My biggest journey yet, from Congo to India to Kabul

by Carol Realini

Carol Realinni with inexpensive cell phone

Carol Realinni

In 2002 I was traveling in Africa because of my board role with a non-profit that worked there. A retired software entrepreneur who had successfully dealt with big problems, I was “giving back” by supporting entrepreneurs in developing countries. What I didn’t know was that I was to face some of the biggest challenges of my life.

I had never been to a developing country like the Congo, so many things surprised me. Things I took for granted, like clean water, adequate schools, roads, electricity, women’s rights were missing or inadequate. But most shocking to me was that although the traditional infrastructure was inadequate, modern mobile phones were everywhere. This got me thinking – why not use these phones to tackle more than just communications? Why not use them to do banking and electronic payments?

Today it seems obvious but in 2002 this was an idea that was just beginning to unfold around the world. My passion was to provide great financial services to those now underserved. Increasingly these people have mobile phones but they live far from bank branches and are small depositors and businesses. Providing them mobile financial services would be transformational to their lives. As my interest grew I co-founded a company, Obopay, to deliver affordable banking services that empower people’s life and work. We tackled the hard problem of financial inclusion – we focused on people new to banking, provided very low cost services, and delivered way beyond the bank branches.

Today, Obopay is operating in 6 countries and serving millions of people. The most significant implementations are in India, Kenya, Uganda, and Senegal. I am deeply moved seeing how technology is improving people’s lives. In Africa, I have seen people for the first time feel truly empowered, and a part of more than just their village, when they used their mobile phones to fight corruption.  I have seen child soldiers exchanging guns for mobile phones. In the Middle East I met activists using Twitter to fight for equal rights. In India, I met a hard-working father who sacrificed and saved so he could purchase computers to make sure his children had a better education and better life. And I have seen literacy breakthroughs in India using the same language subtitles on Bollywood shows.

And of course, on three continents I have had the privilege of working with many innovators to deliver mobile money that empower people’s life and work. Mobile money is changing the face of banking globally. This is so important because banking is behind in reaching the masses. And because there are so many small and micro business owners around the world, this has a huge impact on women. So while 85% of people on earth are connected to a mobile phone, just 20% have a bank account.

The good news? Mobile banking is making a difference. But to accomplish greater access to banking, we must understand that the mobile-saturated world we live in today happened not because of one factor, but of several key factors coming together. Mobile Money success comes from creating a whole new ecosystem that transforms the way we deal with money, pay people, get paid, settle business payments, disburse funds, collect taxes.

So although I initially thought that mobile money was a technology challenge, I learned that the real challenge is getting the large telecommunication companies, banks, regulators, microfinance institutions, and innovators to work in harmony to serve the underserved. It has been a long journey for me and much has been accomplished. There is still so much more to do! I continue to be dedicated to a world where all people have access to financial services that empower their life and work.

I am writing this from a plane leaving Kabul Afghanistan. I just finished two days talking to key stakeholders there about building this level of cooperation in a country that has many challenges. But even there, so many people are trying. And this makes me very optimistic about the world.

My trip to Afghanistan is after 15 months of recovery from a very bad accident I had near my home in California. But as I worked on my recovery, I knew I wasn’t done with my commitment to banking for all. My mobile money journey has been the hardest thing I have every done and it is not yet finished.

My request of you, the reader, is that you be bold. Find something you care about and be willing to dedicate your energy and passion to creating it.

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