SM: Can you give us more detail about what Search For Common Ground does?
CR: Their work is divided into grass roots community work where they help build capacity for peace at the community level. They also do media work and have radio and TV shows. Their content is to help communities communicate and increase group collaboration. It is a fascinating organization.
SM: What was your involvement with Search For Common Ground?
CR: I was involved in raising money and providing technology advice. As a result of that work, I gained exposure to other things going on in the world such as the microfinance movement and the social entrepreneur movement. I spent time in Washington D.C. and interfaced with that community. I met James Wolfensohn who, at the time, was the head of the world bank. These were communities who were really working to figure out how to scale banking to include everyone, thus allowing social and private entrepreneurship to flourish in other countries like India and Africa. The spirit of entrepreneurship is alive everywhere but a lot of the infrastructure to support is not. That really gave me a new view of the world.
SM: Is that the real genesis of Obopay?
CR: It is a significant part of the Obopay story. I was in Congo in 2002 on behalf of In Search For Common Ground. At the time I had never seen a pre-paid phone but I heard of them and knew they existed. I never thought much about them.
I had never been to a place like Congo. I went to Kinshasa and at the time nothing in the city worked. It was a city of 8 million people and yet there were only a couple of blocks where electricity worked. The city was pretty weak on infrastructure yet 8 million people managed to survive there. What I found fascinating was the cell phone technology in the midst of this city. When I got on the plane to fly to Congo the only business people on the plane were cell phone people. Everybody else was in the aid industry. I was working for an NGO so I was in the aid category as well. The first thing I noticed when I arrived was cell phones everywhere. In a city where nothing worked everyone had a cell phone!
When I walked into hotels where they had electricity, every outlet was taken. The employees would come with their friends’ cell phones and charge them. Cell phones arrived in Congo way before a lot of other things could arrive.
At some point I was handed a prepaid phone and told to go to the store to buy more minutes. There were not a lot of merchandise stores and no banks to speak of, but they had plenty of cell phone stores. I walked to the cell phone store and noticed most people were carrying bags of money with them. They were literally carrying around bricks of money. I walked into the prepaid cell phone store and it looked exactly like a bank. People were standing in line with their bags of money. When they got to the kiosk they put down the bag of money and received a little card. They would then program their newly purchased minutes into the phone.