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WOCCUs Branch in a Backpack extends member service in Kenya
NAIROBI (10/23/09)--The World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) is helping credit unions service people in remote areas of the world through a ‘branch in a backpack’ program.
Click to view larger image Jesus Chavez, World Council of Credit Unions’ Kenya program director, demonstrates the “branch in a backpack,” which brings credit union services directly to members. (Photo provided by the World Council of Credit Unions)
In the village of Kakuyuni in rural Kenya, there are no financial institutions. Residents often have to spend up to 90 minutes on a matatu--a somewhat uncertain form of public transportation--to make deposits into accounts at the nearest branch of Universal Traders SACCO (UTS), their closest credit union. The challenge in making the trip over Kenya's rough roads often reduces their interest in utilizing the credit union. With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, WOCCU developed the "branch in a backpack" alternative. “This is another step in new transaction technology that will help us better serve people without easy credit union access," said Jesus Chavez, manager of WOCCU's SACCO Growth Program in Kenya, to members of the Kakuyuni Dairy Farmers Self-help Group this week. A collection of high-tech electronic equipment, anchored by a Dell laptop computer with 160 gigabytes of memory, makes up Chavez's “backpack branch.” Rounding out the basic lineup is an inexpensive computer-mounted camera, a portable scanner and point-of-service (POS) device with biometric capabilities. All fit into a standard-size backpack that can be taken to villages like Kakuyuni, whose members live too far from the nearest credit union branch to visit regularly. The laptop serves as the branch’s engine, with the mounted camera used to take pictures of new members in the field. The small scanner, which connects via USB port to the computer and taps its battery power to function, is used to copy legal documents required to enroll SACCO members. The POS device, which scans the print on each member's thumb or finger of choice, allows the credit union representative to verify the member's identity for each transaction. The device also sends the transaction's information for processing to the mainframe at WOCCU Services Group, WOCCU's for-profit subsidiary that shares its development program's Nairobi office and supports the high-tech initiative. The technology saves members countless hours of travel to and from their credit unions to conduct simple transactions, Chavez said. The small laptop has limited battery life, which led the WOCCU program director to add a Powergorilla and Powermonkey to each of the backpack branches. The two devices, produced by Powertraveller Ltd., headquartered in the United Kingdom, are batteries for the laptop and POS device, respectively. They are rechargeable using small portable solar panels that fit into the backpack. WOCCU pays about $1,300 for each “branch.” The new backpack branch interacts with members' existing cell phone banking capabilities, an interactive technology that WOCCU introduced in Kenya in March 2007. The devices use M-PESA, a software program created jointly by Kenya telecommunications provider Safaricom and the United Kingdom's Vodaphone. “M“ stands for “mobile“ and “pesa” is Swahili for “money.“ By March 2009, two years after WOCCU introduced the technology, M-PESA transactions throughout Kenya totaled $1.73 billion. “This year M-PESA has introduced online bill-pay,” said Chavez. “The company also just announced that it was going international.” On Wednesday, WOCCU signed an agreement in Kenya with I&M Bank House to support the program SACCOs with clearing services required to make the backpack branch a viable option. However, Chavez also is ready to take his SACCOs to the next step in high-tech transactions by introducing a smart card that includes the member's identifying thumb or fingerprint on its memory chip. The device also can act as a stored-value card, enabling easier transfer of funds through ATM or backpack branch usage. “It's called ‘virtual wallet,’” Chavez said. “Members just have to remember never to leave any of their fingers at home.”
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