A system that enables less well-off people in Afghanistan to make mobile money transfers offers numerous advantages. But the concept is struggling to gain acceptance because the companies offering the service are not doing enough to adapt to the national context.

Using a system of mobile money transfer in Afghanistan would serve to make transfers more secure and also help to boost the country’s economy. The "M-paisa" system, launched jointly by Vodafone and Roshan at the end of 2008, aims to do just that. The principle is simple: the sender starts the process by opening an account with an accredited agent and places a sum of money on the account. He can then send a phone SMS - complying with a set of criteria and procedures laid down by the system creators, and specifying an amount of money - to another person. The recipient then only has to go to an agent who is accredited by both companies and show him the message. The agent then makes the money available. Jan Chipsase, of FrogDesign, and Panthea Lee, co-founder of Reboot, who carried out a study on the subject in August 2010 which was released in 2011, stress just how fast, cheap and secure the procedure is.

Mobile market in its infancy, highly traditional culture

However, this mobile money transfer system has to contend with the traditional system of "hawala". Hawala entails going to an independent intermediary who transfers the funds from one individual to another, rather like a courier. This practice is widespread among the less well-off social strata.  In fact the report’s authors explain that the "M-Paisa" approach, in spite of the considerable promise it holds, is bumping up against numerous obstacles. The first is a structural issue: on the one hand mobile devices have achieved only weak penetration among people with very low incomes, while at the other end of the spectrum high-earners prefer to use traditional banking services rather than mobile money transfer. A second obstacle has more to do with Afghan society itself. Many families have always used the personalised hawala services and are unwilling to experiment with a different approach. Not only is this attitude deeply-rooted but the historical background is also rather complicated.

Flexibility required in raising awareness and spreading the new approach

According to Jan Chipsase, "In Afghanistan banks have often failed in their job of keeping people’s money safe." This encourages Afghan people to keep their savings "under the mattress" rather than trust a non-tangible process. In addition there are problems of a purely practical nature. Many agents whose job it is to encourage use of the system complain about a too-rigid approach from head office, which is unsuited to a market that works on an informal basis. For example, most of the mobile devices bought through backstreet channels are not compatible with a system that requires an officially-registered SIM card. The conclusions by the authors of the report confirm the potential of the system for Afghanistan but underline that companies offering these services need to go out and get people used to the new “mobile” approach if they are to bring down the barriers erected by social traditions.