In Haiti, Cellphones Serve As Debit Cards The systems have the potential to let Haitians receive remittances from abroad, send cash to relatives across the country, buy groceries or pay for a bus ride with a few taps of their fingers.

In Haiti, Cellphones Serve As Debit Cards

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NPR's Jason Beaubien has more.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Larousse Dorcent runs a small grocery store from a shipping container in a dusty slum above the Haitian port city of Saint Marc. Pigs and chickens wander freely through the neighborhood. It looks like a place that technology forgot, except that for the last two months, customers at Dorcent's shop have been able to pay by cell phone.

LAROUSSE DORCENT: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Dorcent punches a code into his own phone.


BEAUBIEN: Instantly he gets a message showing that he's got 41,000 gourdes or just over a thousand U.S. dollars in his account. Dorcent says he likes that customers can pay from their phones straight to his.

DORCENT: (through translator) The first good reason I can give is when you're handing a lot of liquid cash, it's also being handled by a whole lot of other people throughout the country. And these days with cholera, it's safer to not be in contact with currency that's making its way throughout the country.

BEAUBIEN: Andrew Lucas manages the assistance program for Mercy Corps in Saint Marc.

ANDREW LUCAS: What we're doing is giving nine months of food rations. And so each month each family will receive around $40 in credit to buy four products. They can buy rice, oil, corn flour or beans.

BEAUBIEN: Food aid like this is not distributed at all in the severely damaged capital. The goal here is to encourage people to migrate out of Port-au-Prince and at the same time to help the families that have taken them in. Lucas says Mercy Corps used to be handing out printed food vouchers, but now they're giving each family a cheap cell phone loaded with $40 worth of T-cash.

LUCAS: For us actually, vouchers are difficult. It takes a lot of time to distribute them. We have to print them somewhere, distribute them each month, collect them.

BEAUBIEN: Greta Greathouse is with the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is putting up millions of dollars to help get these systems going.

GRETA GREATHOUSE: We wanted it kick-started now. We didn't want to wait for three years.

BEAUBIEN: Currently, only about 10 percent of Haitians have bank accounts. Mobile money has the potential to offer banking-type services - savings accounts, wire transfers, itemized account records - to millions of Haitians who currently don't have them. And Greathouse says mobile money offers advantages over traditional banks.

GREATHOUSE: It costs less. The costs are less than going to the bank and that's before you add in the cost of transport to go to the bank and the time it takes you. And it's safe.

PIERRE LIAUTAUD: I envision a time when every Haitian will figure out that he'd prefer getting paid this way than any other method.

BEAUBIEN: Liautaud says this was an important precursor to mobile money.

LIAUTAUD: It's an introduction not only to the technology but to the principle that I can send you something electronically that has value.

BEAUBIEN: Jason Beaubien, NPR News.


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