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Robert Bell’s vision for the Pacific islands

Robert Bell’s vision for the Pacific islands

Robert Bell is a technology and financial services guru, focused on cutting-edge tech applications for bringing high-tech (fintech) solutions to banking the unbanked.

Robert Bell, CEO and Chairman of KlickEx

He has twice been the New Zealand Hi-Tech Young Achiever of the Year (2012, 2013), and twice named as one of the top executives to watch in Banking, by US based Bank Innovation magazine (2013, 2014). In 2013 he was named the Community Banking Innovator of the Year, by the Royal Chartered Institute of Bankers (now the British Bankers Association), London, at the age of 31; and in 2014, he was listed as one of New Zealand’s most inspirational innovators.

Since 2014 he’s been behind the scenes, building a strong executive team to deliver a global platform, recruiting the best of the best from all over the world, deliver on his vision. Today, the impact of this team, and the clients it serves, is a legacy of that foresight, and vision – are a testament to perseverance and constant innovation.

All these things sound pretty normal for a high achiever – but what really sets Robert apart from others, are his motives. He’s driven to create high quality social enterprises that deliver value for those who the current system just isn’t serving well. 

He’s made sure that despite every influence to the contrary, the value-proposition to the end user is mind-bogglingly appealing. He’s helped to increase the rate of banking in Tonga for example, by 400% at a national level, in under three years. And it’s only the start.

Robert has impacted thousands and thousands of people.

Robert has worked in Yachting, Farming, Electric Car Design, and more recently in Banking (@HSBC), Insurance, and as an Energy Trader on the NZX. 

Robert then founded the real time payments network “KlickEx” aimed at reducing banks and central banks FX risks and fees, launched during the Global Financial Crisis. And this is where the social impact began: Since 2010, KlickEx has become one of the most successful per capita enablers of cross border mobile money systems for low liquidity countries in the world. The work has directly and tangibly lowered the remittance costs dramatically in the Pacific to under 3% of a USD 200 send – saving Pacific Islander communities millions upon millions per year in fees and charges from inefficient ways of sending money home. 

KlickEx presence in the Community in Samoa

In 2011 he moved to Europe to head KlickEx’s various non-New Zealand business units; and in 2013, intent on improving banking globally, he became Chairman of the KlickEx Group, where he has led the company’s organic growth, partnerships, and acquisition units. In 2013, SWIFT named KlickEx the FinTech startup of the Year. And in 2016, KlickEx undertook the first trade where the FX safe-settlement counter-party was a central bank – which is a really, REALLY big deal.

Robert Bell has impacted thousands and thousands of people. Nearly 55,000 low income people/households have registered with his service in the Pacific – and tens of thousands of additional people have benefitted from it, world-wide. He shies away from the spotlight – but has directly impacted nearly every household in New Zealand with a connection to Tonga, and a large (and increasing) number for those linked to Samoa also.  He does this by providing advanced, cutting edge technology to those in New Zealand (and Australia, and the UK) who need to access banking services to support loved ones back home, for the families who provide that care. 

Given the 75,000 families in the targeted countries (of phase 1) – having almost 55,000 registrations is extremely impressive. 

In October 2015, the NZ Ministry of Finance asked banks to justify why they are charging up to $90 million more per year than KlickEx’s does in the Pacific. KlickEx is increasingly the largest financial institution in parts of the Pacific (on a customer-user basis – but growing quickly, on a monetary basis too), but the incumbents still hold some sway (and they are defending that position bitterly).

The $90m a year of extra money mentioned by the NZ government, represents the stakeholder value of an entire state-owned company the size of Mighty River Power, working solely for the benefit of the Pacific Community. By reducing the cost as much as KlickEx has, Pacific families benefit significantly. Not many companies in New Zealand deliver more than $90m per year in value to their stakeholders – let alone any organisations that target the financially vulnerable communities of the Pacific as effectively as Rob does. $90m a year is equivalent to four times the size of the entire annual budget of the whole NZ Red-Cross.

Removing this amount of money has been a major wind-chill factor from the security of these nations. And every year, that leakage is less and less, thanks to Rob, but it hasn’t been easy.

Saving up to $960 per family per year in the Pacific.

Rob’s goal since 2010, has been to contribute more than $1m per week to the local economies of the Pacific by providing advanced banking infrastructure, and a team of people to operate it, at a price that is affordable, sustainable – and about building infrastructure and confidence in financial stewardship. 

This includes having built highly technical, cross border clearing systems, compliance systems, financial security systems, biometric identity services, mobile money platforms (some of the biggest in the world per capita) and all the Foreign Exchange systems that come with that – which prior to the launch of KlickEx – were only available to Wall Street Banks or Hedge Funds. Not anymore – now everyday people can get access to fair, transparent and safe payment services – as can their governments, and Aid agencies. 

For the Tongan community, literally 100% of households have benefitted from this work – saving up to $960 per family per year. At a national level, this has increased Tonga’s purchasing power parity by about 9% – with lower cost imports, and more money arriving in the pockets of family back home. 

To understand this impact – imagine that the $960 per family per year (estimated savings by KlickEx’s impact, by the UN in 2016) is they result of a deposit at 3% interest before tax: in countries where GDP per capita is USD 4,400 per year, this small amount equates to an ‘increase of wealth’ multiplier that adds a tremendous security blanket to the Pacific – and to the people in other developing countries; this difference is the same feeling as having $50,000 in the bank – and that represents a dividend that would take more than 10 years of the GDP per capita to be saved up to replace it, and it has a huge ‘wealth-effect’ per family.  All created by one vision, and in under 5 years.

Making these sorts of minor, but impactful changes, means a real, tangible, “wealth effect” for low income communities, and this encourages households to ‘pay attention’ to their finances, to plan for the future, and to teach their children about ‘money’.

Collectively – all these households together –  saving $960 per year – for the 100,000 most needy families in the Pacific –  generates a feeling of around 3 billion dollars of value in the pockets or minds of these exposed families (being $90m a year, at 3%!) – which is a tangible feeling of financial security, that they have never before been able to feel.

Robert Bell, a global expert in Banking and digital financing infrastructure

Robert is considered a global expert in his field (constantly getting invitations from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, United Nations, IMF, the Commonwealth Secretariat, and the G20 to speak at conferences – bearing in mind Rob is 33 years old and has a low proportion of grey hair still – it’s not bad). 

Globally, tremendous efforts and resources are being poured into replicating internationally, the work done by Rob and his team for the Pacific – an impact that is estimated by the IMF, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and World Bank, to potentially contribute more than $20 billion dollars per year to some of the most dependent economies in the world. Rob is increasingly offshore these days – teaching other countries how to do what the Pacific is already doing. 2016 has been a very busy year.

In addition to being a thought leader, and a perpetual learner, Robert holds double undergraduate degrees in Finance & Quantitative Analysis, and Economics with Politics from the University of Otago, and is a graduate of Stanford University’s Advanced Financial & Quantitative Engineering program, in 2014 he became an Innovation Judge for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s international Enterprise Forum (MITEF). He remains the Chairman of The KlickEx Group, responsible for Regulated Systems and Global Market Access; He leads the multi-institution working group on ‘Shared Service and Payment Infrastructure for Small Island Developing States (SIDS)’, and is the driving force behind the New Zealand based “Banking and Insurance – Financial Access to First World Infrastructure in the Pacific by 2018” initiative. 

In 2016 – Rob also launched a new cross-border employer health-insurance scheme for the Recognised Seasonal Employees; that is the beginning of full health-care services for the Pacific Islands. It replaces older schemes that were unable to protect workers against a variety of claims, and which also were not able to provide services to the families of the cross-border workers, while doing so at a 20% lower premium than earlier services.

Outcomes achieved

Using technology – the Pacific region has been able to buck the trend of rising remittance prices (the gateway to ‘financial inclusion’ in developing economies) and has become the highest penetrating cross-border mobile money region in the world. The Pacific, almost entirely due to Rob and his team’s work, has become the lowest cost multi-currency remittance corridor globally – from previously being the highest. Only remittances from Russia to the CIS states are lower cost – because no currency conversion is required. 

However – it has been the longevity of the service that has been Rob’s outstanding contribution. Costing $180,000 to set up – and saving more than $600,000 per month for families in the Pacific within 1 year of operating, KickEx has now become a high profile target for large banks as they react to a loss of revenue and market share, which, according to the Australian Parliament, is roughly $2 billion per year in the region (out of the pockets of the banks, which Rob and Co are celebrated for as exemplary agents of inclusion, maximising returns for the vulnerable).

Minister of Finance, New Zealand, Bill English validated this concern by writing to the main trading banks asking for an explanation of the damage being done to small economies (in contrast to KlickEx’s efforts) – as banks attempt to eradicate competition from the markets, and launch their own, higher priced products to consumers (see links below) as a replacement. 

Rob has survived this – and onboarded most of the industry to protect and preserve competition in the markets (100% of the independent/non-bank owned operators into Tonga, and 70% of the private operators into Samoa now rely on KlickEx to stay in business) – free of charge, to protect them from aggressive bank closures – which the Reserve Bank, the Ministry of Finance, and Department of Justice have all also attempted to intervene and prevent business/competition eradications and “market failures”, albeit less successfully.

Related links:

As a result – the world wants what Rob has tirelessly built.

And the future looks bright. If we can keep up the fight..!

Other Links:

2017 UPDATE:

Since coming to a settlement with Kiwibank, Westpac, and the Bank of New Zealand about the provisions of competitive services – Rob has branched out and is reaching beyond Financial Institutions. In 2016, he has begun to invest in farms in regions around the world, and is beginning advanced AgriTech (agricultural technology) trials for solutions to the combined dilemma of malnutrition, and obesity that is impacting the youth of the Pacific (the global Canary in the Mine-shaft) – but also New Zealand too. 

Rob is using this platform to develop autonomous food production systems in five global locations – with one location already producing free, solar-powered, and rainwater hydrated produce for local communities. His goal is to scale up this technology to generate high-output (per labour unit) low cost, nutrition rich vegetables to families in (initially) low decile school regions – as an attempt to eliminate the financial inclination to purchase low quality, processed, sugar enriched snack-like substitutes for natural, but more costly healthy food. 

So far – Rob aims to be supplying regular food to more than 1,000 school children by the end of summer 2017.

Rob’s two farms in New Zealand (and three overseas)  are the beginning of a new wave of high intensity, organic, alternative nutrition options available as part of the “prevention is better than a cure” school of thought, with respect to the high levels of obesity and pre-diabetes in western and pacific cultures. Beginning with low cost subscriptions for weekly goodie bags, the intend is to work with global postal networks to deliver just in time food accessibility to low income households, to displace high energy, low nutrition options that are currently over-represented in the ‘affordability’ price-point.  

While again these are now in their early days – Rob has proven that he has the ability to deliver innovative solutions, through teams and products that are able to scale and reach financial and operational sustainability early in the growth curve.  Rob is further contributing back to the global community by making the data public, so that all communities can benefit from rich food production data, to ensure optimised output efficiency, via MIT’s project, at other locations. 

And finally – when Rob is not in the office or on the Farm, he is usually sailing, or on the ocean, which is his main extracurricular activity (Rob was in the RNZYS’s National Youth (sailing) Development Squad at the age of 14 – despite being from the Hawke’s Bay). Rob (also) donates time to the Blue Ocean Foundation – which has a mission to to explore and record changes in the population of sea-life, and ocean resources, while looking for innovative solutions to social or ecological problems. 

Again, deriving from his passions in Oceania, he aims to learn more about marine conservation – and has the long term goal of convincing enough of the South Pacific Island States, PNG, Australian, New Zealand, and Chile, to collectively ratify a plan to proclaim and enforce most of the South Pacific’s “international waters” as an international ecology Park, where fishing by any country is prohibited (which is the opposite of today; international waters are a biological/ecological free-for all), and where the restoration of sea-life can be planned and observed as a start to re-habilitating the planet’s ocean eco-systems.

As part of this project, Rob was instrumental in founding the Pacific Utilities Company, where families in New Zealand, Australia, and the USA can assist low income households in the Pacific to move or install green or renewable energy, by supporting or subsidising part of the transition from fossil fuels, to solar, wind, and hydrocarbon-free-thermal energy alternatives, in partnership with Utility/Energy Companies in the South Pacific. 

Pacific Utilities is now one of the largest cross-border energy and utility bill-payment infrastructures in the world, and it has grown to a scale where it is the primary source of funding the work of the Blue Ocean Foundation in the Pacific.

In addition to this – Rob also founded an electric car company that specialises in converting used fossil fuel cars into sporty Electric Vehicles. While this has been incubating slowly since KlickEx began scaling in 2009, Rob is, via this company (EMP Motorworks) now one of the largest exporters of late model vehicles to the Kingdom of Tonga – a platform which he hopes to use to fund and organise a Pacific Island nations (or New Zealand if he’s lucky!) to be the first in the world to be a fully EV-only nation, at national scale, within the next decade (2020 – 2030).