Leaf Global FinTech: Creating Financial Inclusion for Refugees

Sylvana Lewin, Monday April 16th 2018

Today there are 65.6 million displaced persons in the world - the highest amount ever seen. Of the 22.5 million refugees worldwide, half are under the age of 18. According to UNHCR, 1.4m of those refugees come from South Sudan and 5.5m come from Syria. The refugee crisis is an important issue for Africa, which is seeing high amounts of displacement as well as hosting the 30% of the world’s displaced, the highest amount in the world.

One of the many issues that comes with displacement is that refugees are often cut out of the digital economy and forced to carry what cash and valuables they can with them as they leave their homes. During displacement, these people face robbery, violence, corruption, and more.

Leaf Global FinTech is developing a mobile platform using blockchain technology to facilitate converting cash to virtual currency, in an effort to tackle this issue. Leaf integrates virtual financial services securely and conveniently, focusing on providing identity management, asset transfer, and payment infrastructure to refugees.

Leaf CoFounder Nat Robinson traces Leaf’s roots back to the Hult Prize, a global social business plan competition, which he participated in last year. Given the theme of the global refugee crisis, Robinson drew from his microfinance and financial services background to brainstorm a solution that would become the catalyst for Leaf.

Social enterprise has always been important to Robinson, who explained, “I’ve always believed in the ability of business and markets and capital to address social problems better than governments and nonprofits, mostly because of the way that you can attract capital, deploy technology, and hire a staff to provide a service more efficiently.”

[caption id="attachment_6660" align="aligncenter" width="665"]Leaf Global Fintech in Rwanda The Leaf Team in Rwanda.[/caption]

Recently the Leaf team traveled to Rwanda to hear from refugees and test their product at the border between Gisenyi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the world’s busiest border crossings. Blockchain Developer Breck Stodghill was one of the team members who traveled to Rwanda and described the highly positive response they received from the community, stating, “People were asking if the product was ready, if they were able to use it right now, if they could cash out money today.”

Both Stodghill and Robinson found the trip encouraging. The team was able to use the time not only to speak with refugees and test the product, but also to meet with potential partners, banks, and mobile money providers. A clear issue raised by refugees was corrupt border guards robbing them of all their belongings, leaving them to arrive in camps with nothing.

While today the Leaf product is not ready to operationalize, as it needs partnership support from banks and local mobile money providers, a network is being created to get the product out as soon as possible. Stodghill stated, “The need is there. Now it’s just working with the existing infrastructure in the countries to be able to execute on the promise that we’re hoping to achieve.”

Currently, the company is fully bootstrapped, having recently won Best Bootstrapped Startup at SXSW. Robinson emphasized that the company has decided to bootstrap up until this point as the team wants to stick to their mission of helping refugees. However, the company will soon be exploring raising capital, while making sure they don’t jeopardize their mission.

[caption id="attachment_6661" align="aligncenter" width="665"]Leaf Global Fintech wins Best Bootstrapped Startup at SXSW 2018 Leaf accepting the Best Boostrap Award at SXSW 2018.[/caption]

Leaf centers around the idea that FinTech can be used to improve lives. They are the leaf beyond the bank branch providing financial access to the underserved and displaced populations. Robinson believes the reach of opportunity is what is most exciting about this product. He explained, “How quickly you can scale this technology and then reach a market and population - that’s the opportunity. To go beyond where the banks are to get to the two billion people around the world who don’t have access to financial services.”

Stodghill, too, believes blockchain technology has a lot of promise in creating social impact and that it doesn’t end with FinTech. He stated, “FinTech is just the tip of the iceberg for what blockchain can do. I see these kinds of solutions as an empowering tool that can help people at the bottom of the pyramid. It can help them to join the ladder of development.”

If you’re interested in learning more about companies using technology to tackle the refugee crisis, make sure to read Technology and Humanitarian Assistance: The Refugee Crisis.