How mobile money is rebuilding lives in Sudan

IOM/ Yasir Elbakri IOM helped Mohammed Ahmed to set up a shop in Omduram market, near Khartoum, Sudan. The initiative involves the use of mobile money to buy goods

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


When Mohammed Ahmed left Sudan in search of better life, he couldn’t have imagined that he would find financial security back home. But, some four years later, he now runs a thriving business, thanks to an innovative scheme involving the UN migration agency (IOM), based on the use of mobile money.

Five months of detention

In 2016, facing financial hardship, Mr. Ahmed decided to leave his home town in Sudan, and travel to Libya in search of a better life. However, as Libya became increasingly drawn into violent conflict, his aspirations turned to Erope, where he hoped to be able to find work, and to study.

Like many of his fellow Sudanese, however, these dreams were dashed. Mr. Ahmed was arrested by the Libyan authorities and, along with more than 80 other Sudanese, held in a detention centre in Misrata City, where he was kept for five months.

Migrants in Libyan detention centres face harsh conditions, and can even find themselves under direct attack: in July 2019, at least 53 migrants at the Tajoura detention centre were killed in an airstrike, an act which Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said could constitute a war crime. Following the strikes, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and UN migration agency (IOM) described conditions in detention centres as “inhumane”, and called for them to be closed.

A life-changing decision

When a member of the Sudanese consulate visited the Misrata camp in 2018, asking the detainees if they wanted to return home, Mr. Ahmed decided to accept the offer. He was the only one to do so and, for him, it has proved to be a life-changing decision: today, with help from IOM, he is the owner of a thriving business in his home country.

“The person from the consulate said that they would contact the IOM, who then made arrangements for me to come home. When I arrived in Sudan, they gave me money for transportation, and we made arrangements to meet in their office in Al Manshiya (a district in Khartoum). Three days later I went to meet them, and we discussed my business plan”.

The assistance that Mr. Ahmed received was part of an initiative, created jointly by the European Union and IOM, to reintegrate Sudan nationals, many of who were stranded in Libya, by helping them to start small businesses.

Solving a cash-flow problem

As Andrew Gray, head of migration management and development at IOM Sudan, explains, one of the problems entrepreneurs face in Sudan is a lack of cash, due to the economic upheaval faced by the country in recent years. Fewer than 10 per cent of people in Sudan have bank accounts, and those who do face limits on the amount of cash they can withdraw, which makes life difficult for business owners who need to pay suppliers. Mobile money, transferred through phones, is a way around this dilemma.

“With mobile money, funds are transferred through a user’s mobile phone. These funds can then be used to purchase other items or cashed out. The technology is safe and easy to use, and transaction costs are low. Users only need a simple mobile and a mobile phone signal to send and receive SMS messages. There is no need for internet access.

Mobile money is well established in many countries in Africa and is a major payment method, but it is relatively new to Sudan, and we are excited to be doing our bit to raise awareness of this new payment option.”

For Mr. Ahmed, the scheme provided a way for him to open up a general store in Omdurman market, near Khartoum. After he had sourced the products he needed, and found the best deals, IOM kickstarted the business by paying for the initial stock with mobile money.

Since then, the business has proved to be sustainable, and his situation is markedly improved: “business is going well”, he says. “I also got married, and life has been getting better”.

How IOM is helping Sudanese to build a better life at home

The mobile money initiative is part of a programme set up in 2016 by IOM and the European Union, in close cooperation with 26 African countries in the Sahel and Lake Chad, the Horn of Africa and North Africa regions.

The programme aims to make migration safer, and better organized, both for migrants and their communities. Ensuring that migrants can develop a livelihood, is one way to ensure that they choose to stay in their home country.

In the Horn of Africa, the initiative, which is running from March 2017 to March 2021, is mainly focused on four identified priority countries: Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia and Sudan.

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