To Help Poor Africans Escape the Cash Economy, Gates Bets Big on MasterCard

Why is the world's largest foundation teaming up with one of the world's largest credit card companies to help build financial services for the poor? After all, here in the United States, we don't typically think of MasterCard or Visa as being the best buddies of poor people. 

But there's a strong logic to the three-year, $11 million give to The MasterCard Foundation by the Gates Foundation.  

As we've written in the past, The MasterCard Foundation is deeply involved in efforts to connect Africans to the modern financial services that people in the developed world take for granted. Since 2009, the foundation has invested nearly $40 million in a partnership with Opportunity International to provide financial access to several million people living in rural parts of Tanzania, Ghana, Malawi, Uganda, and Rwanda. (The foundation is separate entity from the company and was not involved in the effort being discussed in this post.)

Of course, connecting Africans to financial services is a goal that syncs up nicely with the foundation's goal of profiting from Africa's economic rise, with one estimate that African consumers will spend $1.2 trillion by 2020. Better to have them whip out a MasterCard for such purchases rather than a pouch of bills from under the mattress. 

For its part, Gates has a whole program focused on financial services for the poor and sees this work as crucial not just for lifting people out of poverty, but making sure they don't fall back into poverty if their luck turns bad. The foundation writes: "Effective tools for saving, sending, and borrowing money and mitigating financial risks can help people weather setbacks and achieve greater financial stability over the long term."

So you can see why a partnership between Gates and The MasterCard Foundation makes a lot of sense. 

The foundation will use a $3 million portion of the Gates grant to help launch its MasterCard Labs for Financial Inclusion in East Africa. The remaining $8 million will be used to help local entrepreneurs incubate innovative ideas with the hope of bringing new financial inclusion products and services to the market.

The process by which The MasterCard Foundation plans to go about achieving its financial inclusion goals sounds very Silicon Valley, with a major caveat—it contains some wiggle room for failure.

The MasterCard Foundation's agreement with Gates calls for a little bit of faith in the viability of its projects. The lab will begin by incubating ideas until they reach feasibility. Then prototypes are created and the programs are launched. If they prove to be successful, they’re scaled. If they prove to be failures, they’re scrapped. Regardless of the new program’s success-to-failure ratio, both the Gates Foundation and The MasterCard Foundation hope to impact over 100 million across Africa.

The Gates Foundation has been working to help to the world’s poorest populations escape the cash economy trap since 2005. By Gates standards, the number of grants awarded out of its Financial Services for the Poor program is comparatively small at 113 over the past decade. That’s about 10 grants a year. Over that time period, the number of grants have fluctuated year over year from a low of two in 2005 to a high of 20 in 2013.

But don’t let the low number of annual grants fool you into thinking that this isn't a serious grantmaking effort at Gates. Since 2005, the foundation has awarded nearly $650 million out of the program, which is some serious money. 

Related: Gates Foundation: Grants for Global Development