Leaf Global Fintech: Providing Financial Services to the Financially Excluded
Leaf provides financial services to the stateless and excluded through a digital wallet, enabling users to safely send, store, and transport money across borders, and exchange currencies without carrying cash. Leaf is accessible on any mobile device — no smartphone required.
Leaf Wallet officially went live in Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya in September 2020, with an initial focus on a refugee camp in Rwanda and subsequent expansion to cross-border traders, SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises), and the general population. You can find us on the App Store, Google Play, and through our USSD shortcodes in East Africa. Launching our product during the Covid-19 pandemic was incredibly challenging but also instructive for how to continue our expansion digitally. In the first six months, we registered 2,600 customers and completed over 33,000 transactions worth $215,000.
Refugees, traders, and the payments market
The digital savings, remittances, and payments space remains nascent in many parts of the world and continues to be a relatively untapped market. Remittances in Sub-Saharan Africa alone total $949,000,000 annually, but average fees remain high and the majority of transactions occur through informal channels. Intra-Africa money transfer corridors through traditional remittance/payments applications are still the most expensive in the world, costing up to 25% in fees and foreign exchange spread. These exorbitant fees are particularly punitive for refugees, cross border traders, and small business owners — often those who rely on payments and remittances most.
In 2019, the UN designated 79.5 million people around the world as forcibly displaced — 1% of the world’s population — and among them are nearly 26 million refugees. This number is the highest on record according to available data and is expected to continue to rise.
In addition to high international transfer fees, a lack of access to local solutions such as banks and mobile money also leaves Leaf’s target customers vulnerable. Even when accessible, these solutions do not typically cross borders, leaving customers with no choice but to forfeit value or carry cash. This is not only inconvenient and expensive due to fees and bad exchange rates but also dangerous, as it makes people easy targets for theft.
Other digital wallets and app-based solutions do not work for these groups because of dependence upon internet access and smartphones. Around the world, 2.4 billion people still use feature phones (non-smartphones). This presents a huge opportunity to use existing legacy technology in new and innovative ways. Leaf meets this opportunity by offering affordable and convenient digital financial services that are accessible from a mobile device — no smartphone required.
Refugees and migrants are not the only groups excluded from formal financial institutions. Cross-border traders and SMEs are also often vulnerable to financial exploitation and expensive exchange rates; joining formal financial institutions is often inaccessible or impractical. This market, too, should not be underestimated. As of December 2019, P2P (person-to-person) and merchant payments in East Africa totaled $22 billion annually. Many of these transactions are made by small businesses and micro-entrepreneurs. Small scale, cross-border trade in Uganda and Rwanda alone was worth $549 million (USD) and $103 million, respectively, in 2017. Cross-border traders and SMEs still face financial risk due to theft, bad exchange rates, and expensive P2P services, making the need for Leaf clear within these markets.
Domestic vs. expensive: How current financial services fail refugees, migrants, and traders
No other financial service on the market is specifically designed for refugees and migrants, cross-border traders, and the financially excluded. Existing products like banks, mobile money, and international remittance apps are often ineffective because they only offer either domestic services or point-to-point money transfer. Rarely do they offer both, especially in an inclusive and accessible way. Other digital wallets only serve the smartphone-enabled market and rely on in-house ledgers that could be manipulated.
One example in the current landscape that creates gaps and opportunities is mobile money. Mobile money is a ubiquitous payment system in Africa whereby users can load cash onto their phone through a network of millions of agents usually stationed on street corners. With mobile money, people can send money to other mobile money users on the same telecom network within that country. Despite the penetration of mobile money services in East Africa, it doesn’t cross borders easily, meaning users have to withdraw hard cash before crossing the border. This also limits the group of people with whom users can send and receive money. For families and supplier/customer networks split across borders and telecom networks, mobile money is not a viable option on its own.
How Leaf’s blockchain-based wallet fills gaps in the financial market
This is where the Leaf wallet comes in — Leaf offers the storage and transport of money uniquely tailored to solve problems inherent in financial services available today.
Leaf’s blockchain-based wallet and business model offer customers a low-cost, convenient, and secure solution. Sending Leaf-to-Leaf is always free. Users can cash in from any mobile money number in any of the countries in which Leaf operates. If they want to send to someone who doesn’t have a Leaf account, they simply cash out to that person’s mobile money number and pay a small fee. Leaf differentiates itself by meeting its customers where they are, with technology that they already know and trust. While most solutions require a smartphone or internet access, any registered Leaf user can use a USSD shortcode on a basic phone or a smartphone to access all of Leaf’s services. Leaf provides what customers consistently value: low costs, convenience, immediacy, accessibility, and physical security.
In terms of security, blockchain technology plus PIN authentication offer security and complete transparency, greatly reducing the risk of fraud or corruption. On the blockchain, transactions are confirmed and received immediately, unlike other money transfer systems in which transactions are confirmed immediately but can take hours or days to process.
Mobile money infrastructure and the effects of COVID-19 have only made the environment more hospitable for digital solutions and increased customer trust. In fact, mobile money usage in Rwanda increased approximately 400% from March to May of 2020 in parallel with the government’s efforts to reduce the use of hard cash. By integrating with these networks and building across them, Leaf fills existing gaps and is positioning itself to be the first financial super-app within the market.
“With Leaf, I can send money to a person in Uganda and receive Ugandan shillings without leaving home, which saves time for me. Leaf makes it easy to send and receive money from abroad. I would absolutely recommend the Leaf wallet because of the benefits I have experienced,” — Francoise U., a Leaf user in Rwanda.
Leaf allows customers to access their savings domestically and across borders and opens a path for international remittances, creating an economic identity in the process. Leaf helps users retain more money by offering cheaper services than banks, mobile money, or international remittance companies. The importance of accessible and inclusive financial services cannot be overstated. The future is bright, and Leaf is well on its way to achieving its mission of enabling economic security for the stateless and excluded around the world.