Field Notes: Venezuelans in Colombia

Process & insights from a week of immersive research with the team working on Celo

James Downer
May 30 · 10 min read

“I came from a humble background. The youngest of 16 children, I was the first to get my high school degree and the only one to graduate university. When I finished university, I worked hard. My credit score was excellent. After a year, I was able to buy a new car because of that credit. I kept one account for daily expenditures and one for savings.

A bank account lets you develop yourself, and make disciplined decisions. In Colombia I can’t open one. I save my money in a wooden box like they did in the old days.” — Zara, 55

The Situation

Not every one of the 1.7 billion unbanked are unbanked for the same reason. Celo’s latest research focused on a part of the Venezuelan diaspora living in Colombia and cases where financial services are failing them. As part of my Celo fellowship, I co-led field research in Colombia for the entire team working on Celo. This research and the insights we share gives color to how one particular set of individuals navigate the largest social, economic and migratory crisis in Latin American history.

The macro-scale statistics from Venezuela are so large, they defy comprehension.

How do you conceptualize 2,000,000% inflation?

How do you understand a migrant flow of greater than 10% of the country in less than three years? Does unemployment rate mean anything if it’s at 44%? As Venezuela has become more prominent in the news since the start of 2019, coverage has thrown readers into the deep end. Stories break every day citing these statistics in the lede of a piece which goes on to explain the battle of the bands at the border, the nuances of constitutional authority, the niche use of cryptocurrency, or different aspects of the rise of non-state actors or state corruption. Every day is different, and every day, 30 million people are making decisions soaked in uncertainty.

Behind incomprehensible statistics are individuals making decisions to survive and plan for the future. Celo’s work (of which this piece is a teaser) focus on that navigation process. Nestled between the macro statistics and the stories which are stranger than fiction, this post hopes to paint color back into the individual migrant’s life and open-source the ways in which financial systems are failing them with the hope of moving the industry and possible solutions forward.

Why did we do this?

Celo is starting by building a product for people whose traditional financial solutions have excluded. People are unbanked for different reasons. The reason Argentines store USD under their mattresses is different from the reason a Tanzanian refugee isn’t served by mPesa and a subsistence farmer in Nicaragua keeps her savings in livestock. The distance between us and our potential users makes face-to-face conversations critical; not to find answers, but to ask better questions.

Fellowship and Research Methodology

I joined the team working on Celo under the Fellowship program to be a recruiter fixer, interpreter and researcher. Prior to heading to the field, I recruited over 20 potential interview subjects to share their unique perspectives. The participants were Venezuelan migrants of different educational levels, ages and genders who have been in Colombia for fewer than five years. I recruited for diverse backgrounds that included people who were making it work in Colombia and people who were less established and in more precarious situations. They varied from licensed doctors who could not find work in Colombia and corporate professionals working odd jobs to informal remittance agents trying to start a new business and bitcoin entrepreneurs with a knack for timing.

Once in the field 32 members of the Celo team ran the interview process. We were graciously invited into our participants homes and businesses for 90–120 minute 1:1 interviews where participants explained past and present decision-making in the context of the economic crisis and the decision to migrate to Colombia.

- 32 Members of the Celo team

- 17 Interviews with 20 participants

- 26 Hours of interview recordings

- 52 Taxi Rides

- 5 Interpreters

Teams sharing quotes and insights from interviews while in Colombia

In each interview, the participant was joined by one lead interviewer, an interpreter, two note takers and a photographer. In a couple cases the significant other of the interviewee joined. The interviewer used a field guide to cover specific topics and direct the conversation. Like a good conversation, an interview takes time to warm up, but once it is going, the lead interview was free to explore topics not in the guide. To help the participant feel comfortable, we began the field guide with some easy questions before pushing them to give specific details around particularly important moments. To keep the interview moving, we added in a couple of activities before diving into specifics around either banking or remittances, depending on the participant.

Because of the sensitive legal status of many participants and delicate political situation in Venezuela, we’ve changed their names and removed any personally identifying information.

The purpose of these interviews is not perfection but a way for every individual working on the Celo platform to connect with potential users. Imagining how Rosana would use the app when discussing app design, what stability would mean for Marvin, or how important offramp reliability would be for Yolanda helps make everyone on the team accountable to the people depending on those systems.

On a short timeline, I leveraged previous work in the region including independent work and insights gained from research with the Open Money Initiative, which informed our two specific areas of research focus: the informal remittance market and the recently unbanked.

Remittances to Venezuela are the only means of survival for millions of people still in the country. Because legal options no longer serve Venezuela, the entire industry runs on illegal rails. We interviewed participants in this informal system to understand the key players in the ecosystem and their experiences.

How does trust work in this informal system without recourse? In what ways is this informal system sufficient and insufficient?

Western Union hasn’t even updated their website to reflect the new denomination, VES issued in August, 2018

Hyperinflation in Venezuela today belongs to a class where superlatives no longer matter. Like Germany in 1923, Hungry in 1946, Nicaragua in 1989, or Zimbabwe in 2008, the utter collapse of the currency has reached a point where the durability of perishable dairy products holds more value than the currency you use to purchase it. What separates Venezuela from all other cases of hyperinflation is the shockingly high percent of Venezuelans who have bank accounts. Only 46% of Colombians have bank accounts while 73% of Venezuelans do.

Venezuelan banking works really, really well. Transfers are instant and free making it simple for Venezuelans to be financially fluent to the benefits of formal savings vehicles and credit. Upon arrival in Colombia, however, Venezuelans frequently find themselves unable to access banking cutting off their means of savings and credit.

What financial services people were able to access and how that met or failed expectations? How does exclusion from formal financial systems impacted personal identity and other limitations?

The Individual’s Journey

Before focusing on the specific insights from these questions, it is worth looking at a typical experience of a Venezuelan migrant residing in Cartagena.

There are myriad sources for the macro context of what is happening in Venezuela or snapshots of individuals in specific events, but a more longitudinal picture is missing. From our research, we tended to see a somewhat archetypal story of decline and a fight for redemption.

Participant journey maps showing a pattern of trending down and to the right

Demographically, Venezuela is a well educated, formerly wealthy nation. All participants recall ten years ago as golden period. “We were wealthy and didn’t even know it,” Juan reflected as he and his wife reminisced about taking their kids to sports practice in Caracas.

People remember rising prices and falling wages in the mid 2010, but brushed them off. It was discreet, and frequently traumatic moments that propelled people to make the decision to migrate.

“She called off our engagement in 2015 because my economic prospects weren’t good enough,” Marvin told us.

“I was kidnapped in my own house. They took everything except the bed.” — Rosana

Many people migrated at a point where they could not imagine things getting worse, but arriving in Colombia was harder than many expected. Many people considered migration relatively easy, especially those with prior ties to Colombia. Twenty to thirty years ago there was a large reverse migration during the most violent period of Colombia’s modern history. Most of these Colombovenezolanos lived their formative years in Venezuela and identify as culturally Venezuelan, but have the legal advantage of citizenship. This migration strengthened ties between the two countries which already shared similar culture, religion, and language. Even with this context, people who are migrating now are migrating in a “pushed fashion” with no savings, no job, unfamiliarity with the legal system, and few contacts.

While every person’s migration story is different, it is an emotionally tough process to be coerced to leave a home they recognize less with each passing day.

If I could be born again, anywhere in the world, I would choose to be born in Caracas, even if it meant living through all this all over. It’s the greatest place in the world. -Lisseth


In digesting these interviews, the Celo team looked for commonalities and differences between people’s stories. How do individuals prioritize their problems? What tools do they leverage to navigate given changing expectations and persistent uncertainty?

Three teams completing post-interview synthesis to discuss and uncover findings

The guiding star of this work was to respect peoples’ stories as they tell them and to not exoticize the reality. These insights strike a balance between respecting that broader context of the crisis and focusing on more clinical ways in which formal legal and financial systems are not serving them.

If you’d like to see how we turn these insights to action, keep watching this space. I’m also hosting an event atCelo

That’s me, hosting a post-trip debrief with the team working on Celo


Leaving Venezuela is like getting divorced while still in love.

I had to close my eyes to focus on Yolanda’s words over the sound of the television. I was translating for our lead interviewer as two note takers jotted down the details. The photographer sat, wrapt. “I first crossed the border in an airconditioned bus…but in 2015 Maduro closed the border. There was no legal way back so I crossed…through the river.” Then she pivoted, acknowledging the television “you know, today is a special day. This time it’s different.” The date was April 30. At dawn, a large group of the army had defected, releasing a major political prisoner. People had experienced that hope dozens of times before, but maybe she was right this time.

As this writing is shared a month later, that moment is all but forgotten, representing a persistent contradiction of Venezuela broader than politics: inconsistency is just about the only consistent thing. The blockchain invention Petro (PTR) does not exist, and yet the equivalent in PTR shows up on every bank transfer. Accepting dollars at a place of business is illegal, but if you do not price your goods in dollars, you will not make it to the end of the week.

The insights above are therefore, by nature, reductionist. First, they are written as “actual, not factual.” That framing helps evoke questions about how we might design systems despite a changing landscape. Second, and far more importantly, their superficiality is a reminder to approach design with humility. Our users know their problems better than we do; it’s our job to listen to them. We hope that by continuing to ask better questions rather than proposing answers, we can work together with our users to build a more inclusive financial system.

The Celo Blog

Celo is an open platform that makes financial tools accessible to anyone with a mobile phone. Visit for info on the community, team, and technology.

James Downer

Written by

As a kid, I resolved to plant more trees. Former Co-founder @Colibri_Global. Solar power, cryptocurrency, optimistic capitalist, sometimes ultras.

The Celo Blog

Celo is an open platform that makes financial tools accessible to anyone with a mobile phone. Visit for info on the community, team, and technology.

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