cWallet, a company founded by a group of HEC Paris in Qatar graduates, allows low-income workers to access digital financial services without needing a debit or credit card
A cashless society that uses online transactions instead of paper money is something most countries have been working towards for decades, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated the shift towards this aspiration.
However, as more and more daily-life services are offered online, sometimes almost exclusively, they are becoming inaccessible for many underprivileged communities who do not earn enough to open a bank account, let alone possess a debit or credit card.
A new digital startup called cWallet plans to combat this issue by making digital transactions possible for millions of low-income, unbanked workers around the world through an easy-to-use mobile application. Established in 2019 by a group of seven Qatar Foundation (QF) alumni, all graduates of HEC Paris in Qatar, cWallet is already available for use in Qatar, primarily targeting low-income customers in the country, and plans to expand to other countries in future.
A cashless society is the future, as well as an ambition of Qatar for the World Cup and the 2030 vision, but if you’re promoting a cashless lifestyle, you need to promote financial inclusion and financial literacy too
“A cashless society is the future, as well as an ambition of Qatar for the World Cup and the 2030 vision, but if you're promoting a cashless lifestyle, you need to promote financial inclusion and financial literacy too,” said Michael Javier, CEO and Founder of cWallet.
In addition to the usual debit or credit card payment, cWallet allows users to deposit money into their digital wallet by either purchasing scratch cards from stores or asking friends to transfer “peer-to-peer” money. The app also allows employers to deposit salary directly into the wallet.
Money in the cWallet can then be used for contactless payments across a range of retail services in Qatar, such as at coffeeshops, grocery stores, food delivery apps, or utility bills. The company already has a dozen retail partners in Qatar and is adding more regularly.
An app grounded in reality
cWallet began as a final-year thesis for Javier when he was pursuing a Master’s in Strategic Business Unit Management from HEC Paris in Qatar, a QF partner university. It later expanded into a startup after he collaborated with six of his classmates, all of whom are Qatari, to establish it as a company.
“First it was just purely based on the thesis, but then I said ‘let’s dig deeper, research, talk to people, and talk to embassies’,” said Javier. “And then I found out that there is actually a problem and it should be tackled more often and bluntly.”
Javier learned that one affluent customer can give more returns to banks than thousands of workers combined, a fact that discourages some banks from targeting low-income customers but pushed Javier to believe in his project more.
After struggling to juggle between his full-time job, family commitments, and working on cWallet on the side, Javier decided to quit his job and dedicate his time to making cWallet a reality.
cWallet was incubated at the Digital Incubation Center (DIC), part of Qatar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications, and was a recipient of a development fund from Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP), a member of QF.
I wasn’t born to be an entrepreneur and it took me 40 years to just decide to become an entrepreneur
“I wasn’t born to be an entrepreneur and it took me 40 years to just decide to become an entrepreneur,” said Javier, adding that early days of being an entrepreneur were not easy.
“There were lots of challenges and sleepless nights, and days when you didn't know what to do, but I kept pushing and moving forward. And with establishments like the DIC and QSTP, and all the other players that are trying to help us to grow, it was very helpful.”
A key strength of cWallet is the amount of effort that went into ensuring it is feasible for its target audience and meets their needs and expectations. To achieve this, Javier did not only talk to workers in Qatar, but also traveled to India, the Philippines, and other countries to understand how remittances are received and consumed back home.
The app is available in nine languages commonly spoken among workers in Qatar, is free to use, and allows users access e-commerce services that they might not be able to use otherwise.
cWallet is currently partnering with employers of food delivery staff, domestic workers, salons, and freelancers so that their employees don’t have to deal with cash, something that not only requires extra handling but has also become a health and safety risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We’re moving away from ‘dirty’ money that transmits unknown diseases, and at the same time securing the money of expats who don’t have bank accounts
“We're moving away from ‘dirty’ money that transmits unknown diseases, and at the same time securing the money of expats who don’t have bank accounts because they might be putting it under a pillow in shared accommodation,” said Javier.
“The technology [of cashless transactions] is important because it really streamlines everything. Both the user and the partner benefit because it's cheaper and you can generate reports and analyze statistics and data to improve your current business.”
Uplifting those at the bottom of the pyramid
cWallet’s ambition goes beyond providing basic cashless services to underserved communities. In fact, in a global economic crisis that has disproportionally affected the low-income workers, Javier envisions cWallet helping people become entrepreneurs if they have lost their job.
It is the first mobile app in Qatar to facilitate financial services via blockchain technology, allowing freelancers and owners of home-made businesses and micro-enterprises to send and receive money online without paying for expensive payment gateways.
“We are trying to create more entrepreneurs rather than jobs because cWallet allows you to cash in and cash out money like a human ATM,” Javier says. “With the job market declining, we want to build a more entrepreneurship-friendly environment using financial technology.”
In future, cWallet will also allow expats to send remittances or pay for utilities like school fees or electricity bills back in their home country directly through the app. The company is already in talks with affiliate partners in other countries.
“We need to recognize what we have and be grateful for it,” explains Javier. “People complain about heat and traffic, but if you go to labor camps, you see that they don’t mind 50-degree heat, but they do mind the exchange rates and ATM lines.”