As part of our ongoing interview series, we recently had the opportunity to ask a few questions of Benjamin Lyon, Founder and Executive Director of FrontlineSMS:Credit
, which aims to make every formal financial service available to the entrepreneurial poor in 160 characters or less. A big thank you to Ben for taking the time...
1. Could you provide a brief overview of the organization and your role and responsibilities in it?
FrontlineSMS:Credit is an initiative of the Kiwanja Foundation, the non-profit arm of kiwanja.net
in the United States. Although we were originally founded as CreditSMS, we officially joined Kiwanja & the FrontlineSMS family on October 9th, 2009 while at Africa Gathering in London. Like FrontlineSMS, the mass-SMS communication platform designed for non-profit organizations, every FrontlineSMS:Credit module will be free & open source, so anyone will be able to download and modify the code at no cost.
As Executive Director, I am responsible for promoting FrontlineSMS:Credit and delegating duties to the rest of our team. Typically, I spend my days getting input from microfinance institutions (MFIs) throughout Africa and meeting with development agencies here in Washington, DC. I basically keep my ears to the ground to look for opportunities to exchange ideas and collaborate.
2. How does the process work, and what are the main benefits for MFIs and loan recipients?
In short, we're meshing the functionality of FrontlineSMS with the ability to interact with local mobile payment systems (e.g. MTN Mobile Money, Zain Zap, Orange Transfer, etc) in order to make a full range of financial services available via text message. FrontlineSMS:Credit will serve as both a front-end channel for MFIs to send, receive and automatically organize mobile money transactions and a back-end management information system (MIS).
Although the end user will always be interacting with a simple text message, the implementing MFI will be organizing those messages in service-specific spreadsheets. After microloans have been issued, for instance, incoming mobile payments will be automatically attached to individual client profiles based on their phone number and then deducted from their outstanding balance. Any payment in excess of the outstanding balance will be held in appropriate account as savings. Since every incoming/outgoing transaction will be organized, implementing MFIs will be able to automatically generate client credit histories and scores, which we will allow loan officers in the field to access via text message.
We plan to release our modules incrementally, staring with Savings & Credit, which will be released for free download this Spring. Later modules will include Insurance, Rotating Savings & Credit Association, Self Help Group, Payroll and Islamic Banking.
3. Mobile technology and microfinance have been two buzzwords in the development field for several years now, what inspired you to bring them together to set up FrontlineSMS:Credit?
Honestly, complete accident. When I met Josh Nesbit, Executive Director of FrontlineSMS:Medic, several months ago, I jokingly jotted down the FrontlineSMS and FrontlineSMS:Medic symbols, which are \o/ & \+/ respectively, and said they needed the \$/ symbol to complete the triad. Once I looked at the symbol, I was blown away by its potential. CreditSMS was born and, four months later, became FrontlineSMS:Credit.
4. What keeps you up at night?
Fascination. Everything about mobile money and microfinance makes my heart race, so I have no problem staying up until 3:00 or 4:00am to read the latest industry news or contact interested parties.
Mobile money is the future of microfinance and has the potential to usher in the era of financial inclusion. To know that we're helping advance the technology of tomorrow is incredibly exciting.
5. What type of impact has FrontlineSMS:Credit had thus far, and what does the future hold for the organization?
Our first software module, Savings & Credit, will be available this Spring. Until then, the only impact we've made is in the world of ideas. Nevertheless, important players are starting to look more seriously at improving the efficiency of front-end MFI distribution channels.
Once our software is developed, we have beta partners lined up throughout Sub-Saharan Africa to help us run pilot programs. If anyone in other regions would like to become a beta partner, they can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like FrontlineSMS, our goal is to produce a top-notch platform, distribute it for free, build an interactive user community, and then step back.
6. Any additional thoughts?
To learn more about FrontlineSMS:Credit, please visit our site (http://credit.frontlinesms.com
) or follow us on twitter (@creditsms
). We are happy to answer any questions and are always open to suggestions, concerns and challenges.
Benjamin Lyon is the Founder and Executive Director of FrontlineSMS:Credit. He graduated from Rhodes College, where he majored in Economics & International Studies with a focus on microfinance and informal economics. Ben lives in Washington, D.C.
FrontlineSMS:Credit in Brief:
FrontlineSMS:Credit aims to make every formal financial service available to the entrepreneurial poor in 160 characters or less. By meshing the functionality of FrontlineSMS with local mobile payment systems, implementing institutions will be able to provide a full range of customizable services, from savings and credit to insurance and payroll.
Ian Homer (www.ianhomerphotography.co.uk
Africa Gathering (www.africagathering.org.uk