A Somali who's living and working abroad wants to send money to his grandmother in a remote village. A money transfer company gets the cash delivered in a flash.
An aid organization wants to pay its Somali staff. Again, money transfer companies do the job in a country where the banking system shut down in 1991 when the government collapsed.
But now the transfer businesses are under siege. After the April 2 massacre of at least 148 university students and staff in Garissa, Kenya, attributed to the terrorist group al-Shabab, the Kenyan government has revoked the licenses of the 13 Somali money-transfer companies that handled almost all funds flowing into Somalia from family members and aid organizations based in East Africa. The government's concern was that these transfer agents could be used to fund al-Shabab.
Emma Naylor-Ngugi, the regional director for CARE International, says payments that were pending from her offices in Nairobi to staff, contractors and aid recipients in Somalia were suspended without warning.
"We're talking about people who already live on the edge," Naylor-Ngugi says. "We really feel very worried that in the next few weeks we're going to see more and more distress."
Money-transfer companies play an important role in Somalia. "They do money transfers like Western Union does," says John Kisimir. "That is the driving force of the economy."
The aid organizations that use Somali transfer agents marvel at their efficiency. "You can buy a sort of money order in Nairobi, and that money will reappear instantly in Somalia," says Naylor-Ngugi. "It's very, very impressive, compared to even what you might find in developed countries."
The role of the transfer companies is all the more important in Somalia because millions depend on money sent from relatives abroad.
"If you're sitting around the table in Somalia with four people, chances are two of them rely on remittances from relatives overseas," says Anne-Marie Schryer-Roy, communications and advocacy manager at Adeso, a Kenya-based humanitarian organization. "Most people literally rely on [remittances] to put food on the table or to pay school fees or medical bills."
These person-to-person transfers are estimated to account for 40 percent of Somalia's gross domestic product, more than all international aid and foreign investment combined.
Remittances were under threat long before the Kenyan government's clampdown. Since 2011, banks in Britain and the United States have been closing the accounts of Somali money-transfer businesses. The banks are wary that they could be charged with money laundering and the funding of terrorist groups.
Ed Pomfret, acting country director for Oxfam in Somalia, believes that U.S. banks could adhere to regulations and still allow the best of the Somali money-transfer companies to operate. "It's because of a perception that Somalia from a distance looks like a dangerous and chaotic place," says Pomfret. "What we know working on the ground in Somalia is that there's actually an awful lot of transparency in a lot of these financial transactions, and there's a lot of oversight."
The creative Somalis in this business have tried to adapt to the clampdown, sometimes by using cash couriers.
"They are literally putting money into suitcases and flying it from the U.S. to Dubai, which is where the clearinghouses are for the money-transfer companies," Schryer-Roy says. "It's fairly obvious that if the objective of the regulations is to increase transparency and reduce the risk of money laundering and terrorism financing, putting money into suitcases is defeating the purpose of the law."
Like the Somali transfer operators, aid organizations are looking for workarounds. Most humanitarian groups are considering more costly options like routing funds via Djibouti or Dubai.
Any delays could have serious consequences in Somalia. "There are over 30,000 children in Somalia who are severely malnourished; essentially they are at death's door," says Pomfret. "So even if one week the money doesn't come though to Somalia, it could in some cases be a matter of life and death."
The uncertainty is also hampering rapid response to a new crisis: Yemeni refugees entering Somalia to flee war at home.
Aid organizations are trying to persuade the Kenyan government to allow some of the Somali money-transfer companies to trade again. "We're not going to say they are all innocent, we're just saying vet them, so you know whether they are doing anything fishy," says Kimisir at World Vision, "and then let those who are clean continue doing business so that people do not suffer in the process."