Learning from the Poor: Why Haiti Destroys Canada in Terms of Mobile Payment Adoption

Canadians are regularly cited as the world’s biggest users (read: addicts) of the internet, frequently topping charts in terms of social media usage, online video consumption, and other internet-powered activities.

But we have been rather cautious in our adoption of mobile payments. Even the US has. We just don’t realize it.

In North America we think we’re ahead of the curve on almost every technology trend imaginable—and, a lot of the time, that assumption is mostly correct. But in some areas we lag emerging markets embarrassingly. Mobile payments is one of those areas.

The poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere is leading the world in buying things with their phones. Haiti has “the most successful implementation of a mobile wallet in all the Americas,” according to Jeff Hindle, who is the vice-president of emerging businesses and payments at Scotiabank in Toronto.

A service called TchoTcho is the driving force behind mobile payments in the Caribbean nation of 10 million. TchoTcho enables Haitians to do everyday banking on their smartphones—just like us—but also allows them to transfer money between phones anywhere in the country with just a few simple commands. Consequently, a “far higher percentage of Haitians pay with their phones” then their North American counterparts, according to an article in a recent issue of Canadian Business magazine.

According to the World Bank, there are 1.8 billion people in the world who own a cellphone but do not have a bank account. These people—a demographic that makes up most of Haiti—will drive mobile payments moving forward, not Canadians or Americans. All they need is a little help: Scotiabank partnered with Jamaica’s Digicel to launch TchoTcho following the destructive Haiti earthquake in 2011.

What started as a humanitarian mission has rapidly evolved into a viable, profitable business. It’s successful in Haiti, and there’s a worldwide market of 1.79 billion waiting to help make it succeed elsewhere too.

One day, Canadians may even join the party.