Of the millions of expats in oil-rich United Arab Emirates, the majority are blue-collar workers from countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. They work in shipping, construction, and retail, making significant contributions to the property and housing boom in the wealthy Gulf emirate.
But a big challenge for these migrant workers is access to cheap banking and financial services. Most migrate to the UAE in search of better pay to send to their families back home. As a result, they live extremely frugally and cannot afford the expensive fees that banks apply on international money transfers and currency conversions.
Katharine Budd is trying to help these marginalized communities. She built Now Money, an app that helps low-income workers access critical services like remittances and bank transfers.
“We knew from experience in other markets that mobile money can deliver high quality customer service at low cost. We then discovered 70 per cent of the UAE population struggles to access existing bank accounts,” says Katharine.
Most migrant workers find it too expensive to maintain a bank account. Their wages are given to them via prepaid cards which they can use at ATMs. Most just withdraw the entirety of their salary in one go as they’re charged for simply checking their balance. The ATMs themselves might be far from their work or home, making it inconvenient to trek back and forth.
Katharine’s team works directly with employers to make the process easier for such people. After corporates sign up, their existing payroll gets substituted with the Now app. Employees are sent a link to download the app, which then acts as their personal bank account.
Users can remit money to their home countries through the app itself rather than going to a moneychanger and paying the arbitrage fees. Katharine claims the rates are very competitive and the overall process is much cheaper. Workers can also compare modes of remittance, such as bank transfers or local pickup, and decide what suits them best.
The app can also do things like top up prepaid mobile credit and pay utility bills. Additionally, users are given a debit card which can be used at the ATM, for online payments, or for swipes at the cash register.
There’s a bunch of security features built in as well – no passwords are needed as there’s biometric security, fingerprint and facial scanners, to validate transactions.
Katharine’s worked in retail banking in the UK and the Middle East for several years. Her co-founder, Ian Dillon, is a former investment banker. Both have also dabbled in fintech which gave them the inspiration for this new venture.
Now Money is still in its nascent stages – it’s currently only working with a handful of employers – but there’s already plans to expand outside the UAE. Katharine identifies Saudi Arabia as a key market but says the product might have to be tweaked depending on local requirements.
But she feels it’s the savings for workers that sets the service apart.
“We estimate users can save US$1,650 over five years using Now Money, enough to pay for schooling in the Philippines for 12 years or medical care in India for 7 years,” she explains.
This article originally appeared on Tech in Asia.