Tag: Dubai

Hope in the city of neon lights

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Tall buildings, glittering hotels and a luxury lifestyle are all things commonly associated with Dubai. However, there is another side to this jewel in the desert. Many people forget about the blue collar workers who build our city and make it turn. They’re an integral part of Dubai and the UAE but all too often they get ignored.

I’ve lived in Dubai for ten years now and I still only know a relatively small amount about blue collar workers. A few weeks ago I decided to change this and had a chat with a man near where I live. At first he was hesitant to reveal too much to me but after I explained why I was interested in his life he was more than happy to talk and share his experiences with me.

His name was Bilal, and he told me about his daily routine. He wakes up at 5am every day as he has to get a lift from his accommodation, near the Iranian Hospital, to his work which is in JAFZA. He has to be at work at 8am and this is the only way he can make it on time. Bilal starts his duties as a removals assistant as soon as he arrives at work. He can be sent anywhere, his company covers all of Dubai and Sharjah, and once he arrives at a client’s location for the day he will be moving and packing heavy items. The work is physically demanding and very hard in the summer when the temperatures are so high. Bilal explained that he often gets sick, especially during the summer and he believes this is because of heat related issues.

I asked Bilal if he had a bank account in order to receive his salary. He told me that he’s been in Dubai for nearly two years but has never had an account as his salary is too low to open one (in the UAE, most banks require a minimum salary of AED 3,000 per month to open an account). He also said that banks require a lot of documents which he struggles to provide. I wondered how he gets paid if he has no bank account and Bilal explained that his boss transfers his salary to an exchange house for him to collect. The exchange house is located in Deira Naif which is a good distance from where he lives so he has to spend more money travelling to collect his salary. The exchange house also deducts AED 5 for the service. Whilst this might seem like a small amount, this is the cost of food for one day for Bilal so it’s significant to him.

Bilal tells me the reason he puts up with this is because of his family in Pakistan. He wants to support them and provide them with a positive future.

Bilal is just one of many blue collar workers facing these issues in Dubai, similar to those in any big city. However, it’s time to make a change. Here at NOW Money, we believe that everyone should be able to access financial services, regardless of how little they earn. Financial inclusion benefits society as a whole not just those at the bottom end.  We aim to make money transfers as easy as ‘liking’ a picture on your favourite social media account, and this is one click that could actually change someone’s life.

25 years in Dubai and no savings

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Deluksi has been working in Dubai as a housemaid on and off for 25 years.

She came to Dubai to earn money for her family back in Sri Lanka after she left her husband due his alcoholism and gambling problems. She left two daughters at home aged 10 and 2.

She arrived in January 1992 and went straight to work for a family as their helper. They were not kind to her to say the least and she tells a dark tale of being refused phone calls home (this was pre internet) and being locked in the apartment for hours at a time. She stayed for nine months and then finally when she’d had enough and she ran away.

After working without a visa for several years, Deluksi went home to Sri Lanka during one of the visa amnesties. She then returned to Dubai legally after a year to work for another family.

Over the years Deluksi has worked for many families, some good, some not so good. Her favourite she says are English families.  When I ask why she says they always treat her well and give holidays and breaks during her working day.

Deluski has several family members also in the UAE. She has a brother working in Jebel Ali, a sister in Sharjah, a nephew and her son in law are also both in Dubai. Until very recently her daughter was also working in Dubai as a housemaid. However, she has now gone back to Sri Lanka after falling pregnant after many years of trying so the family are very excited about the baby on the way.

Deluksi has tried to save money ever since she came to Dubai but there is always something that happens that means she needs to spend the money she’s saved up to that point. She supports family members when they ask which is often and has recently been buying many things for her grandchild on the way. Earlier this year she asked her employer for AED 12,000 loan to be paid back at 2,500 per month so she could open a savings account. At the moment these are the only savings she has. She has however been able to build a house along with her daughter and son in law in Sri Lanka. They can either live in it if they return home or rent it out to make extra income. At the moment her daughter is living there while waiting for the baby to arrive.

Deluksi earns AED 3,200 per month plus extra money on her birthday and at Christmas. She was offered a bonus last year but chose to take an extra flight home instead as she wanted to go on a prayer trip to India. This is the only holiday she has ever had. She often takes an advance on her wages to help other family members out when they request it.

Deluksi only plans to work another year in Dubai and then she’s planning to go back to Sri Lanka and look after her grandchild while her daughter returns to Dubai and earns money instead. She hopes her current employer will employ her daughter instead of her so that at least one of them has a guaranteed income each month.

Deluski reflects on her life in Dubai and says she’s happy she came. Even though she’s endured some tough times along the way, she says she’s been able to earn much more money here than in Sri Lanka. She wishes she’d been able to save some more money though and she worries what will happen when she finally finishes working in Dubai. Her dream is to cultivate plants at their house in Sri Lanka and sell them to people who will fly them to Dubai. She loves gardening and has a small patch of garden in the house she works in where she keeps her plants. To live at home with some small savings, tending her garden and looking after her grandchild will be a nice way to spend her retirement she thinks.

A self starter

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Meet Daniel. To the uninformed eye he appears to be an ordinary barista but looks can be deceiving.

He doesn’t just make coffee. He’s essentially a ‘one- man team.’ He has been trusted to run the entire branch with only an intern who has recently joined him. Duties include handling inventory, permits, licenses and anything else that the municipality requires; all on his own. Despite his humble demeanor, his talent is self-evident. He tells me how small the margin for error is. For example, selling a single item past its expiry date can result in the branch being closed. For a conglomerate to apportion this level of responsibility to a single employee is unheard of and the accountability never ceases. “I go home, take off my uniform and get back to work,” he jokes; but this is no exaggeration. For five days a week he works from early in the morning to well into the night, handling the everyday running of the shop. Following this he begins filling out the days paperwork which doesn’t end until 10pm. After waking up at 4 AM he repeats this process.

As he reveals this I can’t help but wonder how he is so relaxed. Not only does he have to navigate his stressful work life, his weekends are spent studying at university; and he enjoys it! He perceives the added workload as a recognition of his considerable value whilst his educational pursuits provide a personal challenge. I ask him what motivates him to be so industrious and his reply was short; “my parents.” Both his mother and father are retired in his native Philippines, where his siblings also reside. Every month he remits as much money as possible to support them. However, he feels no pressure to provide. He stresses that these monthly displays of generosity are completely voluntary. He uses these payments as a means of showing his “respect and love” to them. “Yesterday I made another payment, so I think they love me a little more right now!”

Daniel moved to Dubai after working in Saudi Arabia for 3 years. There he learned how to speak Arabic, how to run a coffee shop and how much Middle Eastern countries differ. He believes that the UAE is always “one step ahead” of their rivals and describes Dubai as “a work of art – it’s as if someone created this place with a paintbrush.” He gestures towards the skyline and marvels at the pace of development.

Clearly, his knack for shouldering responsibility is at the core of who he is. He accepts the burden of his work, education and providing for his family. His life choices are no different. He saw no reason why Dubai would be free of prejudice. Consequently, he refuses to begrudge any limited prospects he may face. It was his decision to come here. It is also his decision to leave.

He has passed his university exams, processed his paperwork and is imminently moving to Canada. There he will become the official manager of another coffee shop. His salary will increase and so will his generosity toward his family; but this is just the beginning.

Daniel’s grand ambition is to start his own company, perhaps a food service. There he can hire his siblings, support his parents and take complete ownership of his work ethic. He would finally be able to be his own boss. This vision of his becomes clearer and with each passing day and draws closer with each sleepless night. I have no doubt that soon it will be his reality.

 

 

 

 

 

The poverty premium: It costs more, to be poor.

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Put simply, the poverty premium is the principle that people on low or zero incomes pay more on the essential costs of living than wealthier people.

Despite working in a business entirely centred around financial inclusion (providing access to the digital economy for those usually unable to afford it) I have only recently begun to investigate the true reach of the poverty premium’s grasp: across almost all areas of our economy.

At a basic level, the poverty premium is predominantly dictated by economies of scale. Purchasing in bulk or from hypermarkets usually affords the buyer some kind of discount.

Why would you buy the rice from the convenience store? Perhaps it saves a trip in the car. If you fall into the middle or upper financial segments, this is likely. But for people on a lower income, around 70% of the UAE population, buying a small amount is all they can afford at one time. But they get less rice, dirham for dirham, than those who can afford to buy in bigger quantities or hypermarkets they can reach in their cars.

According to University of Bristol, the lowest income UK families pay nearly AED 4,000 more per year than their middle income counterparts for basic amenities. Costs are driven up by having to pay to access money (same in the Gulf), increased insurance costs due to living in dangerous areas, and paying for utilities in inefficient ways such as pre-paid meters, kiosks and gas bottles (again, same in the Gulf).

Working in the remittance industry, I am acutely aware of the costs people without access to the digital economy face compared with those who are banked. People from smaller countries such as those in Africa pay up to 30% of their transfers when paying cash at the counter. Those who can send them online would pay less than 5%.

Finance, access to credit, insurance – this is just the obvious stuff. The poverty premium extends way past finance or even groceries.

The UAE’s recent ban on Skype has, as a nation of expats, affected most of us. Free calling home made living away from loved ones that little bit easier. Many have already found VPNs are a way to circumvent this ban. VPNs are not only illegal in the UAE, they are prohibitively expensive (around $100) for those who have a monthly disposable income of around $200 (AED750), and often too complicated for people with an elementary grasp of technology to implement anyway. Middle and higher income people may choose to pay this one-off VPN cost, but those on the lowest incomes must instead pre-pay for what phone credit they can afford and then spend that credit on premium international calls. Much like inheritance tax, the poverty premium is not afraid to tax the same funds repeatedly.

Have you noticed that in the last decade, the cost of “luxury” lifestyle goods – think televisions, Playstations – has depreciated, whilst the cost of life’s basics – food, healthcare, transport – has exploded to ruinous levels? The poverty premium doesn’t apply only to people living in absolute poverty like Somalia. This new type of poverty continues to hit those living in precarity in America, the UK and even here in the UAE.

So how are we addressing the poverty premium? Despite the attempts of universities and charities, it receives little attention from policy makers. Better to look at something you can influence far quicker. Technology. Technology is the ultimate equalizer.

Skype ban excluded, technology is bringing the power of choice to anyone in possession of a smartphone. The UAE has a 98% smartphone penetration level. If you are still in any doubt of lower-income people’s capacity to operate a smartphone (we still hear this a lot), please look at this recent image of the NOW Money team delivering dates during Ramadan.

Looks staged, doesn’t it? It isn’t. These people are ready and waiting with half our economy’s purchasing power. The “new” ideas aren’t really new – after all, they are just selling things, renting things, delivering things. But the way they can be paid for and consumed – online, rather than expensively at the closest shop, brings a whole new dimension to accessibility and pricing.

The reason for financial inclusion isn’t just providing people with a safe place to keep money (albeit, that’s a good one). We have bigger plans for NOW Money and its ability to bridge the gap to other platforms: ecommerce, apps, even drones. These are just at the start of the journey to financial freedom for society’s most challenged. And for the creators of these platforms, your market just got a lot bigger.

 

 

A long way from home…

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Meet Dennis. He works as a concierge but his purpose to his family is far more important.

After moving to Dubai in 2016, Dennis is in the final year of his contract and is counting the days until his return to his native Uganda. His positivity is infectious, and it is a rare occasion to see him without a smile, but I quickly learn that he often feels low whilst working in this towering building. His joyful demeaner dampens as he explains his mother’s illness and the medical expenses that have accumulated. Despite being the youngest of his three brothers, he bears the sole responsibility of providing for his mother back home because they face their own financial troubles.

I asked him what he misses the most about home and his reply was simple, “freedom.” He explains the laidback lifestyle he used to enjoy where he had no formal working hours, or even a job title for that matter, but was still able to live comfortably. Some days he would sell clothes and on others he would work on a farm if he so desired. He used to wake up with no boss, no stress and a level of independence someone with my background can only begin to imagine. He recalls how on the weekends he could afford to buy a new set of apparel by selling the clothes off his back, an unconventional trade by our standards but commonplace for him.

One thing he loathes is the inherent “laziness” of his life here. He shows me a picture of himself when he was in Uganda and the difference is staggering. He now cuts a slim figure but just a few years ago his physique was that of a bodybuilder despite never setting foot in a gym. “In Uganda life is the gym, work is the gym. I never had to pay someone to let me exercise!” He goes on to joke that being a doctor in Uganda is a difficult business because few people are sick.

Unfortunately, one of those people happens to be his mother, hence why he sacrificed his content life to move to Dubai. He now works from 7am-7pm, a stark contrast to the carefree life he used to live. His weekends consist of napping and very little else. He jibes that it takes him 3 days to watch a single movie because he inevitably falls asleep, recovering from his long working hours. His anxiety over his mother’s health is exacerbated by the fact he gets paid at the end of the month. “If an emergency happens in the middle of the month and I can’t send money…” he trails off dreading the worst before his beaming smile re-appears.

The discrimination he faces is deeply saddening. He tells me of the tension between himself and his Asian co-workers. The perception is that he and other African’s have come to steal jobs and there is no way for him to challenge this hostility.

Dennis, who has a degree in management, tells me something profound; “workers like me are not just the first face you see in a company, we are the face of this country. Without us nothing here would work so we should be respected like regular people.”

These tribulations have often caused him to think of quitting. Nevertheless, he dismisses these thoughts as weakness. He would consider himself a failure if he quit and abandoned his duties so remains hopeful, determined and patient. “Part of being a man is surviving these struggles”, he proclaims.

Although he must spend another year away from home, he continues to smile whilst toiling, knowing he is doing this for his family.

Missing 10 years of your child’s life; is it worth it?

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Nasir emigrated to Dubai from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a scenic area of northern Pakistan which is surrounded by snow tipped mountains and greenery. He made the decision to come to Dubai after his older brother told him that there are many opportunities for employment, and also many other Pakistanis.

After arriving in Dubai, he found a job as a gardener for a landscaping company which caters to one of the many gated communities in Dubai. This was in 2008, and since then he has been back to see his family four times. Nasir talks fondly about his three sons who are back in Pakistan, and is always amazed by much they grow in between his visits. His eldest son is now eighteen years old and is also looking to come to Dubai soon.

Nasir works nine hours a day, six days a week and moves from house-to-house using his bicycle. He lives in company-owned accommodation where he shares a room with one other gardener of similar background.  At the beginning and end of each day the company bus transports Nasir and the other gardeners to and from their accommodation in Al Quoz.

In general Nasir enjoys working in Dubai, especially in the winter. During the summer his hours are decreased and he longs for Friday – his day off. He spends his day off at the Mosque, followed by the cafeteria near his accommodation.

Almost all of his monthly salary is sent back to his family and he survives on as little as he can in Dubai. Like many migrants in the UAE, he does not have a bank account. Nasir’s dream is to start a modest car sales business and bring his whole family to Dubai. One day, he hopes to save enough money to move back and live comfortably in Pakistan – although with his current banking situation, or lack thereof, he has scepticism as to whether he will achieve this.

Written by Emaad Alvi.

Working 7am-7pm, what a way to make a living

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In the second blog post of the Real Life Stories series, we hear Third’s story.

Why is he in Dubai? How does he spend a typical day? What does he do with his money?

Life isn’t always easy, but with an end goal to focus on, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Third’s story

Danilo III, or “Third” as he likes to be known, has lived in Dubai for four months, where he moved to from the Philippines. He works as a concierge for a building management company.

Just like most migrant workers in the UAE, Third works six days a week for 12 hours a day, 7am until 7pm. A typical day starts with an instant coffee before the bus ride into work. He lives in Al Quoz, and his accommodation is a long distance from the metro, so he has to share a bus with the colleagues he lives with (he shares a room with several other men). Work is 10km away so walking isn’t an option, especially in the summer when the temperature is known to reach 50 degrees Celsius.

After the bus journey, Third gets to work where he spends the day dealing with the visitors, tradesmen, and office workers in the building. He enjoys his job, there’s lots to do so he’s always busy and especially enjoys getting to know the residents of the building and hearing their stories every morning. He greets everyone with a warm smile, which is bound to brighten up even the dustiest of days!

In the evenings, Third generally does some grocery shopping or his laundry or other household tasks. When possible, he meets up with his wife, which is usually around three times a week. He met her in the Philippines, and they moved over to Dubai together, however they have to live in separate accommodation because they work for separate companies. She works and lives at the airport, which is 25km away from where Third lives in Al Quoz. As you can imagine, being newly weds and living such a distance away from each other with minimal public transport isn’t ideal. They both have the same day off each week, which they spend wandering around Deira City Centre Mall (but not buying anything…).

Third and his wife moved to Dubai to save money and make a better life for themselves, as well as to send money to their friends and family back home. Their first goal is to save enough for a proper Church wedding, as they only had a small affair at home. Then they would like to rent a flat together, so they can settle down and end the current separation. Third is also putting away a little bit of money each month for when they decide to have a baby.

Access to an online account means they could manage their finances and keep their money securely in an account (rather than in cash format stored in shared accommodation). The life Third and his wife wish for is within reach. The money to be made in Dubai is far more than they can earn back in the Philippines, which will in turn open up more opportunities for their future family. Giving Third and his wife access to banking and cheaper remittance could bring their dream wedding and life as a family one step closer.

What does it take to be Dubai’s most requested beautician?

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In this new “day in the life” series we have interviewed low-income migrant workers around Dubai to understand about their lifestyle, why they’re here and their prospects for the future. Today we speak to a beautician from India.

How did you hear about working in Dubai?

My sister and I both trained to be beauticians in India. My sister heard you could earn more doing the same things in Dubai, and her friend helped her to get a job working for one of the best salons here. A year later, I followed her to work for the same company.  Eight years later, my sister and I are still here.

What’s your schedule like each day?

I work 12 hours a day, usually 10am to 10pm. I’m the top requested person in the salon so I usually have a full day of appointments, mostly waxing. I can do all treatments but people say it’s not painful when I wax them, so that’s the top thing I get booked for! My clients are very loyal- I know them well and enjoy chatting to them, so the day passes quickly.

Do you get to see your sister much? How do you spend your time?

We share an apartment in Al Quoz provided by our company. We work in different salons but the company makes sure we get the same day off, and we travel to work on the same bus. We’re usually tired by our day off, so we’ll sleep in for a while! We try to go to church every other week, and we go to the mall, or the cinema.

What’s your company like to work for?

We work hard but we are loyal to the company because they are loyal to us. Like tomorrow we have a party, which is Great Gatsby theme. We’ve all got new shiny dresses. There will be around 500 people, which will be a lot of fun.

How often do you go back to India to see your family?

We get 30 days of leave each summer, sometimes more if you worked overtime in busy times like Eid, Christmas and New Year. Usually my sister and I go back to India, but this year, we brought our parents to see Dubai instead. It was hot but they loved it. We went to Dubai Parks, saw the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall. They’ll come back.

Do you send money back to your family every month? Can you afford to save money for yourself as well?

Yes, we’re supporting our parents and younger brothers through university. One of our brothers might come to Dubai if he can get an IT job when he graduates. I don’t always save for long things like a house…. I have paid for myself to get other things I wanted though, like orthodontic braces! Haha.

Will you move back to India eventually and settle down?

When I first came to Dubai, I thought it would just be for two or three years, but now I’m not sure. It’s lovely to visit home, but the people there haven’t left or explored the world much. I think I’d get bored living at home now I’ve been independent in Dubai all this time; I’ve changed. My parents want me to choose the person I’ll marry and I don’t think the right guy is there at home for me. My sister met a guy in Dubai and I think they’ll get married and stay here. Maybe one day I will too!

8 misconceptions about the UAE and its residents

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I often get asked about my thoughts about the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Before I moved here, I probably would have described a land of sand, oil, mosques, wealth, and magic carpets amongst other things.

In all honesty, looking back, that wouldn’t have been a terrible guess, but now that I’ve lived here for a while, I think maybe it was a bit one dimensional!

One can’t be blamed for basing assumptions on what most people would consider to be the native Arabic speaking Emiratis; how they live and what jobs they do. But the Emiratis only make up 13 per cent of the population. The rest? 17 per cent Western expats and 70 per cent low-income migrant workers from countries such as Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Are you shocked that not everyone drives a sports car? Well, it’s true. And there are a few common misconceptions about the UAE and the underprivileged 70 per cent of its population that I can help clear up for you.

  1. The streets are paved with gold
    More golden sand, than actual gold. The UAE is celebrating its 46th National Day in December 2017, so understandably, it’s very much still under construction. Yes, there is a lot of wealth, and the Burj Al Arab is partially plated with gold leaf, but there’s also 70 per cent of the population who earn under AED 5,000 a month (around $1,360) and cannot afford luxuries.

 

  1. You can live here comfortably on $1,360 a month
    Most of the low-income migrant workers in the UAE are here to send money back to their families, because they can earn more here than in their home countries. Typically, they send around 60-70 per cent of their wages home, meaning that they will only get a remaining 20-30 per cent to live on. So, monthly income suddenly drops from $1,360 to about $400. And given that Dubai is one of the most expensive cities in the world, this isn’t much to survive on, let alone afford a comfortable lifestyle.

 

  1. Most people in the UAE have a bank account
    This is a common misconception and far from the truth. Most banks in the UAE have a minimum salary requirement of AED 5,000, meaning that the low-income migrant workers can’t have a bank account and get paid via a prepaid card with limited functionality. They use this card to withdraw their salary in cash, excluding them from many in-store card purchases or online benefits such as cheap remittance options.

 

  1. It is more developed than emerging economies
    Considering that world’s tallest building and the only seven-star hotel in the world are in the UAE, you might expect the most high-tech payments systems too. Pakistan and India are leading the way here though, having launched instant mobile payments years ago. Easypaisa, a money transfer service accessed through a mobile phone, was launched in Pakistan in 2009 and PayTM is India’s version, which was launched in 2010 and has amassed over 230 million users. NOW Money is the first accounts and remittance service for low-income people in the UAE, but most of them have used similar services in their home countries.

 

  1. Migrant workers can’t afford smartphones
    The first question I get asked when speaking to people about NOW Money: “but can they afford smartphones?”Yes, 98 per cent of low-income migrant workers own a smartphone. It’s their only way of communicating with their families back home, and probably their most prized possession. A perfectly good smartphone is now available at Carrefour for AED 120.

 

  1. They can’t read English – can they even use a smartphone?
    The standard of literacy in emerging economies ranges between 50 and 60 per cent compared to 99 per cent in many Western countries (UNESCO 2015). Therefore, you could argue that migrant workers won’t be able to read their native language, let alone another one? Wrong! When carrying out market research at the end of 2016 I discovered the majority of users wanted the NOW Money app to be in English, as they’re using it every day.  As go-getters who have moved abroad, UAE migrants hold an education advantage on their relatives at home.

 

  1. Their families don’t have access to the internet
    Some won’t, some will. But, in reference to point four, mobile payments are sophisticated in some of the workers’ native countries, so the chances are beneficiaries will be able to receive money using a mobile device. NOW Money delivers remittance to mobile wallets, bank accounts and local pick-up, so there isn’t actually a need for their families to have access to the internet.

 

  1. It’s all about Dubai
    Dubai’s population only makes up 2.8 million of the 9.27 million people in the UAE. That means there’s still 6.48 million people living outside the metropolitan hub.  Although Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the best-known Emirate states, there’s actually five more: Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaima, and Umm Al Quwain, all of which have low-income migrants working in their hotels, shops, taxis, and building new structures.

 

So, as you can see, NOW Money’s target audience are vast in quantity and in need of safer, cheaper and more efficient access to payments and money transfer services. The emergence of FinTech and RegTech in recent years has opened up a gateway to enable cost-efficient solutions to be created for this population, who are currently excluded from the current financial system.

To find out more about how NOW Money can help your employees on less than AED 5,000 please get in touch at info@nowmoney.me or tweet us @NOWMoneyME

What is Dubai Expo 2020… and what does it have to do with NOW Money?

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Not long after my arrival in the UAE a few years ago, decorations and flags began adorning towers, announcing that Dubai had been awarded the Expo for 2020. We were even given an extra day off from work to celebrate. It wasn’t unlike the fever experienced in London in 2005, when it was chosen to host the 2012 Olympics. Everyone was excited about this great event Dubai would be home to in 2020, but few seemed to know what “Expo” really meant. The best explanation I could find was “it’s every four years, and it’s all about trade. A big, long global trade show.”

Four years on, that description is fairly accurate, and coming to life at the rate we’ve all come to expect from the UAE. An official 438 hectare site has been chosen for the six-month long event beginning in October 2020 and culminating in April 2021, which will be home to more than 180 nations participating for the duration and numerous others who will visit to develop new international opportunities. A central plaza, entitled Al Wasl (meaning “the connection” in Arabic) is surrounded by three large pavilions built by Al-Futtaim Carillion, each dedicated to one of the Expo’s sub-themes: opportunity, mobility and sustainability.

In light of the latter, the site is set to become the town of “Dubai South” after the Expo, and will no doubt become one of Dubai’s hottest new locations with plenty of residential and commercial options. I recently visited the site, which has laid impressive foundations but is still mostly sand. How will this be done in three years? If we were in any other city I would say it were impossible. In Dubai, I wonder if we could do it in two!

The reason for my visit was to meet the team behind Expo Live. The Expo team have set goals relating to the subthemes, such as reducing food waste and increasing opportunities to recycle. They have created Expo Live to encourage innovation globally, particularly relating to startups with a social impact. Startups from anywhere in the world can apply directly to Expo for grants to support the development or expansion of their business. Selected startups are flown to Dubai to pitch and explain how they would use funding, and if successful are awarded the grants shortly after. We are thrilled to announce that NOW Money was in the most recent wave of selected startups, joining a fellow UAE social impact startup catering to the migrant worker population, Smart Labour. Alongside the obvious financial benefit, there are others: being listed as part of the Expo procurement website and the opportunity to demo at the event in 2020.

Applications for the next wave have just opened again for anyone who fits the profile!

Expo are hosting a huge, free party this Friday, 20th October at The Beach on JBR to mark exactly three years until the start of the main event. We have been asked to let all the friends of NOW Money know that you’re most welcome to attend! As well as lots of celebrations for every age (think a six-metre high zip-line, food trucks and Kris Fade) you can also expect to find a bit more about Expo… more than “a big, long, global trade show”!

For more info about getting to and around the event, please click here.

NOW Money closes $1.46m bridge funding round

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NOW Money has closed its bridge funding round with a total of US$1.46m.

In addition to the recent US Venture Capital investment, mentioned in a previous press release, this funding round includes $700,000 from Dubai-based Venture Capital firm, Myrisoph Capital. Other contributions have come from private investors and MENA-based women’s investor network WAIN.

Myrisoph Capital focuses on investments into SMEs that want expert advice and mentorship to take their business to the next level. It invests specifically within the team’s core skill-set and expertise, and in territories they know well, ensuring they can provide the best support possible.

WAIN is the first investor network for women in the MENA region.  Its goal is to build an informed ecosystem of women investors who support women entrepreneurs in the Arab world.

Co-founder of NOW Money, Ian Dillon said, “we’ve been working with Myrisoph since the beginning of 2017, and what struck us about the company was their extensive knowledge and understanding of the Gulf region and their unparalleled expertise and connections within financial services here.

“We’re incredibly enthusiastic about this new partnership and believe the collective experience of the team at Myrisoph will add a lot of value to the business.

“The positive contributions we are seeing from Myrisoph, WAIN and the private investors – in addition to those from Accion and Newid Capital – are fantastic and are already adding real value to NOW Money’s business. We’re thrilled to be closing this round with so much support and belief in the company.”

Managing Partner of Myrisoph Capital, Hassan Alhassani said, “we’ve been looking at partnering with an impact player within the FinTech space in the GCC for a while now, and we believe NOW Money is that partner. We were impressed by the business model as well as the social implications in the region. We were also struck by the passion and capabilities of the founders Katharine and Ian, and we are proud to be a part of the NOW Money future.”

Heather Henyon, Founder & Director of WAIN, added, “we are proud to invest in this local FinTech start-up, which has a female co-founder, as we believe the potential for the $100 billion remittances Gulf market is massive. We love the dynamism of the team and are impressed by their track-record, commitment, and tenacity.  We look forward to NOW Money’s continued growth and scale across the region, especially with its strong international investor backing, a testament to the company’s strength.”

NOW Money is paving the way for the FinTech ecosystem in the GCC. Already an active participant of Abu Dhabi Global Market’s (ADGM) Regulatory Sandbox, they have recently been accepted as one of the first two entrants into the Central Bank of Bahrain’s (CBB) Regulatory Sandbox. The company hopes that these recent milestones, and their latest round of funding, will help lay the foundations for a successful FinTech ecosystem in the GCC and provide confidence for more early stage investments into FinTech companies in the region.

Why We Invested in NOW Money

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By Amee Parbhoo, Director of Investments for Accion Venture Lab

Despite the fact that they are wealthy and modern, cities like Dubai in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) actually face a big financial inclusion challenge. There are 8 million foreign-born migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) alone, making up some 88% of that country’s total population. These workers come primarily from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines, and are mostly in low-paying jobs such as construction or domestic labor. Across the Gulf region, migrants have faced tough working conditions and have been historically ignored by financial institutions. They lack access to basic financial services, including bank accounts and fast, convenient remittance channels for sending money to their families back home.

This is where NOW Money, Accion Venture Lab’s newest portfolio company, comes in. NOW Money was founded in 2015 by Katharine Budd and Ian Dillon, who were inspired by the digital-only “challenger banks” that had begun to emerge across the US and Europe. While the UAE has over 50 banks in operation, none of them are able to reach the country’s massive and underserved low-income migrant population effectively. NOW Money provides a suite of products to its customers: current accounts for depositing and withdrawing wages; debit cards for use at ATMs and for merchant transactions; and a marketplace of online remittance platforms for cheaper and more convenient money transfer services. By reducing the cost of customer acquisition and reaching a relatively untapped market, NOW is able to offer these services (and eventually others) and cost-effectively serve customers that would otherwise be considered unprofitable by traditional banks.

NOW partners and integrates with large employers to pay workers’ salaries directly into NOW Money accounts. The value proposition is strong for both end customers and employers. For customers, NOW offers a suite of products otherwise unavailable in the market. In particular, during our due diligence we saw customers incredibly excited about the digital interface for access to remittances. In the UAE today, some 95% of remittances are cash-based transactions. The workers we spoke with remit 60% or more of their wages to family members in their home countries, and typically have to take time off work, wait in long lines at remittance houses, and pay high fees in order to make these regular transactions.

Accion Venture Lab and NOW Money staffers talk to migrant worker customers about their experiences using the service.

For employers, NOW provides a less expensive solution for payroll. In addition, the employers we spoke with were motivated to give their employees the benefits NOW offers for both moral and economic reasons. Some employers see a spike in absenteeism the day after pay is disbursed, as employees go to remittance houses. Lastly, many employers, especially in more skilled and technical professions, value NOW as a way to increase employee retention.

Venture Lab is excited to be supporting the NOW Money team as they grow and scale. We invested in the company — our first in the GCC and one of the first early-stage VC deals in the region — for a number of reasons:

  • Clear social impact: The migrant population in the GCC is historically underserved by basic financial services. The wages these workers earn are low ($200–300 per month, depending on occupation). Due to banking standards in the UAE, it is very difficult and costly for a customer to open an account if they earn less than $1,300 per month, thereby excluding a vast majority of the migrant worker population.
  • Large market with unmet need: The UAE is the third largest market in the world for remittances, trailing only the US and Saudi Arabia. Across the GCC (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman), the total addressable market is some 25 million low-income migrant workers believed to be remitting about $50 billion annually. The remittance corridors used are some of the most active in the world, and NOW fills a crucial gap by providing customers ease of access and lower costs.
  • Innovative “neobank” model: Accion Venture Lab looks to support fintech companies that have innovative approaches to increasing access to and quality of financial services for underserved markets. We have been actively watching the digital-only neobank/challenger bank models around the world and are excited about NOW Money, our very first neobank investment. We’re thrilled to be part of NOW as it expands and aims to become the financial service platform of choice for migrant workers. As NOW truly owns the customer relationship, it will be able to provide incremental value to customers’ financial lives with each further partnership, beyond simply account access and low-cost remittance tools.
  • Opportunity to learn from new customers, market, and product: NOW Money would be a first for Venture Lab in a number of ways. Venture Lab has never invested in the Gulf region, and NOW Money could serve as a way to learn about this fast-growing region and its market dynamics. In addition, Venture Lab has investments reaching many kinds of underserved customers, but we have limited experience serving migrant workers, which is a huge market with demonstrated, specific, and relevant financial needs. NOW Money would help us better understand this vast and growing population of underserved customers.

As is the case for all of our seed investments, NOW Money is early in its journey, but as investors in the company and proponents of financial inclusion for underserved populations, we are excited about their progress so far and the company’s plans going forward.

Rob Stevens contributed to this article. 

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