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Digital money keeps the Sudanese alive

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‘I only realised their value when my money and belongings were stolen right in front of my eyes.’

By Hipa Salih

Azza Hussein anxiously scrutinises her mobile phone. Unphased by the loud cries of street vendors as she stands in front of a pharmacy in a market in Dongola, the capital of Sudan’s Northern state, her hands shake as she refreshes her bank application every few minutes.

The internally displaced mother of four – her youngest only four months old – is desperate to buy formula for her baby. With not enough cash in her purse, she is relying on Bankak, the digital mobile application of the Bank of Khartoum.

“I need to buy several cans of formula prescribed by the pediatrician for my baby son,” Hussein told The New Humanitarian, explaining that he has a medical condition.

“I don’t have the full amount to pay for it in cash, so I’m waiting for the green notification indicating that my husband, who works abroad, has transferred the money to the pharmacy’s account on the Bankak application.”

But with a weak internet connection, Hussein must be patient. She cannot go back to her baby without the formula – her village is too far away and has no pharmacy.

Two hours later, her face brightens. She hurries into the pharmacy, and comes out carrying several cans of formula. The transfer from her husband has come through. 

A deepening crisis 

Banking apps, enabling online payments for food and other essentials, are a digital safety net for millions of Sudanese, their lives upended by nine months of fighting between the regular army of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the rival paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.

The still-expanding civil war has forced eight million people from their homes, triggered bouts of ethnic cleansing, and left banks, shops, factories, and markets looted and trashed. As the humanitarian crisis deepens, there have been reports this month of starvation deaths.

Financial technology (fintech) allows people with a mobile phone and internet connection to more safely buy basic groceries, settle bills, and receive money from abroad – easing some of the hardships. These apps have been available for over a decade in Sudan, with nearly all public sector workers paid digitally.

But they are now more than just a convenience. People transact as much as they can online to avoid navigating embattled neighbourhoods or the risk of carrying physical currency, and to cope with the reduced operating hours of the few bank branches that manage to remain open.

Hussein hadn’t used any financial apps before the war – until her house in the capital, Khartoum, was attacked by RSF fighters in June last year, who looted what they could find. “I only realised the value of [fintech] when my money and belongings were stolen right in front of my eyes,” she said. 

The area around her home, in the eastern al-Fayhaa suburb, had witnessed heavy fighting between the army and RSF. As she was six months pregnant, Hussein decided it was time to move to her paternal grandfather’s village of Kaptod in northern Dongola – which has fast become a regional hub for people fleeing Khartoum.

Using an app, her husband paid a taxi driver to pick up Hussein and the children and get them to the bus station. Then he “transferred money through the app to the bus company, so we could escape the horror to Dongola”, she explained.

Sudan is now effectively partitioned, with the RSF in control of the west, the army holding sway in much of the centre and east, and Greater Khartoum split between both sides. However, the front lines remain fluid.

Better than cash

Bankak, developed by the Bank of Khartoum in 2014, is one of Sudan’s largest fintech services. It allows bill payments and money transfers at a daily limit of three million Sudanese pounds ($5,000) per customer.

The app currently has seven million users and rising. Since the outbreak of the war, “there has been an 85% increase in app activations”, Fadl Mohamed Khair, chair of the bank’s board of directors, told The New Humanitarian.

“I had no cash and all my savings were in the bank which I couldn’t physically access. The RSF had also stolen the money at my company offices in central Khartoum.”

Businessman Mohamed Sami can attest to how a banking app – and money in your digital wallet – can save you in a pinch.

Five months into the war, he was sheltering with his family in the southern Khartoum suburb of Jabra, but he had exhausted his emergency cash reserves – the physical currency he had used to cover basic necessities.

“I had no cash and all my savings were in the bank [which I couldn’t physically access],” he told The New Humanitarian. “The RSF [had also stolen] the money at my company offices in central Khartoum.”

By using the app, he was able to pay his way to central Gezira, then to Sennar in the south, on to el-Gadaref and Kassala in the east, before finally making it to the Red Sea city of Port Sudan, the seat of the official government under Burhan and the base of international aid operations.

From there he bought visas and tickets for his family to the United Arab Emirates. He has since joined the more than 1.6 million Sudanese – among them a sizable proportion of the country’s middle class – who have sought refuge outside the country. Another six million, like Hussein, are internally displaced.

Fintech’s limits

Apps like Bankak and Omdurman National Bank’s Ocash are affiliated with established financial institutions. But people need bank accounts to operate them, an issue in Sudan, a vast and predominantly rural country where 85% of the population has none.

Yet mobile phone penetration is high – with 77% of Sudanese having access to a handset, according to the International Finance Corporation. That has opened the door to other fintech solutions like MyCash and RittalPay – mobile digital wallets that don’t require formal bank accounts. These have helped democratise fintech’s spread.

All financial apps, however, suffer from frequent telecom breakdowns and blackouts, exacerbated by the war. These can leave people stranded and unable to transact. This week, for example, communications have been down across Sudan, with the army blaming the RSF for the outages.

Neither do apps solve Sudan’s 135% inflation rate and cost of living crisis. Months of fighting in commercial centres – along with the atrocities against civilians, forced displacement, and the destruction of infrastructure – has hobbled the economy and reduced people’s purchasing power. The disruption to supply chains has also driven up prices.

As a result, 17.7 million people – 37% of the population – are facing severe food shortages. Khartoum is among the worst-affected areas, as is Kordofan in the centre, and Darfur in the west, where community-targeted violence has hindered aid agency access.

With the RSF recently advancing in the east, threatening Sudan’s breadbasket and potentially triggering yet more displacement and suffering, the crisis is only set to continue.

This artice was first published on The New Humanitarian:

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