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In an effort to increase credit union membership in rural Kenyan villages, the World Council of Credit Unions has introduced a laptop-anchored system that brings services directly to members.“It’s called ‘branch in a backpack,’” said Jesus Chavez, manager of WOCCU’s SACCO growth program in Kenya. “This is another step in new transaction technology that will help us better serve people without easy credit union access.”Funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the mobile branch technology will eliminate the need for villagers to travel rough roads and depend upon unreliable public transportation to visit branches, which WOCCU said often reduces Kenyans’ interest in joining SACCOs, as African credit unions are called.A collection of high-tech electronic equipment, anchored by a Dell laptop computer with 160 gigabytes of memory make up Chavez’s backpack branch. It includes a computer-mounted camera to take pictures of new members, a portable scanner to copy legal documents required for new members and a point-of-service device that scans each member’s thumb to verify the identity for each transaction.All fit neatly into a standard-size backpack that can be hauled with ease into villages to serve members who live too far from the nearest branch to visit on a regular basis.The device also sends the transaction’s information for processing to the mainframe at WOCCU Services Group, WOCCU’s for-profit subsidiary that shares its development program’s Nairobi office and supports the high-tech initiative.The new backpack branch also utilizes cell phone banking technology WOCCU introduced for Kenyan SACCO members in 2007.The devices use M-PESA, a software program created jointly by Kenya telecommunications provider Safaricom and the United Kingdom’s Vodaphone. Two years after WOCCU introduced the technology, M-PESA transactions throughout Kenya totaled US$1.73 billion.On Wednesday, WOCCU signed an agreement with Kenya’s I&M Bank House to support the program SACCOs with clearing services required to make the backpack branch a viable option.Chavez said the next step in high-tech transactions is a smart card that includes the member’s identifying thumb or fingerprint on its memory chip. The device also can act as a stored-value card, enabling easier transfer of funds through ATM or backpack branch usage.“It’s called ‘virtual wallet,’ Chavez said. “Members just have to remember never to leave any of their fingers at home.”–[email protected]

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