Innovative fintech startups could make refugees’ lives easier

Displaced people still need financial services, and startup-led innovation in inclusive finance can help

Leaf’s Tori Samples and Nat Robinson meeting with refugees in Rwanda.

At Venture Lab, we are focused on a big problem — the 3 billion people globally who are left out of the financial system. Many of those individuals don’t have access to a safe savings account, credit to build their business, or insurance in the case of a health emergency.  But even among this group, refugees and migrants are uniquely vulnerable to financial exclusion. According to UNHCR, there are 70.8 million displaced people in the world today: 25.9 million refugees living outside their home countries, plus 41.3 million internally displaced people, and 3.5 million asylum seekers. Displaced people are even less likely to have access to the financial tools they need to improve their lives, and many of the inherent challenges that exclude low-income consumers (lack of credit history, lack of collateral, low balances) are only exacerbated for this population. The silver lining is that innovation in fintech can help to change that.

When thinking of the many millions of people needing the very basics of food, shelter, and medical care, access to financial services may not be top of mind. But for a displaced person, being able to protect and access any assets they may own; having a way to receive money from relatives, employers, or organizations; or being able to pay for necessities like cell phone service or clothing can make a difficult situation a little more bearable. And when, at last, a refugee is able to return home or establish a new home, having some savings or a credit history will help them establish a more secure foundation on which to rebuild their life.

Venture Lab has been keen to support models targeting this customer for some time and has already worked with one fintech firm that was founded with the explicit purpose to provide financial services to refugees. Leaf uses blockchain technology to give refugees the chance to convert cash into digital currency before they leave home, so they can protect their assets and access them from their eventual new location. This unique business caught our eye and led us to sponsor Leaf for support through the Catalyst Fund accelerator initiative. In a discussion with my colleague Amee Parbhoo last year, Leaf’s founders explained how their expertise in microfinance and refugee relief led them to develop a sustainable model that serves this vulnerable population.

In fact, as I mentioned during a recent panel on financial inclusion and refugees at the Society for International Development annual conference in Washington, DC, Venture Lab has also invested in other fintechs that don’t specifically serve refugees but provide lessons for how we can leverage innovation to serve these populations. For example, we invested in NOW Money, a neobank for migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates. There are some 8 million foreign workers in the UAE, most of them from Asian countries and most working low-wage jobs such as construction and domestic labor. Like refugees, these workers are away from their home countries and need secure ways to receive wages and transfer money to relatives back home. By partnering with employers and using scalable technology, NOW Money is able to serve these consumers when they were too small, and too hard to identify, for larger financial institutions.

Another of our portfolio companies, U.S.-based Self Lender, provides “thin-file” banking customers with ways to establish or improve their credit scores. Self Lender uses an online version of a traditional “credit builder” loan so borrowers can demonstrate their creditworthiness by sticking to a repayment plan. Refugees would generally qualify as “thin-file” customers, having no employment history or financial records in their new locations, so a model like Self Lender’s could be very useful in helping them get started on building the all-important credit score.

The global refugee crisis is daunting, both in terms of sheer numbers and in the details of human suffering it causes. The challenges of addressing worldwide poverty are similarly huge, yet the companies that Venture Lab supports provide the beginnings of a pathway to solutions. Every day we work with bright, ambitious, and innovative entrepreneurs seeking to use technology to help reach the underserved. We support these companies so they can succeed, and we learn which types of models can work to reach even more excluded customers around the world. I hope to hear of more fintechs like Leaf that are finding an effective way to serve refugees — if you know of any, please get in touch!

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