, how do they get their data to make their decisions and how do we make it really easy for them and not just for a startup but for even governments and larger businesses,” says Eyeson.
Fresh out of a master’s program in innovation and management from Loughborough University in the United Kingdom (UK), Eyeson joined Survey Monkey, an online survey development cloud-based software as a service company, as part of the team responsible for building their enterprise function in London as well as looking after customers in the EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa). After learning the ropes, he decided to branch out to start his own company to offer a more robust and tailored solution for the African market.
“For people who want to move into Africa for business, how do they get their data to make their decisions and how do we make it really easy for them?”
“The problem around data in Africa and emerging markets is a massive one. So, for us, it’s about how do we become a data platform not just for a company but for governments to help them understand their people easier.”
Data is the first step. Then you need intelligence around that data to enable you to make objective analysis that will shape your decision-making process, as well as provide the foundation for policy-making and budgeting.
“Instead of hiring an agency to go to Ghana and do a face-to-face interview, for example, we look at how governments can get mobile data faster and then how they are able to manipulate that data to get the results they need,” says Eyeson.
Due to the dearth of knowledge, Eyeson’s unique understanding for the data space is relied on by many startups and larger businesses who depend on his expertise to drive results in Africa.
“Stephan has great expertise in strategy and high-level corporate business development. Survey 54 has and will be instrumental for companies to make decisions within Africa and emerging markets, making it easier to use and understand consumer data. A platform like Survey 54 is essential for companies operating on the continent,” says Nana Adomako, head of UK & Ghana growth at Taptap Send.
Born to Ghanaian parents in London, Eyeson’s first stint at entrepreneurship began in his early years at university, when his dream to become a professional basketball player was shattered.
“I had a scholarship into America for basketball and that scholarship was taken away due to some technicality with my results so I couldn’t go and so I started a basketball business instead when I was 19. It helped Americans play in Europe and Europeans play in America. I made the system easier. So, players paid a monthly fee to get seen and coaches paid to get access to talent.”
But unfortunately, the business failed to take off because the market was not big enough for Eyeson to remain profitable.
The data business, on the other hand, is huge: worldwide revenues for data and business analytics are forecast to reach $189 billion this year and $274.3 billion by 2022, according to technology market research firm IDC. Even though Survey 54 is in its first full year of business, the company has already secured contracts with multinationals like Colgate, amongst many others.
READ MORE | A Germ Of An Idea
“I was one of Survey 54’s first clients and it has been a pleasure watching Stephan grow the company into what it is today, working with some of the world’s largest brands.
“There is a significant lack of data in the region so the need for a sophisticated data insight product is essential and I believe Stephan’s mission-driven leadership style will enable the company to become one of the largest software businesses driving investments to the content,” says Yvonne Bajela, Principal and Founding Member at Impact X Capital.
The company has recently secured a spot on the coveted Startupbootcamp platform in Cape Town. While Survey 54 is trying to secure a first-mover lead in data on the continent, challenges remain. As the company scales, they will need to overcome the language barrier across the African continent and learn to interpret data by bringing the cultural context into the surveys organizations are seeking.
Eyeson has his eyes set on moving into the US markets as a long-term plan, but for now, the goal is transferring the abundant and ubiquitous asset of data in Africa into millions for his startup.
The $100 Trillion Opportunity: The Race To Provide Banking To The World’s Poor
Companies like Tala are at the forefront of the race to deliver rudimentary financial services to the 1.7 billion people on the planet who lack even a bank account.
Two years ago, Amylene Dingle lived with her husband and 7-year-old daughter in Payatas, an impoverished Manila neighborhood with the largest open dump site in the Philippines. Her husband worked on the security staff in a government building, earning 4,000 pesos a week, the equivalent of $80. She had always wanted to start a business, but she was unemployed, had no money saved, no credit history and couldn’t get a credit card or a bank loan.
Dingle’s fortunes took a dramatic turn after she responded to a Facebook ad for Tala, a Santa Monica-based startup that makes small loans through a smartphone app. After granting Tala access to her phone, through which the app cleverly parses mobile data to assess a borrower’s risk, she got a 30-day, $20 loan. She paid 15% interest and used the money to buy cold cuts, hamburgers and hot dogs. She marked them up 40% and sold them door-to-door, earning $4 in profit after paying back the interest and a small processing fee.
Today Tala lends Dingle, 42, $250 a month for her now thriving food business. Her $70 in weekly profits have nearly doubled her family’s income and funded their move to a two-bedroom home in the quiet, clean Batasan Hills district. Tala is thriving, too. Founded in 2011 by Shivani Siroya, a 37-year-old former Wall Street analyst who had worked at the United Nations, it has raised more than $200 million from top U.S. investors, including billionaire Steve Case’s Revolution Growth fund. With estimated 2019 revenue of more than $100 million, Tala is valued at close to $800 million.
Companies like Tala are at the forefront of the race to deliver rudimentary financial services to the 1.7 billion people on the planet who lack even a bank account. Providing them with the basics of credit, savings and insurance is one of the great challenges and opportunities of the century. With access to the financial system, people can buy a car or a home. They don’t have to resort to loan sharks if they face a medical emergency. They are happier. They live longer. They are more productive, and their increased productivity will help lift their nations out of poverty. Serving the unbanked will generate some of tomorrow’s largest fortunes. It is both capitalism’s moral imperative and the route to one of the most significant untapped markets.
While the unbanked pay for everything in cash, an even larger swath of people, the more than 4 billion “underbanked,” may have accounts but struggle to make ends meet, racking up steep fees when checks bounce and resorting to high-interest alternatives like payday loans. Traditional banks alone could boost annual revenue by at least $380 billion if they turned all the unbanked into customers, according to a 2015 Accenture report.
The multiplier effects are staggering. The GDP of emerging-market countries would surge $3.7 trillion by 2025, or 6%, if they adopted a single innovation—switching from cash to digital money stored on cellphones, McKinsey estimated in 2016. Diego Zuluaga, an analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Monetary & Financial Alternatives, has studied the likely effects of full financial inclusion: “If we were to give the unbanked and underbanked in the developing world the same kind of access to credit and investments that we have in rich countries, you could easily create an additional $100 trillion in financial assets over the next 50 years.”
Tala founder Siroya was raised by her Indian immigrant parents, both professionals, in Brooklyn’s gentrified Park Slope neighborhood and attended the United Nations International School in Manhattan. She earned degrees from Wesleyan and Columbia and worked as an investment banking analyst at Credit Suisse and UBS. Starting in 2006, her job was to assess the impact of microcredit in sub-Saharan and West Africa for the UN. She trailed women as they applied for bank loans of a few hundred dollars and was struck by how many were rejected. “The bankers would actually tell me things like, ‘We’ll never serve this segment,’ ” she says.
Where banks saw risk, she saw opportunity. For the UN, she interviewed 3,500 people about how they earned, spent, borrowed and saved. Those insights led her to launch Tala: A loan applicant can prove her creditworthiness through the daily and weekly routines logged on her phone. An applicant is deemed more reliable if she does things like regularly phone her mother and pay her utility bills on time. “We use her digital trail,” says Siroya.
Tala is scaling up quickly. It already has 4 million customers in five countries who have borrowed more than $1 billion. The company is profitable in Kenya and the Philippines and growing fast in Tanzania, Mexico and India.
Rafael Villalobos Jr.’s parents live in a simple home with a metal roof in the city of Tepalcatepec in southwestern Mexico, where half the population subsists below the poverty line. His father, 71, works as a farm laborer, and his mother is retired. They have no credit or insurance. The $500 their son sends them each month, saved from his salary as a community-college administrator in Moses Lake, Washington, “literally puts food in their mouths,” he says.
To transfer money to Mexico, he used to wait in line at a MoneyGram kiosk inside a convenience store and pay a $10 fee plus an exchange-rate markup. In 2015, he discovered Remitly, a Seattle startup that allows him to make low-cost transfers on his phone in -seconds.
Immigrants from the developing world send a total of $530 billion in remittances back home each year. Those funds make up a significant share of the economy in places like Haiti, where remittances account for more than a quarter of the GDP. If all the people who send remittances through traditional carriers, which charge an average 7% per transaction, were to switch to Remitly with its average charge of 1.3%, they would collectively save $30 billion a year. And that doesn’t account for the driving and waiting time saved.
Remitly cofounder and CEO Matt Oppenheimer, 37, was inspired to start his remittance service while working for Barclays Bank of Kenya, where he ran mobile and internet banking for a year starting in 2010. Originally from Boise, Idaho, he earned a psychology degree from Dartmouth and a Harvard M.B.A. before joining Barclays in London. When he was transferred to Kenya, he observed firsthand how remittances could make the difference between a home with indoor plumbing and one without. “I saw that $200, $250, $300 in Kenya goes a really, really long way,” he says.
Oppenheimer quit Barclays in 2011 and together with cofounder Shivaas Gulati, 31, an Indian immigrant with a master’s in IT from Carnegie Mellon, pitched his idea to the Techstars incubator program in Seattle, where they met Josh Hug, 41, their third cofounder. Hug had sold his first startup to Amazon, and his connections led them to Bezos Expeditions, which manages Jeff Bezos’ personal assets. The fund became one of Remitly’s earliest backers. To date, Remitly has raised $312 million and is valued at close to $1 billion.
Oppenheimer and his team can keep fees low in part because they use machine learning and other technology to bar terrorists, fraudsters and money launderers from transferring funds. The algorithms pose fewer questions to customers who send small sums than they do to those who send large amounts.
Remitly transfers $6 billion a year, serving senders in 16 countries, including the U.S., Australia and the U.K., and recipients in 45 nations. In the first half of 2019 it added 15 receiving countries, including Rwanda and Indonesia. The company is not yet profitable, but last year estimated revenue came to $80 million. Oppenheimer sees a huge growth opportunity. Fewer than 1% of the world’s 250 million immigrants are Remitly customers.
In 2012, Dorcas Murunga lived in Gachie, a crime-ridden neighborhood on the outskirts of Nairobi. She earned $80 a month babysitting and cleaning houses, and her husband made $120 installing elevators. He covered most of their expenses while she struggled to save money. Whenever she had cash, she says, she spent impulsively on clothes, junk food and alcohol. She managed to put aside the $5 minimum balance required to open a savings account at Equity Bank of Kenya, but she had a hard time coming up with the $3 monthly fee. To make a deposit, she took a bus an hour each way and waited in line for an hour at the bank. She closed the account after just one year.
Like most Kenyans, Murunga was already using M-Pesa, a service created by Safaricom to send money via text message. In 2012, Safaricom, a subsidiary of British telecom giant Vodafone, introduced M-Shwari, a savings account and loan service it integrated into M-Pesa. Two years later, it started offering an account that locked up a customer’s funds for a fixed period at a fixed interest rate.
Determined to improve her finances, Murunga committed to saving $1 a day through her locked account. When she got the urge to buy vodka or a pair of shoes, she says, she’d make deposits through her phone instead. She cut her spending by two thirds, to $10 a week. By 2016, she was saving $300 a year. She had started a business making handbags, and the savings helped pay for design courses. She has invested in real estate with her husband and says she spends more than $200 a year helping friends and family.
The spark for M-Pesa (pesa means money in Swahili), the first mobile money provider in Africa, came in 2003 from Nick Hughes, a Vodafone executive who managed a five-person team tasked with creating wireless products with a social impact. Hughes’ idea: set up a digital money-transfer system that would operate through personal cellphones.
Since M-Pesa launched in 2007, it has exploded in size and popularity. Kenyan taxi drivers complain when riders try to pay in cash. Ninety-six percent of Kenyan households now transact through M-Pesa. Before M-Pesa, only 27% of Kenya’s then 38 million people had bank accounts. Kenya’s population has since risen to 51 million, and 83% have checking or savings accounts. The service has spread to eight countries, including Egypt and India. Sending less than 50 cents is free. M-Pesa charges 1% to 2% for larger amounts. Through its various subsidiaries, M-Pesa generates some $840 million in annual fees for Vodafone.
The adoption of M-Pesa has had a tremendous impact on Nairobi’s startup scene. Durable-goods providers have introduced pay-as-you-go plans that bring in millions of new customers. For example, three-year-old Deevabits, based in Nairobi, sells $80 home solar systems in remote villages with no access to electricity. All its customers use M-Pesa to make an initial deposit. They pay the remainder through M-Pesa in 50-cent daily increments over eight months. “The presence of M-Pesa has transformed how business is done in Kenya,” says Deevabits founder and CEO David Wanjau, 32. “We couldn’t operate without M-Pesa.”
Dixie Moore used to strain to make paychecks last to the end of the month. A 25-year-old single mother with two small children, she earns $12.25 an hour as an assistant manager at a Bojangles’ fast-food restaurant in Canton, Georgia. In 2011, she was paying $30 a month for a Wells Fargo checking account, but when a bounced check and multiple overdraft fees left her with a $1,200 negative balance, she lost the account. She regularly paid up to $6 to get her paychecks cashed. “I was stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she says. Then a friend told her about MoneyCard, a Walmart-branded product offered by Pasadena, California–based Green Dot, the largest provider of prepaid debit cards in the U.S. Now her employer deposits her paychecks directly onto the card, and she uses it to pay for everything from groceries to dentist appointments. “It has really been a blessing,” she says.
Green Dot offers a financial lifeline to people like Moore. Until she started using the card two years ago, hers was among the 7% of American households—representing some 14 million adults—that get by entirely on cash. Founded in 1999 by a former DJ named Steve Streit, the company initially focused on teenagers who wanted to shop online. But seeing a larger opportunity, in 2001 Green Dot shifted its focus to adults who were using the card because they had bad credit or couldn’t afford commercial bank fees.
One advantage of cash cards: When users spend all the money on their card, it’s like running out of paper cash. They avoid overdraft fees that can run as high as $35 for a single infraction. The cards also make it possible for users to buy online.
Streit, 57, says that nearly 40% of Green Dot’s 5 million customers were previously unbanked.
In 2007, he struck a deal with Walmart that was a boon for the chain’s then 130 million customers: a cash card with a monthly fee of just $3 (today it’s $5). That’s down from the nearly $8 monthly fee paid by users who bought their cards at stores like CVS. The surge in Walmart card sales helped make up for the shortfall from the lower monthly charge.
In 2010, Streit took the company public. Though Green Dot generated revenue of $1 billion last year, its stock slid 40% this past August as it lowered its revenue expectations, citing the increase in well-funded competitors entering the market. But bad news for Green Dot is good news for America’s unbanked. Smartphone-based cash offerings from venture-backed startups like Chime, a six-year-old digital bank based in San Francisco, and digital-payment company Square’s Cash App are signing on millions of customers.
Harvard Business School professor Michael Chu, a former partner at KKR who cofounded Mexico City-based Compartamos, Latin America’s largest microfinance lender, says the opportunity to serve the underbanked in the U.S. is “huge.” But paradoxically, the richest nation on earth poses some of the greatest barriers to financial-inclusion innovators. A patchwork of state laws intended to protect borrowers from predatory lenders and federal laws that guard against money laundering requires startups to navigate through a maze of red tape.
Another problem: The technology that transfers funds between U.S. financial institutions is old, slow and expensive. While M-Pesa zips mobile money across Kenya in seconds at virtually no charge, an electronic fund transfer from Miami to New York can take two days and cost as much as $40.
But in the grand scheme these are minor obstacles. The Fed has promised to build a new and improved U.S. transfer system by 2024. Entrepreneurs will lobby—or innovate—their way around the bureaucratic barriers. After all, there are billions of dollars to be made—and countless lives to improve.
Additional reporting by Anna Corradi.
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