Digital currency’s potential to do good in the developing world just got a little clearer with a new partnership announced today.
Stellar, a nonprofit that’s building a global digital platform for transferring money, is teaming up with Vumi, an open-source text messaging network, to empower women in South Africa by giving them easy access to a mobile savings account through a new program called Give a Girl a Savings Account.
Stellar — which digital payment company Stripe invested $3 million in — wants to use its network to serve those in disadvantaged communities. But it needs help reaching them, and that’s where Vumi comes in.
Vumi has a user base of 15 million in select countries within Africa, and it already operates regional mass-messaging campaigns. For example, in South Africa, MomConnect uses the platform to let pregnant women rate health care facilities they’ve visited and access information about pregnancy and HIV.
Now Vumi and Stellar will pilot the asset savings program for women in South Africa. “Asset” savings is important, because users may not be directly saving money through Vumi. Instead, women may buy prepaid mobile minutes — a currency in its own right within the region — which they can then easily trade for goods at stores.
“It’s more familiar to them, because it’s something that they use in their day-to-day lives,” says Joyce Kim, cofounder of Stellar. Programs like Vodafone’s M-Pesa also allow people to buy airtime minutes, make mobile transactions, and transfer money.
But Give a Girl a Savings Account emphasizes saving, not spending. Kim says that Vumi is focusing on savings accounts as a tool to help women who are not necessarily poor, but who get sidelined when unexpected costs hit. The program will also give women advice on how to save and will offer an easy signup process that takes minutes rather than days. With M-Pesa you have to register with an agent; girls can sign up for Vumi from their phones.
Stellar was cofounded by Kim along with Jed McCaleb. He’s also known for creating the now defunct Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox and cofounding Ripple Labs (formerly OpenCoin). McCaleb made a dramatic exit from Ripple last year when he announced he would sell of his large share of Ripple coins. The sell-off threatened to upend Ripple’s fledgling ecosystem, and McCaleb decided against it.
Stellar currently runs on a fork of Ripple, or a customized version of it. But, Kim says the platform won’t scale the way she wants it to, so her organization is developing a new way to verify transactions. She didn’t disclose whether Stellar will rely on its own infrastructure in the future or switch to another network.
Stellar’s global approach and open-source API make it easy for existing institutions (financial and otherwise) to hook into its network, enabling the company to reach a multitude of communities.
“People can solve their own problems given the right tools,” says Kim.
To date the company has 3 million accounts.