Mobile phones and the underlying technology behind crypto-currencies are helping to slash the cost of providing financial services to the poor, making the area an increasingly attractive proposition to the private sector, according to Rodger Voorhies from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
As the foundation's director of financial services for the poor, Voorhies works with governments and multilateral organisations to help bring the world's 2.5 billion financially excluded people into the system.
However, Voorhies told Finextra at the Money20/20 conference in Las Vegas this week that he also wants to work with profit-making firms. "To solve this problem will require both business model innovations and technology innovations. And I don’t think you get there unless the private sector is involved."
He adds: "There’s some players here at Money20/20 that are doing some really exciting things. And so we’re trying to learn, we’re talking to most of the players in that space and trying to figure out, not just how it impacts the financial system, but for us how does it accelerate access to financial services for poor people."
New technology is making it worthwhile for these companies to enter the race to provide services to the world's poor. Speaking at Sibos earlier this year, Bill Gates floated the potential of cryptocurrencies to increase financial inclusion. Voorhies echoes the point but adds: "We’re really looking at the underlying crypto technology rather than the currency itself.”
He explains: "Right now you have all these third party intermediaries who are maintaining ledgers on everybody’s behalf...The ability of new technology to allow a distributed ledger that brings these things together and then encapsulates the transactions in a cryptography that’s secure. We think that could be a real revolution to the industry."
But, while bitcoin may be the cool new kid on the block, mobile money also offers a way of significantly lowering the cost of transactions and also is currently a safer bet from a regulatory perspective.
The Gates Foundation works in five of the biggest emerging economies - India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia and Nigeria - to get electronic payments at scale. Payments are the "connective tissue" that bring financial services to the poor, says Voorhies, but the data shows that you need a full suite of financial services on offer to really have an impact on the welfare of households.
This is why the foundation is also working in three East African countries - Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda - where mobile money is becoming ubiquitous in an effort to promote products such as savings, credit and insurance on top of payments.
It is these services that are appealing to the private sector, VCs joining Voorhies in a panel discussion agreed, offering a major opportunity to make returns on investment.
Speaking on a later panel, Alberto Jimenez, mobile payments programme director at IBM went further, arguing that electronic money has the potential to offer a platform for a whole new Uber-style sharing economy in the developing world.
Jimenez cites TaskRabbit, the site where people can outsource chores, as a model that could flourish in the developing world, spurring economic activity, if there is a means for the person carrying out the task to collect.