An interview with Rose Kanyunyuzi from Global Orphan Project Africa, with Telcoin’s Jeff Quigley and Mike McNearney.
As Telcoin assesses remittance market opportunities in Africa, we’re often presented with charts, figures, projections, and quotes from sources like the World Bank or the United Nations. Together, these data points paint a pretty bleak picture: sending money there is outrageously expensive, despite the huge number of Africans who rely on inbound remittance to support their families and communities.
Unfortunately, even with mountains of data, it’s hard to understand what it all means for actual people on the ground, sending and receiving money transfers to feed their families or keep their businesses afloat. To put our recent blog on the overpriced African remittance market into perspective, we had an opportunity to speak with an NGO worker in Uganda who relies on money transfers to literally feed and clothe orphaned children across her country.
Rose Kanyunyuzi is the facilitator of local church partnerships for Global Orphan Africa, based in Uganda. Global Orphan Project works worldwide to break the orphan cycle through the power of community and commerce.
“Capitalism, when slightly adjusted to be more just, provides better opportunities to strengthen families among the poor than Big Aid could ever hope to present. I admire when a company — like Telcoin — seeks to innovate with a shrewd mind, humble heart, and attentive ear. In the coming aftermath of COVID-19, when those who suffer from the pre-existing condition of poverty are suffering all the more, we need a courageous surge of such entrepreneurship.” - Joe Knittig, Global Orphan Project CEO
In an interview with Telcoin’s Mike McNearney and Jeff Quigley, Rose describes her personal struggles with sending money during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the importance of mobile money in her daily life, and how money transfer fees wind up being significantly higher than the data and news reports would have you believe.
Mike McNearney: Thank you for joining us today Rose, it is a pleasure to speak with you. Would you be so kind as to tell us a little about what you are doing with Global Orphan Project in Africa?
Rose Kanyunyuzi: Through my work with Global Orphan Africa, we empower local churches in Uganda, Congo, South Sudan, and Ethiopia. So we empower the local churches to care for the most abused and abandoned children. These are the children who have no adult champion in their lives. My work is to train local churches on how the church can step up and care for such children. There is poverty everywhere, but we train the churches in how to give hope to these children. I also hire the social workers and train them, to make sure that they care for the children.
Mike: Thank you so much for doing this beautiful work! How is your community in Uganda being impacted by the worldwide COVID-19 shutdown?
Rose: Currently there is no public transportation, no use of private vehicles, so if we need to go to the market, we have to walk. The nearest store is a 45 minute walk, so to and from takes 1.5 hours. It’s hard. Most Ugandans live on a day to day basis. The economy in Uganda is supported by the diaspora, who have lost their jobs. So people here are depending on US$100 a month from their cousin in the US or overseas who have lost their job. So it is the entire family who is being affected by this.
Mike: How difficult is it to receive remittances currently?
Rose: Banks are operating, and most banks have Moneygram transfers, but the challenge is many people are more than 10 miles from the bank branch and there is no public transportation for them. So that is the current challenge, how do they get to the bank to get the money they have been sent?
Jeff Quigley: You mentioned Moneygram, is that the leading money transfer provider there?
Rose: We do not use Moneygram much, instead we have mobile money which has been so helpful despite the cost of transfer. Both the sender and the recipient pay high fees. We are mostly a cash economy, but mobile money within the country has been so helpful.
Jeff: What mobile money platforms are active in your community?
Rose: We have MTN and Airtel. MTN is the leader because its network reaches even the most remote places in the country. So MTN is very reliable.
Jeff: When you receive a remittance in MTN money, in what ways can you use it? Can you use it to buy groceries, pay bills, and so on?
Rose: Oh my goodness, many things. You can pay school fees for your child right from your sitting room. You can withdraw money from your bank account to your phone. You can pay electricity and water bills. You can pay for some taxes. You can send money to your relatives, and this has made it safer. Before mobile money, you would put money in an envelope and give it to a struggling villager to deliver on the bus. There was a high chance that they would then tell you the money was lost. But with mobile money, I can send money to a relative that is 500 miles away from me. Even if they lose their phone, whoever gets that phone can not take away their money because they have a pin that must be used to withdraw that money.
Mike: When you send money in country via mobile money, is there a fee associated with that transaction?
Rose: Yes, there is a huge fee associated with that. When I send 50,000 Ugandan shillings to a cousin in Uganda, I have to pay a 3,000 schilling fee and when he withdraws that money he has to pay a 9,000 schilling fee. So if I want him to get 50,000 I have to prepare 62,000 to send. The fee increases depending on how much money you send. The more money you send, the higher the fees. As an organization with Global Orphan Project, we have social workers staffed all over Uganda. We have to send them monthly airtime and money for internet connection. So we have to budget for these transfer fees in our monthly budget.
Jeff: At Telcoin, we are working hard to bring a much cheaper and faster remittance service to Africa that will allow people to receive transfers into the mobile money platforms they already know and use, at a roughly 2.5 percent transfer fee. Since we are a digital solution, we are bypassing working with the banks where possible, offering a safer alternative to cash pickup, and going directly to the mobile money platforms. It is faster and more secure. Even if your phone is lost or stolen, you can still get your mobile money.
Rose: With the introduction of mobile money, banks have actually lost many customers. When I was in the US, I went to the bank and was shocked that there were no people there. In Uganda, you go to the bank and it is an all day process. You go and stay there, line up for the whole day to be able to reach the bank teller. With the introduction of mobile money, people here flood into mobile money because you can be doing other things as you transact right from your phone. Despite the fees, it is much more convenient than spending all day going to the bank. Another advantage of mobile money is that even the oldest woman in my village knows how to use it, everyone knows how to use it. Once you are working in Uganda, will I be able to send money to other countries in Africa?
Jeff: Our initial focus is sending money from North America to Africa, and it will be received into a mobile money platform that you are already familiar with using. Since we are in talks with major African mobile money platforms, like MTN, you will be able to send money intra-Africa via their respective platforms. Once we connect several countries, we will be able to initiate transfers intra-Africa, after we get approval from the respective central banks. This is a longer road from a compliance perspective, but something we are working to accomplish in the future. Our goal from the start is to solve the current high fee remittance transfers into Africa, they are some of the highest on the planet and it doesn’t seem fair. We think that you can still have a strong business that generates a profit, that is still aware of the struggles of your fellow human being and offers them something better than what exists. I hope that we can say a few years from now that we put Western Union and Moneygram out of business in Africa. It has been too long that they have been taking advantage of their position in the market.
Rose: Yes Jeff! That is very true. Even as our diaspora are trying to help and send US$200 to family back in Uganda, that would help a family here survive for a month, because of the fees at 20 percent it challenges whoever sends and receives the money. So, if this idea that you are bringing to our country comes to fruition it will be a blessing for all of us.
Mike: On the average US$200 remittance, the recipient currently receives around US$160 after fees. With Telcoin we will reduce that fee and the recipient could receive US$195. What would the impact of that extra US$35 be to a member of your community?
Rose: Oh my! It will improve the family household situation. That extra money would be enough to provide for a family for a week. This would be a blessing to that family.
Jeff: How much is the fee to withdraw from your bank account to mobile money?
Rose: The last time I did this I was withdrawing 1 million shilling into my mobile money and I paid a 25 thousand schilling fee.
Mike: It is an interesting tragedy when you follow the dollar bill from the sending side to its ultimate destination. If I send you a US$100 remittance via Western Union, you receive US$80. When you then send that US$80 to a distant villager in need via mobile money, you pay an additional 20-plus percent, so the end recipient only receives about US$64 of the original US$100. So the effective fees are US$36 on that US$100.
Rose: One of the reasons we are victims is the infrastructure, the social engine. The companies are taking advantage of Africans because Africans live in a crisis-oriented culture, we react to crisis. I may have a very sick mother in the village, and they do not tell me. They wait for it to get so bad and inform me at the last minute. And they say, “If you don’t send money now, mom will die.” The companies are aware that many Africans respond to crisis, there is no planning. But on the other hand I can not plan and send enough money to the village for two months, because they will misuse this money and it will not last the two months. So I must send money as the need arises. Otherwise, if I send them money for two months it will only last two weeks. So the companies here are in tune to that cultural aspect of Africa and take advantage.
Mike: It has been very informative to get the first-person perspective of what is going on in your community. It is very helpful and motivating for us to push harder and to work harder to try to make life better and give you more monetary power in your community. You have plenty of spiritual power, but sometimes it helps to have a few extra dollars too!
Rose: One of the things that has kept many of us in poverty is that big companies come and put little effort into trying to send money to our people to improve their lives. We end up paying more money to these companies, and the little we have is taken away. I am going to be praying that Telcoin comes to Uganda and you do this for us, for the glory of God.
Mike: I pray the same, and we will work tirelessly to bring a cheaper and more logical solution to you and the people in your community so that you can continue to do the good work you are doing and that more families and children will be helped.
Jeff: Thank you, Rose, it is really great to hear from you. And just know that Africa is at the top of my priorities right now. As soon as all this craziness with the virus subsides, I plan on taking a trip to Africa to have some face time with future partners and users, and Uganda is definitely on my list! Hopefully we will be introducing lots of people to our service and will be giving people more financial freedom.
Mike: One more question Rose. When we bring our service to Africa, do you think that it will be accepted and used easily?
Rose: Oh Yes! Yes, yes, yes, Mike! Because you know who is going to accept it? It is us! I am excited to help you spread the word.
Mike: Thanks again for your time. I look forward to coming to visit you in Uganda!
Rose: It would be wonderful! You are most welcome. We will be very happy to receive you.
Telcoin. Send money smarter.