Ten years ago, running a “mobile money” or banking operation in Cambodia attracted few investors or companies. This war-torn country with its agrarian economy seemed like the last place on Earth to advance the cause of financial inclusion.
But things change. A company called “Wing,” financed by the deep pockets of ANZ Bank, Australia, started a mobile money exchange business. Launched in 2008 with operations commencing in 2009, Wing Money locked up agreements with all but one of the seven telcos in the country (used to be ten, an unbelievable number considering Cambodia’s population).
Anthony Perkins, who runs Wing, shared in our podcast interview last year about Wing’s launch strategy: Push as many mobile-based products into the market and see what sticks—mobile top-off, money exchange, merchant payments, and more. Perkins believes Wing might have failed if they would have offered just one product like Kenya’s M-PESA. A telco, bank, or other company might have squashed them in their infancy.
Not that the citizens of Cambodia wanted mobile money accounts, despite 95% cell phone ownership. Cash-in-hand—preferably U.S. dollars instead of Riels—made better sense to Cambodians. And banks? No one trusted them. Well, 5% wealthy residents did as of late 2013.
Telcos? Cellcard offered top-ups and an early mobile money start in 2010; however, as of 2015, it’s website shows a partnership with Wing.
Cambodia Money Owners Don’t Read English
Enter a big problem for Wing. Only 10% of all phones in the country support Khmer Unicode on USSD, the standard phone protocol. The other 90%? English. Hmm…this posed a major challenge. How do you get your customers to handle mobile money transactions in English on their phones when they speak, write, and read in Khmer?
Problem semi-solved. Hire thousands of retail agents who are known by the populace and spread them across the entire country. Then allow them to exchange money and give mobile phone lessons.
Wing Flies Higher and Makes Money
Fast forward to 2013. Wing becomes profitable. $1.2 billion in transactions. Lots of money was moved from underneath mattresses to digital currency. In September 2014, the Central Bank lets Wing operate as a bank under a special agreement.
- Wing customers pay bills, make credit card and loan payments through 20 microfinance organizations. Government remittances occur in the wings.
- March 2015 brings an agreement with Kasikorn Bank in Thailand allowing Wing customers to send money to Cambodian refugees.
Telcos and bankers scratch their heads thinking, “This isn’t Bangladesh.”
Cambodia Mobile Transactions Flying to Wing
Now, you might think Wing took the country by storm while potential competitors sat on their haunches. Not true. As mobile money became more popular, bigger players emerged.
- ACLEDA Bank offers rural retail banking to 160,000 Cambodians through its banks and ATM’s in 160 rural districts. Unfortunately, they lack agents in rural areas.
- Metfone, owned by Vietnamese Viettel, a large telco also operating in Africa, Vietnam, and eight other countries launched EMoney earlier in 2015. Presumably Wing copycats, owned by the military in Hanoi and operating at half the cost of Wing while employing low-cost military labor for their network agents.
Meanwhile, Wing continues to grow. Due to its five years of dominance—and new Cambodia money products—the company is positioned for long-term success in this country of nearly 16 million people.
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