Aerial image of the world’s largest refugee camp, located in Jordan.

Fintech, refugees, and big data?

Johan Bender
Jul 8, 2016 · 4 min read

Right now there is more than 19 million refugees globally — roughly 65 times the population of Iceland or 0.3% of the world’s population. The aerial image of the Zaatari Refugee Camp of Jordan speaks for itself. The ‘camp’ is the size of a small city, hosting up to almost 150,000 refugees at a time. Needless to say, with operations at such scale and limited ressources, even small scalable efficiency improvements can ultimately save many lives. However, traditional data collection (physical forms, testimonials, etc.) of refugees is costly to collect, not real-time, in-accurate and tough to implement in the given circumstances. Obviously, digitalizing processes to collect data automatically is ideal. The main question is “what data should (and can) be collected in order to uncover insights that lead to strategic action?”

The World Food Program

Luckily, The World Food Program (WFP), a UN organization with the purpose of eradicating hunger, doesn’t seem to lack creativity. I came to learn this as an attendee at UN’s first World Humanitarian Summit this May in Istanbul. In fact, WFP has recently developed a custom payment system, in collaboration with Mastercard, that rivals the payment systems implemented in the western world. Before diving into the specifics of the system, I’d like to give a brief introduction to the case, in which the payment system is utilized. On a highlevel, WFP helps refugees by delivering nutrition-optimized food packages and providing financial means to purchase local groceries (mainly through food stamps).


In regards to their operation WFP identified three challenges to focus on:

  1. Identifying possible malnourishment patterns among the population
  2. Ensuring funds are put into the right use (spend on food as opposed to cigarettes, etc.)
  3. Limiting corruption and loss of resources throughout the supply chain

To solve these challenges, WFP began to gather demographical information on every family and implement a digital payment solution, which would collect data on how each family spends their funds.

Legacy Payment Systems

However, the WFP was challenged by some infrastructural decisions made more than 40 years ago. Back when the credit card payment system was implemented in the late 1970’s, it was debated how much information should be stored after every purchase. To give you an example: If you bought (with your credit card) a pair of running shoes and a few t-shirts at the Nike Outlet, should your bank be able to display each item purchased and the associated cost or just the total amount spent. Due to privacy concerns and expensive database hosting, it was decided to go with the second option — no item-to-item details. Today, I’m sure many of us wish that we could make that decision individually, as this data could enrich our lives in many ways (understanding our spending habits, personal finance, etc.).

Opportunities Within A New System

Because of the restrictions of the current system, WFP decided to develop their own payment system that allowed for more data to be collected. The new system would allow WFP to identify purchasing behaviour and dietary composition of different demographics, while also limiting corruption. Here is how the solution works step-by-step: First a refugee family receives a unique credit card by WFP. This credit card can only be used at selected shops. At these shops, WFP has integrated their own payment terminal, allowing for for purchase data to be gathered. Further, WFP ‘programatically’ put restrictions on items the card can be used for (tomatoes, potatoes, etc.), thereby eliminating purchases of cigarettes, alcohol, etc.

The terminals use eye-test authentication to prevent against fraud and theft

Data from the WFP’s payment system, combined with the collected demographic information (age, gender, family size, etc.), has made it possible to understand real-time purchase patterns of different households. This allows WFP to gain actionable insights on how to improve their education programs, financials, and nutritional packages across different population groups.

Personally, the key takeaway from this case is how it’s possible to re-think current infrastructure in order to generate data-driven insights. It’s a message we all can learn from — whether we’re entrepreneurs, non-profits, or large corporations.

P.s.: WFP is launching an innovation accelerator in Munich July 11th 2016. If you have a creative idea on how to end hunger or are passionate about the subject — feel free to visit their website:

Johan Bender

Written by

I enjoy pondering about the potential and challenges of new tech and ideas:

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