Despite the fact that they are wealthy and modern, cities like Dubai in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) actually face a big financial inclusion challenge. There are 8 million foreign-born migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) alone, making up some 88% of that country’s total population. These workers come primarily from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines, and are mostly in low-paying jobs such as construction or domestic labor. Across the Gulf region, migrants have faced tough working conditions and have been historically ignored by financial institutions. They lack access to basic financial services, including bank accounts and fast, convenient remittance channels for sending money to their families back home.
This is where NOW Money, Accion Venture Lab’s newest portfolio company, comes in. NOW Money was founded in 2015 by Katharine Budd and Ian Dillon, who were inspired by the digital-only “challenger banks” that had begun to emerge across the US and Europe. While the UAE has over 50 banks in operation, none of them are able to reach the country’s massive and underserved low-income migrant population effectively. NOW Money provides a suite of products to its customers: current accounts for depositing and withdrawing wages; debit cards for use at ATMs and for merchant transactions; and a marketplace of online remittance platforms for cheaper and more convenient money transfer services. By reducing the cost of customer acquisition and reaching a relatively untapped market, NOW is able to offer these services (and eventually others) and cost-effectively serve customers that would otherwise be considered unprofitable by traditional banks.
NOW partners and integrates with large employers to pay workers’ salaries directly into NOW Money accounts. The value proposition is strong for both end customers and employers. For customers, NOW offers a suite of products otherwise unavailable in the market. In particular, during our due diligence we saw customers incredibly excited about the digital interface for access to remittances. In the UAE today, some 95% of remittances are cash-based transactions. The workers we spoke with remit 60% or more of their wages to family members in their home countries, and typically have to take time off work, wait in long lines at remittance houses, and pay high fees in order to make these regular transactions.
For employers, NOW provides a less expensive solution for payroll. In addition, the employers we spoke with were motivated to give their employees the benefits NOW offers for both moral and economic reasons. Some employers see a spike in absenteeism the day after pay is disbursed, as employees go to remittance houses. Lastly, many employers, especially in more skilled and technical professions, value NOW as a way to increase employee retention.
Venture Lab is excited to be supporting the NOW Money team as they grow and scale. We invested in the company — our first in the GCC and one of the first early-stage VC deals in the region — for a number of reasons:
- Clear social impact: The migrant population in the GCC is historically underserved by basic financial services. The wages these workers earn are low ($200–300 per month, depending on occupation). Due to banking standards in the UAE, it is very difficult and costly for a customer to open an account if they earn less than $1,300 per month, thereby excluding a vast majority of the migrant worker population.
- Large market with unmet need: The UAE is the third largest market in the world for remittances, trailing only the US and Saudi Arabia. Across the GCC (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman), the total addressable market is some 25 million low-income migrant workers believed to be remitting about $50 billion annually. The remittance corridors used are some of the most active in the world, and NOW fills a crucial gap by providing customers ease of access and lower costs.
- Innovative “neobank” model: Accion Venture Lab looks to support fintech companies that have innovative approaches to increasing access to and quality of financial services for underserved markets. We have been actively watching the digital-only neobank/challenger bank models around the world and are excited about NOW Money, our very first neobank investment. We’re thrilled to be part of NOW as it expands and aims to become the financial service platform of choice for migrant workers. As NOW truly owns the customer relationship, it will be able to provide incremental value to customers’ financial lives with each further partnership, beyond simply account access and low-cost remittance tools.
- Opportunity to learn from new customers, market, and product: NOW Money would be a first for Venture Lab in a number of ways. Venture Lab has never invested in the Gulf region, and NOW Money could serve as a way to learn about this fast-growing region and its market dynamics. In addition, Venture Lab has investments reaching many kinds of underserved customers, but we have limited experience serving migrant workers, which is a huge market with demonstrated, specific, and relevant financial needs. NOW Money would help us better understand this vast and growing population of underserved customers.
As is the case for all of our seed investments, NOW Money is early in its journey, but as investors in the company and proponents of financial inclusion for underserved populations, we are excited about their progress so far and the company’s plans going forward.
Rob Stevens contributed to this article.