‘I could help more’: could two new transfer companies change the game for Pacific ex-pats?
Two new payment transfer companies will be opening in the Pacific, where fees to send money are among the highest in the world
Kereni Vuai has carried a lot of people through the pandemic.
Vuai, 27, works full-time at a Sydney nursing home, which pays her AU$1500 a fortnight. She sends almost a third of that – $AU400 – back to family and friends in Fiji, many of whom have lost their jobs since coronavirus caused economic devastation in the tourism-dependent country.
But every fortnight this support has an additional cost. Vuai also pays $30 in fees to send the money via Western Union, which is the only way, along with the big banks, for people to send money back to most Pacific nations.
An extra AU$30 can go a long way in Fiji, where a typical annual salary is just AU$9,080. In rural areas, 41.5% of Fijians earn less than AU$1400 a year, according to the Fijian Bureau of Statistics. AU$30 (about FJ$45) could buy a week’s worth of food for a family of five.
“I’m always quite disappointed and sad with the fees. It’s ridiculous. If the fees were less, I’d be able to help another family who aren’t able to provide for themselves. It would make the difference of having a better life,” she said.
Vuai is not alone. Many Pacific Island nations are heavily dependent on remittances. Tonga is the most remittance-reliant country in the world, with the money sent back to the country, mostly from Tongans working abroad, making up 37% of the country’s GDP last year.
But as Covid-19 shattered economies around the world, remittances became a lifeline for the Pacific.
This was especially true in Fiji, where the tourism-dependent economy contracted by 19% in 2020 and where as many as 120,000 Fijians, or 7.5% of the population, lost their jobs. As borders closed, remittances replaced tourism as the main source of income in Fiji, bringing in a record AU$414.6m last year.
But senders face huge fees, with those in the Pacific some of the highest in the world. While the global average cost of sending remittances is 6.38% of the sum, the average for the Pacific is 9.12%.
Two new players
For decades remittances to the region have been dominated by Western Union and the big banks. But that could be about to change, as two global foreign exchange companies launch in Fiji.
The London-based financial technology company Wise, known previously as TransferWise, launched in Fiji in June while the New Zealand-based OrbitRemit is set to launch its mobile payment service in both Fiji and Samoa in the coming weeks.
Wise allows people in Fiji to receive money from abroad via a Vodaphone mobile number and Vodafone’s money transfer service, M-PAiSA. Vodaphone’s share of the Fijian market is between 80 and 85%, meaning much of the country now has access to Wise’s services.
According to the market rate on 1 July, for a transfer of AU$400 from Australia to Fiji, Wise would charge a fee of AU$14.57. That exceeds fees set by Western Union and the big banks, but the recipient would end up with around AU$5 more than if it was sent via ANZ and AU$24 more than if it was sent via Western Union, due to their exchange rates.
“The true cost of the transfer is hidden in the markup on the exchange rate and it’s where banks and others make their money from,” said Tristan Dakin, country manager for Wise in Australia and New Zealand.
The New Zealand-based OrbitRemit is also set to launch transfers to M-PAiSA wallets in Fiji, as well as in Samoa Tonga, Vanuatu, and PNG.
OrbitRemit said it can guarantee a fixed rate remittance fee of A$4,and an FX spread of 1.5% from the mid-market rate.
“We are significantly cheaper than the other offerings,” said OrbitRemit’s chief operating officer Tommy Heptinstall. “We are offering this service at a near break-even price as we want to do our part to support the communities who are having such a hard time on the back of the pandemic.”
A spokesperson for Western Union said: “We are able to meet customer needs with solutions relevant to their region. For example, in geographies with heightened regulatory requirements and low availability of cash, we can provide vital services to people on the ground, without compromising security and quality. Western Union has a long history in the Pacific Isles and a strong connection with the communities.”
‘People in Fiji are suffering’
Lower fees could be hugely helpful, says Jacob Lanyon, who set up a support network for Fijian families during the Covid outbreak, called Operation Tangira.“In the past, if you walked past a home, they’d say come in, come rest, and eat, but now the hospitality has gone cold,” he said. “With a lack of finance, with sources of income being depleted, people are less welcoming to a certain extent. People in Fiji are suffering.”
Operation Tangira has so far supplied up to 50 families with enough food to last them two weeks. Lanyon said more than 70% of the donations they’ve received have come from the more than 200,000 Fijians living abroad, adding that it would likely be more if the associated fees weren’t so high.“Some community members are reluctant to donate because of the high fees. If the fees were lowered, more money would be able to reach Operation Tangira, [which] translates into more families being able to eat, to sustain themselves through this period.”
But Harold Dimpel, founder and CEO of mHITs, which owns mobile payment service Rocket Remit, which also operates in the Pacific, said there is a reason why fees are so high in the region.
“The volume is small for these countries so you can’t get the scales that you can in other countries,” he said. “We were running a $0 fee campaign for many months, but we just couldn’t keep our doors open at that rate. We weren’t getting any credit back. We just wore that loss.”
Dimpel added that one company even had to boat cash into the islands to manage liquidity.
“There’s a lot of pressure on the margins for operators in this space. I know from informal conversations with central banks across the Pacific that some of the margins of operators are razor thin, if not negative,” said Bram Peters, the programme manager of the Pacific Financial Inclusion Program, and the regional manager for the United Nations Capital Development Fund.
Peters added new competitors are welcome as it will boost competition. But Dimpel had a more pessimistic outlook.
“If it’s a race to the bottom people go broke and then fees just go back up,” he said. “We just need to accept that there will be higher fees in countries with smaller populations, where there’s less of a market.”