The Silicon Review
“We can adapt to meet customers where they are, both with flexible technology and an agile business model that can move in and out of markets easily.”– Tori Samples
Blockchain technology with its distributed ledger, decentralized administration, and secure cryptography presents an opportunity to provide affordable financial services to refugees crossing through multiple countries.
In light of the above-mentioned scenario, we’re thrilled to present Leaf Global Fintech – it converts mobile money into stable investments through blockchain technology accessible through a feature phone.
Built mainly for refugees, Leaf offers a secure, affordable, convenient way to safeguard and transfer money across borders. With Leaf, refugees can travel without cash. Whenever the refugee reaches a point of safety, they can withdraw into the new local currency or use their balance as collateral on a microloan.
Leaf was incorporated in 2017 and is headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.
Nat Robinson & Tori Samples, Leaf Global Fintech CEO & CTO respectively, spoke to The Silicon Review. Below is an excerpt.
Why was the company set up? And how did you expand your company and its offerings over the years, Mr. Robinson?
Leaf was founded to tap into a proven market opportunity in offering financial services to refugees. The founders have intimate knowledge of the refugee crisis and the impact of access to financial services in East Africa. They are passionate about using the tools of business to address social challenges and lift a population out of poverty that is often overlooked, stereotyped, and underestimated. The UN has designated over 68 million people as forcibly displaced, with another 100 million at risk of becoming displaced. Often the only option is to forfeit value or carry cash across borders when forced to flee, which is dangerous, inconvenient, and expensive. Refugees also often rely on international remittances but lack a way to receive them safely. Aid agencies and banks do not provide financial services efficiently to this population. Refugees and migrants cannot safely store and transport assets across borders, making them targets in the short-term and economically excluded in the long-term. Recent research has proven that refugees are as bankable as other populations. However, they will continue to be underserved as long as the crisis continues and organizations do not intentionally make their services accessible to this population. Leaf was started to intervene in this cycle, ultimately aiming to serve the two billion unbanked people in the world today.
“We offer virtual banking services to vulnerable populations crossing borders. By connecting people to their own savings conveniently and affordably, we intervene in the system that forces people to lose access to everything they’ve earned. We store and transport assets across borders through a mobile device—no smartphone required. Refugees and migrants can journey without cash, knowing accounts are safe and accessible globally. Friends and family abroad can also contribute to the customer’s account.”
Leaf protects customers’ savings through blockchain technology without exposure to cryptocurrency. With Leaf, these customers build the foundation for an economic identity complete with biometrics, transactions, and savings history.
What challenges did you face in your initial years, Ms. Samples?
Leaf offers cross-border financial services to a high-risk market on a new technology. Accordingly, the main challenges relate to regulation: identifying the appropriate framework per country, connecting with relevant authorities, and proving compliance. Though refugees have been proven as bankable as the low-to-middle income market, Leaf still must bridge an education gap with regulators and partners to de-risk the customer base. Diversifying the marketing strategy to include other customer segments has helped Leaf gain buy-in. The company also must overcome the hurdle of murky regulation around the use of blockchain technology. In Rwanda, regulators are highly educated on the technology and appropriate use cases. Leaf is connected to many facets of the blockchain community in Rwanda: regulatory authorities, developers, businesses, and policymakers. They understand the significant market opportunity and potential for social impact. Most perceived risk with blockchain is related to the cryptocurrency application of the technology. Leaf only uses the underlying properties of the blockchain for back-end transaction storage and does not touch cryptocurrency, which helps bolster support for the model. Even if the government were to pause all blockchain products for the time being, Leaf can operate on a simpler model without using a distributed ledger (with trade-offs in transparency and transaction speed).
“Earning trust and respect of consumers all around the world is through consistent focus on delivering high quality in all of our actions.” How do you interpret this statement, Mr. Robinson?
Communities fragmented by trauma tend to develop extremely close networks with family and friends and rely heavily on relational trust. Refugees and those who have fled conflict find ways to stay in touch around the world by using tools like Facebook and WhatsApp to communicate with large groups. Leaf has been able to earn the trust of resettled refugees in the US through its founders’ previous work with refugees and in East Africa. The company’s founders have been engaged with these communities for over a decade and deeply understand the culture. There is no substitute for time invested. Resettled refugees in the US have advocated for Leaf to friends and family living in conflict zones around the world. Through this network and the 250+ people engaged in testing/piloting, Leaf already has an established base of early adopters in the US, Rwanda, and Congo.
“We have spent time in Rwanda and Congo establishing trust with institutions and key individuals that represent the refugee community there as well. Formal financial institutions often will not serve refugees. This provides us with the opportunity to build loyalty as the first mover and quickly gain an early following. Our product is cheaper, faster, and more convenient than other options.”
How do you stay relevant to the consumer interests and needs in this highly volatile market, Ms. Samples?
Leaf leverages its broad network of advisors and experts to stay abreast of new trends and customer insights. While technology preferences may change, the underlying need to safely store and transport assets across borders does not.
“We can adapt to meet customers where they are, both with flexible technology and an agile business model that can move in and out of markets easily. We have noticed that though Leaf can offer services completely virtually, customers may prefer personal touchpoints for account creation and support. Our perception is that this is not a trust issue as much as a cultural communication preference. We can engage an agent network of support staff using an Uber-like model. Anyone with a smartphone who has completed basic training can help customers enrol using their own device. Alternatively, we can partner with telecoms to access existing agent networks for a small fee.”
Do you have any new products ready to be launched, Mr. Robinson?
After launching the core savings product, Leaf will develop products to meet customers’ needs over time. This will include opening international remittances corridors to connect customers to friends and family abroad. The company will also offer a lending product to help refugees establish a credit score through microloan transaction history.
“Once we feel comfortable with our core savings product we are looking to expand into remittances and lending. We believe it is important to get the model right in Rwanda and Congo with our core product before scaling to other geographies and service offerings.”
Where do you see your company a couple of years from now, Ms. Samples?
Once Leaf has demonstrated its model across Africa, it intends to expand globally to other international migration corridors such as Colombia/Venezuela, Myanmar/Bangladesh, and Afghanistan/Pakistan “to serve the estimated 100 million people at risk of becoming displaced.” As it expands geographically, Leaf intends to launch a full suite of financial services in order to serve its customers’ full spectrum of needs.
Leadership | Leaf Global Fintech
Nat Robinson: Nat Robinson, Co-founder, is the Chief Executive Officer of Leaf Global Fintech.
Tori Samples: Tori Samples, Co-founder, is the Chief Technology Officer of Leaf Global Fintech.
“Leaf protects customers’ savings through blockchain technology without exposure to cryptocurrency. With Leaf, these customers build the foundation for an economic identity complete with biometrics, transactions, and savings history.” – Nat Robinson