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The Numoni team with the Nugen terminals

According to a World Bank report, more than half of the world’s adults, some 2.5 billion men and women, belong to a group known as the underbanked. As the name implies, the group has no access to banking facilities, and for some, storing money inside a mattress is still a followed practice.

A two-year-old Singaporean startup called Numoni (pronounced as new-money) aims to address this problem.

The company that positions itself as ‘We bring cash-to-account and payment services for the underbanked’, has developed a range of devices that allow users, mainly foreign workers in Singapore, with no bank accounts to use cash to do things like top up prepaid minutes, pay back micro transaction loans, purchase visa prepaid cards and other basic activities that people with bank accounts do with debit and credit cards.

The device, known as Nugen, is in over 80 locations in Singapore, mostly near to foreign worker dormitories and favoured hangouts to allow them easy access to Numoni’s facilities.

The device, however, is not just meant for the foreign workers who, according to the Ministry of Manpower, number about 1.3 million in Singapore. Numoni has partnered with telco providers in Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines and other regional partners to allow workers in Singapore to send mobile credit to their family and friends back in their home country.

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The idea for the device came from a unique practice in Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent where small retailers accept mobile credit instead of actual money. When a foreign worker in Singapore pays for airtime using a Numoni Nugen device, the recipient will receive a message of confirmation and the money will be added to the recipient’s mobile phone credit whereby it can be used to purchase goods. Think of it as a literal mobile wallet; instead of what Google and Apple are doing with linking credit cards and using NFC, this system literally turns mobile phone credit into a form of currency.

So basically, a foreign worker approaches the device, selects the country he wants remit mobile airtime to, selects the provider and inputs the telephone number of the recipient. He then inserts cash into the device and as simple as that, the money is received into the recipient’s mobile credit. The recipient then goes to a store that accepts mobile credit as a form of currency and purchases what he or she needs in exchange for that mobile credit.

Numoni’s Founder Norma Sit comes from a diverse background; she has held a job in finance with Visa and is also an accomplished local artist. “Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” she noted in our meeting at her office, an unassuming industrial unit at an estate in Ubi, Singapore. “If there is a need for a product, an entrepreneur should fill it,” she added.

What started of as a simple idea in 2012 is now a full time obsession for Sit, who has appeared on the covers of magazines and received accolades all across the mediascape. In fact, at the Singapore Infocomm Technology Federation’s recent awards, Numoni won in two categories: a Bronze award in the Best New Consumer Product and a Gold award in the Best New Social and Community Product.

The company with a headcount of 45 has a desire to branch out into markets like Indonesia, where just 20 per cent of the adult population has a bank account.

Although Numoni’s transactions aren’t being scrutinised by any government body, the service is guarded from being misused for money laundering. Sit explained that there is a limit to how much money can be transferred through the service. “Our objective is not to be a bank, we just want migrant workers to be able to send small sums of money to their loved ones to improve the quality of their lives,” she said.

As for the company’s plans going forward, Sit said, “Numoni would like to be in five large countries in five years’ time, serving 100 million people, helping them make bring cash-to-account, and enabling them to save, repay loans, buy digital goods and fulfil lifestyle transactions securely and rapidly.”