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Money, Errands and Secret Codes

Brian Muiru

Photo by Alex Nemo Hanse on Unsplash

It would typically start with me receiving a late-night phone call from my relatives living & working in the US. They’d call to inform me of the secret code I was to use to collect money that they’d sent via a service such as Western Union or Moneygram during their work break. The money was meant for several things they needed done back home and often involved tiresome processes. I’d immediately make plans and the next day would go something like this:

Receiving The Cash

I’d wake up in the morning, board the first bus to the Nairobi City Centre. By then I had a pretty good idea where every money transfer agent was located due to the numerous times I’d done this. There were a few stand-alone money transfer agent offices but the majority were situated within branches of partner banks. However, not all of these were operational all through the day as banks would prioritize their own core services. Many times I’d walk into a bank and there’d be no teller at the designated money transfer desk so I’d have to go to the nearest alternative location.

When I finally found a bank that had the money transfer agent counter open, I was often subjected to waiting in long queues and watching as I lost precious time just to collect the cash. The process became pretty straightforward over the years if I had everything that was required — write down the transaction code and amount, surrender some form of acceptable identification and wait. At this point, the person behind the counter would key in the information, wait for their screen to confirm the transaction details, ask you for the ‘secret code’ and if everything checked out, I’d be handed the cash plus my identity document. If for whatever reason, the code was wrong, I’d have to wait to communicate this with the sender that evening and come back the next day. But what came next was the harder part.

Running Errands On The Sender’s Behalf

With the cash in my pocket (despite the security risk this posed), the next step involved making calculated decisions on how to allocate the funds. Like I said, the money was never solely for my own use. There were clear instructions on what should be achieved with it and there was usually a little extra as a ‘thank you’ for my troubles. I’d call it an “inconvenience fee”. Nicer relatives tended to vary this amount depending on how much I had to do for them. But others were a little tight with this and this made their errands less motivating — I’m only human after all.

Normally, the errands that needed to be done would vary and therefore would sometimes take more than one day either due to proximity, logistics or the nature of the request. Sometimes it would involve making payments to a government office for land rates, other times a school fees payment for another relative, and there were times where I’d travel to go inspect a parcel of land that they were considering purchasing as an investment after engaging with one of the real estate companies that were marketing property for sale to Kenyans living abroad.

And every time, it involved at least three or four errands to run. The most challenging were payments that were time-sensitive as I’d have to drop my own commitments to facilitate their needs. Therefore, I’d need to plan my week to accommodate all that needed to be fulfilled in anticipation of late evening calls to confirm that everything had been executed properly. In some cases, I’d also need to scan and send back confirmation receipts to the sender either for their records or onward transmission. Facilitating this feedback loop was and still is essential to keeping diaspora remittances flowing in as there’s always a need for a trusted individual who can fulfil the needs of people abroad. But a lot has changed in the present age of FinTech and digital money.

Photo by Askar Abayev from Pexels

What It’s Like Receiving Remittances Today

With the rapid rise in mobile money usage in sub-Saharan Africa, digital remittances are gaining steady adoption because they greatly reduce the steps required to receive and spend this money. The most convenient channel of receiving digital remittances is definitely through a mobile money wallet due to its near-instantaneous nature. When the money isn’t solely for personal use by the recipient (as is the case most times), recipients inevitably mix the money received with their own money in order to fulfill the sender’s wishes. The recipient naturally also incurs additional transaction costs of their own wallet as a result. A major challenge faced by recipients is the fact that mobile wallets don’t come with a dedicated “pocket” where you can separately store these funds based on their intended use. So it is to be expected that at some point, some of it won’t be accounted for.

When it comes to feedback loops, the process is largely unchanged. Phone calls have been replaced with WhatsApp video calls and screenshots of transaction information. But this is hardly ideal for both senders and recipients, especially where there are big-time differences or conflicting priorities that make it hard to connect without interrupting each other’s days. From what we have learned in our research, this process has a lot of room for improvement for both parties.

Where Do Remittances Actually Go?

Nobody knows with any high level of certainty. We’ve seen reports that faintly explain the most common uses of remittances but nobody can actually confirm this data since once remittances are cashed out, there’s no way to distinguish them from local funds. This data is crucial so that as African countries, we can tap and fully unlock the potential of remittances for our economies. We’ve already received feedback from over 100 Africans currently in the diaspora from a survey we carried out at the end of last year. We now want to learn from their beneficiaries back home. To this end, we’re currently conducting a Remittance Beneficiary Survey.

If you’ve been a recipient of diaspora remittances, we’d greatly appreciate it if you could spend 5 minutes to share your experience and help us build a product that will completely revolutionize this experience for you. If you aren’t a remittance recipient but might know some, we’d really appreciate it if you could share this article with them so we can learn from their experience. Their input will go a long way in helping us further refine and customize the Tulix App, an African product for Africans all over the world.

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