NAIROBI, Kenya-In a country with few branches, CUs here have instead put the branch in a backpack and taken it on the road.

Known as "Branch in a Backpack" and developed with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the new device aims to improve usage of credit union services (known as "SACCOs" in Kenya).

In many areas of Kenya there are no financial institutions, meaning residents have to spend up to 90 minutes on unreliable public transportation to make deposits into accounts at the nearest branch of their credit union, according to the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU), which helped to develop the backpack branch.

The challenge in making the trip over Kenya's rough roads often reduces their interest in utilizing the CU, WOCCU said. Jesus Chavez, manager of WOCCU's SACCO Growth Program in Kenya, introduced Branch in a Backpack to members of the Kakuyuni Dairy Farmers Self-help Group in the summer of 2010 saying, "This is another step in new transaction technology that will help us better serve people without easy credit union access."

The Backpack Branch is a collection of electronic equipment, anchored by a Dell laptop computer that includes an inexpensive computer-mounted camera, a portable scanner and point-of-service device with biometric capabilities. All fit neatly into a standard-size backpack that can be hauled with ease into remote villages.

The laptop serves as the branch's engine, WOCCU said, with the mounted camera used to take pictures of new members in the field. The small scanner, which connects via USB port to the computer and taps its battery power to function, is used to copy legal documents required to enroll SACCO members. The POS device scans the member's fingerprint, allowing the CU representative to verify the member's identity for each transaction.

The device also sends the transaction data for processing to the mainframe at WOCCU Services Group, WOCCU's for-profit subsidiary. The technology saves members countless hours of travel to and from their credit unions to conduct simple transactions, Chavez said.

The small laptop has limited battery life, so a Powergorilla and Powermonkey were added to each backpack. The two devices, produced by Powertraveller Ltd., are batteries for the laptop and POS device, respectively and are rechargeable using small portable solar panels that fit into the backpack. WOCCU pays about $1,300 for each Backpack Branch.

The new backpack branch interacts with members' existing cell phone banking capabilities, using M-PESA, a software program created jointly by Kenya telecommunications provider Safaricom and the United Kingdom's Vodaphone. "This year M-PESA has introduced online bill-pay," said Chavez. "The company also just announced that it was going international." This summer, WOCCU signed an agreement in Kenya with I&M Bank House to support the program with clearing services. Chavez said he is ready to take the next step in high-tech transactions by introducing a smart card that includes the member's identifying fingerprint on its memory chip. The device also can act as a stored-value card, enabling an 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."

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