Banking: In Roshan we trust?

Cellphone banking has come to Afghanistan, but people have other ideas.

Thanks to rampant corruption, unreliable infrastructure and low literacy, fewer than 8% of Afghans have bank accounts. Instead, most people rely on the centuries-old hawala network of informal but trusted brokers to transfer money.

In 2008, Afghan telecom provider Roshan paired with Vodafone to create “M-Paisa,” a service that allowed the government to pay members of the Afghan National Police directly by cellphone, thus bypassing the senior officers who first took a cut for themselves before handing out the wages to the rank and file.

Roshan is now rolling out its mobile money across the country, but a new field study found that the general population might be a tougher sell. Mobile Money: Afghanistan, prepared by global innovation firm Frog Design, found a great deal of resistance to the service. It turns out that Afghans have trouble distinguishing the commissions charged by M-Paisa from a routine bribe, and as a result they have as little trust in the mobile phone company as they do in every other official institution.

But one thing they will use their phones for is love. In a society where marriages are mostly arranged, young lovers gift one another with free airtime. As the study quotes Ahmed, a 24-year-old day labourer, “The mobile phone makes love marriages possible.”