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Pocket change: Myanmar banks on mobile money

Wave Money, a tie-up between a telco operator and a private bank, has built a network of 4,000 mum-and-pop shops around the country where clients can deposit and withdraw cash by phone.

[YANGON] Carrying her wages in wads of cash across Myanmar was once a risky, onerous but unavoidable ritual for maid Khin Myint Oo.

But now she just pings off a text to move the money to her children back home as mobile banking sweeps into a country whose people have for decades been locked out of basic financial services.

Myanmar is spinning through a thrilling economic revival since shedding junta rule in 2011.

But with an embryonic banking system - an estimated 90 per cent of the population still do not have an account - the country's new civilian leaders are banking on mobile money as a shortcut.

"People keep money in their homes in a box," explained Khin Myint Oo, who moved to Myanmar's biggest city Yangon to work as a housekeeper and support her children in northeastern Shan state.

With no bank branches nearby, the family faced two options: long trudges to the nearest teller or shipping stacks of tattered notes by bus.

With just some 1,500 branches in a largely rural country the size of France, experts say it will take years to build enough banks to reach the 51 million population.

Many also have bad memories of 50 years of military rule, when bank runs and currency collapses were frequent and painful.

But change is afoot.

Khin Myint Oo now wires home to her children in a matter of minutes using Wave Money, one of the first mobile banking firms to roll out services.

The company, a tie-up between a telco operator and a private bank, has built a network of 4,000 mum-and-pop shops around the country where clients can deposit and withdraw cash by phone.

Referred to as "human ATMS", these stores are far more accessible and numerous than bank branches. Wave constantly monitors their liquidity and dispatches agents to replenish shops running low on cash.

"The advantage is it now takes very little time to transfer money," Khin Myint Oo said from inside the apartment she cleans for US$2 a day - a sizeable raise from her days as a farmhand.

In one of its first moves since taking power in April, the government passed regulations allowing non-banks to enter the e-money market and offer services to the country's oceans of "unbanked".

"In terms of things you could do straight away that would improve people's lives ...this (policy) would float right to the very top," said Sean Turnell, an Australian economist advising the administration.

Mobile money began in Kenya a decade ago and is now used by nearly half the population.

Similar systems have since taken root across Sub-Saharan Africa and in other developing nations, providing millions of people with safe ways to move and manage their money.

Myanmar's promise as a frontier market is beginning to show especially as phone towers are erected.

Just four years ago only 10 per cent of the population had a mobile phone - now it is 60 per cent, with most using smartphones.

"Myanmar was always the market that everyone would talk about in mobile money conferences because it was so untouched," said Wave Money CEO Brad Jones.

Yet unleashing the technology's full potential rests on overcoming an age-old obstacle: trust.

During its economic heyday under British colonial rule, Myanmar was home to the highest concentration of foreign-owned banks in South-east Asia.

But its fortunes swiftly changed after a military clique grabbed power in 1962 and nationalised all banks, the first of many policies that sunk the nation into poverty.

Faith in the financial system tanked after a flurry of demonetisation decrees in the 1980s wiped out nearly two thirds of the cash in circulation, triggering bank runs and driving many people to convert any savings into gold.

"Getting people to trust ephemeral monetary value will be the first challenge. If people have any surplus at all they often buy gold and gem stones," said Mr Turnell.

Changing this behaviour is a crucial step on the path out of poverty.

Physical assets like gold cannot be cashed quickly, forcing the poor to turn to loan sharks in times of need.

Mobile money is Myanmar's best bet at swiftly linking its poor to safer, more regulated financial services, said Paul Luchtenburg from the UN's Capital Development Fund in Yangon.

"If it was only bank-led, it would take a long time because the banks are so busy just getting their house in order," he told AFP.

In Dala, a muddy suburb across the river from Yangon, those who want to save money have two options: take the boat to a bank in the city or bury it in the backyard.

Like much of the country, there are zero banks or ATMs in town.

Yet several shops have started offering mobile banking services.

"When this service becomes more popular, it will be so much more helpful to people than banks," said Zaw Zaw Oo, whose small convenience store is now part of Wave's network of "human ATMs".

Until then, they'll have to wait for the next ferry.