Driving Cross-border Remittances through an Accessible and Efficient Network Learnings from Thunes Challenge Fund Investment

What you will find in this case study:

  • Building a wide network with multiple partners is essential in driving future growth, given the different technical challenges and regulatory environments of various countries.
  • Project implementation must be tailored to the specific regulations of each country. Additional security measures may have to be introduced, which can cause delays in implementation.
  • Coordination at the regional level is critical on regulatory issues such as cross-border remittances. UNCDF can leverage its regional partnerships to support advocacy at this level.

Why a Focus on Regional Remittances?

A study from the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) Shaping Inclusive Finance Transformations (SHIFT) in ASEAN programme has found that there is an estimated US $6-17 billion of unregulated remittance inflows into Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Viet Nam (CLMV). Formalizing these remittances can benefit low-income people with lower costs, improved efficiency and security, and further unlock a more inclusive financial market in the long run. Women also form the majority (i.e. 60 percent) of international remittance recipients and often prefer to use informal remittance channels, which unfortunately exposes them to a variety of risks, like fraud. Access to formal remittance channels is therefore a key driver towards women’s financial inclusion.

Regional Challenge Fund Window Launched

The ‘Linking Remittances as a Catalyst for Financial Inclusion and Women’s Economic Empowerment’ Challenge Fund was launched by SHIFT ASEAN in April 2017. The Challenge Fund, supported by the Australian Government (DFAT), the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), and Visa, Inc., aimed to support innovations focusing on remittances to promote women’s financial inclusion. Winning business models focused specifically on remittance services for low-income groups, particularly women in CLMV.

In total there were four winning projects:

  • Thunes: Thunes operates a cross-border payments network, linking money transfer operators, digital financial services operators, mobile wallets providers, financial institutions, NGOs and global merchants to facilitate money transfers to and from emerging markets. With support from the Challenge Fund, Thunes expanded their existing network into the Mekong region, namely Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Viet Nam.
  • Singtel Dash: Powered by SingCash Pte Ltd offers fast, the award-winning mobile wallet Singtel Dash enables fast, reliable and affordable remittances from Singapore to mobile wallets, cash pick-up and bank networks in the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Myanmar and China. Through SHIFT ASEAN's Challenge Fund, Singtel Dash expanded their network of cash-out points to several quality hub providers and reputable partner networks in Myanmar, thereby increasing access for Myanmar citizens in Singapore to send money home through its mobile remittance service.
  • AMK: One of Cambodia’s largest microfinance institutions (MFI), AMK, introduced a remittance service to its existing customers with SHIFT ASEAN’s matching grant. Through this, AMK aims to connect with remittance-sending partners in Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea, and introduce bundled products like microinsurance, savings and housing loans.
  • Valyou: A mobile money wallet platform based in Malaysia that allows customers to make bill payments, online payments, airtime top-up and international remittance transfers. Valyou approached SHIFT ASEAN with a proposal to expand its international remittance services from Thailand and Malaysia to Myanmar.

This case study aims to illustrate how two of these four winning projects, namely Thunes and SingCash, helped to move the cross-border remittance market in the CLMV countries.

Learnings from Thunes Challenge Fund Investment: Creating an Efficient System for Cross-border Remittances for Women in Southeast Asia

Thunes applied for a matching grant to pilot its “75,000+ remittance touch points in CLMV” project. Through its platform, Thunes aimed to improve women’s access to remittance services in CLMV through an accessible and affordable touch point network. After a competitive selection process, the project was approved by SHIFT ASEAN’s Investment Committee and initiated in January 2018 with a committed investment of US$ 333,923 from Thunes matched with a US$ 150,000 grant from UNCDF and a US$ 143,000 commitment from MAS.


Established in 2016, Thunes processes over 150 million transactions in a year and its pay-out networks span to more than 100 countries and territories. The company’s mission is to help businesses and their customers around the world to participate in the global economy, by providing them fast and affordable cross-border payments.

With support from SHIFT ASEAN's Challenge Fund, Thunes was able to accelerate their entry into the CLMV countries to bring the benefits of a more accessible and affordable money transfer network to remittance receivers. This network was envisioned to benefit women in particular and enable microfinance institutions to become money transfer recipients on Thunes’ international money transfer network. To expand its service as a cross-border remittance network, Thunes had to manage the technological and regulatory aspects that were unique to each country during implementation.

Overview of Regional Remittance Market

Formal remittance markets are key economic drivers for the CLMV countries. Their contribution towards the respective economies vary across the region, from 0.5 percent of GDP in Lao PDR to seven percent of GDP in Viet Nam.

Source: Remittances as a Driver of Women's Financial Inclusion in the Mekong Region

However, this overlooks remittances sent via informal channels. Of the 4.3 million receivers in the CLMV countries, 54 percent receive remittances through informal channels. This is most significant in Myanmar (68 percent), followed by Lao PDR (35 percent) and Cambodia (21 percent).

Women are at the core of the remittance market as both senders (i.e. as cross-border migrant workers) and as receivers. Remittances not only empower women migrants who send them, but also the women family members who receive remittances back home and make spending decisions for the household. Remittances also serve as a safety net against income shocks and are often a main source of income for receiving women and households. For example, in Cambodia, 33 percent of adults received money in the last 12 months and ten percent rely on remittances as income (FinScope 2015). While the current COVID-19 pandemic has threatened the flow of remittances, it has also underlined its importance to preserve livelihoods (see below for COVID-19 update).

According to SHIFT ASEAN's remittance study in 2017, the typical recipient in the Mekong region is a woman older than 44 years old living in a rural area, excluded from formal financial services like savings, credit and insurance.

However, not all of these remittances are currently sent through formal channels. The total volume of informal remittances received by the four countries combined is estimated to be between US$ 7 billion to US$ 16 billion, which is close to the total amount via formal channels of US$ 17 billion. Informal channels expose clients to risks like fraud, theft and sending errors and facilitate criminal activities like money laundering and financing terrorism.

However, many barriers exist along the remittance value chain to keep customers out of safer, formal channels. For remittance senders and users, challenges include a lack of convenient access, lack of trust and high documentation requirements. Financial service providers appear to have previously conducted limited analysis and market assessment on their customers; thus, there has been very few gender-sensitive and customer-centric products in the Mekong market, keeping the uptake of formal remittance services low.

Thus, there is a need to develop formal channels to facilitate the transition away from informal channels, making remittance transfers a safer, more reliable and affordable process.

This section has drawn on findings from SHIFT ASEAN's previous studies on regional remittances. Click here to view the full reports:

Overview of Thunes’ Cross-border Remittance Network

Thunes overcame the challenges associated with inconvenient access by building a large and affordable remittance touch point network in the CLMV countries. Thunes’ cross-border mobile payments network links money transfer operators, digital financial services operators, mobile wallets providers, financial institutions, non-governmental organizations and global merchants to facilitate money transfers to and from emerging markets. More specifically, Thunes collects and passes on remittance instructions using Application Program Interface (API) connections. A model of this scale hopes to lower capital and operational expenses, thus allowing receivers and senders to enjoy lower transaction fees.

Thunes collaborates with receiving partners who offer last-mile financial services to unserved and underserved rural women, thus bringing formal remittance services to these recipients. This is in addition to a variety of other financial services such as microfinance loan repayment, savings account deposit and cash pick-up.

To expand its reach in the CLMV countries, Thunes, as part this project, onboarded new receiving partners and worked on creating an extensive network of touch points while expanding their existing model in these countries. For example, Thunes teamed up with a mobile money service provider in Cambodia, where their customers’ remittance transactions were processed by Thunes for the first time in March 2018. In Viet Nam, Thunes partnered with a financial institution, which added over 30 bank branches and 10,000 cash pick-up locations to Thunes’ network to better reach remittance recipients. In Myanmar, Thunes’ partnership with its first financial institution partner in 2018 helped to establish their remittance corridor with the country, allowing them to reach accounts in the partner’s network comprising of 39 banks operating in the country. The second financial institution partner in Myanmar joined Thunes’ network in 2019 to facilitate real-time remittance transfers into the country.

While expanding their network, Thunes also onboarded new sending partners. For example, in Myanmar, the two main remittance sending corridors of Thunes are the Korea-Myanmar and Singapore-Myanmar corridors. For the Korea-Myanmar corridor, Thunes has partnered with several sending companies in Korea to facilitate safe and swift remittances to Myanmar. For the Singapore-Myanmar corridor, Singtel Dash (another winner of the SHIFT ASEAN Remittance Challenge Fund window), has partnered with Thunes to send remittances from Singapore to Myanmar. Since starting in mid-2019, the total number of Myanmar senders and beneficiaries using Singtel Dash has exceeded 2,000 by the end of 2019. SHIFT ASEAN's support has enabled Thunes and Singtel Dash to take the lead in establishing a strong remittance corridor into Myanmar, building on synergies between the two winners.

Project Results and Impact

Since project initiation, Thunes has onboarded four new receiving partners:

  1. One partner in Cambodia at the start of 2018
  2. The first partner in Myanmar at the end of 2018
  3. One partner in Viet Nam in mid-2019
  4. The second partner in Myanmar at the end of 2019

Through these partners, Thunes had an estimated transaction amount of US$ 117 million in transactions to these countries across all quarters since implementation.

Women remain the main beneficiaries of the remittance service, where the percentage of women receivers have grown from 58 percent at initiation in 2018 to over 70 percent in 2019. Viet Nam forms the largest share of the total value of remittances to date, while the number of people receiving remittances in Cambodia and Myanmar have grown significantly since project implementation. By the end of 2019, the average remittance amount was the highest in Myanmar, followed by Viet Nam and Cambodia respectively. Thunes is further exploring potential partnerships in Lao PDR.

Thunes Implementation Learnings

Through the Challenge Fund, Thunes was able to expand its network to the CLMV countries, providing cross-border migrants with a safe, convenient and accessible way to remit money home. It worked closely with financial service providers to increase the number of touch points so that receivers can easily cash-out the funds, while also establishing partnerships with sending financial service providers to drive the volume of transactions.

Since project initiation, the proportion of receivers who are women has also increased, thus showing its success at reaching this underserved customer segment. With increased usage of formal remittance channels, money can make their way safely to households in the CLMV countries. These remittances constitute a large proportion of receivers’ household incomes and serve as a safety net against shocks, as mentioned in the earlier section.

Onboarding new partners to Thunes’ platform involved obtaining all the necessary regulatory approval, as well as technical integration between Thunes and these partners. As a network working across different countries with different capacities, Thunes had to come up with ways to overcome the specific challenges faced by its partners in the regulatory environment of each country. Additionally, in Myanmar, several financial service providers lacked the technical infrastructure to process remittance transactions automatically, which could increase operational risks and limit the volume of transactions processed.

Regulatory approvals at times resulted in the delayed onboarding of new partners for Thunes. This was encountered in three of the CLMV countries (Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Myanmar) due to that every new partnership between a bank and a remittance service provider must be approved directly by the Central Bank.

Furthermore, Thunes had to introduce measures to bridge the gap between international and domestic regulatory standards. For example, in Cambodia, Know-Your-Customer (KYC) regulations are more lenient than what is required for Thunes to comply with their own anti-money laundering/combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) standards. Thus, Thunes introduced a physical verification step in the KYC process with one of its receiving partners in Cambodia. In this system, agents would verify the recipient’s name, date of birth and ID number to check that it matches the record in Thunes’ system. This illustrates the need to adapt to local regulatory contexts through intermediary steps to reconcile the differences between international and domestic standards.

We have seen immense growth in transactions to Myanmar and Cambodia; this has been unexpected but highly encouraging. We are currently establishing partnerships in Lao PDR, but given the growth of the two mentioned markets, our focus is on developing these corridors further. As a company offering digital solutions, we are extremely happy to see that real-time connections make a difference and are driving exponential growth to our partner banks in Myanmar. It has been a great experience establishing so many bank partnerships, and the effort is proven to be worth it as we are committed to adding mobile wallets from Myanmar into our portfolio.

- Gabor Hava, VP of Partnerships in Asia Pacific, Thunes

Some of the key learnings from this case study are as follows:

  • Build a wide network with multiple partners to drive future growth, given the different technical challenges in various countries.
  • Tailor project implementation to the specific regulations of each country. Additional security measures may have to be introduced, and delays in the process should be anticipated.
  • Coordination at the regional level is critical on regulatory issues such as cross-border remittances. UNCDF can leverage its regional partnerships to support advocacy at this level.

Thunes continues to expand its network of receiving and sending partners to further increase the volume of formal remittances received by CLMV countries. In light of their efforts, SHIFT ASEAN is providing further technical assistance to ensure that existing data can inform the company’s future expansion. SHIFT ASEAN is therefore supporting Thunes in analyzing supply-side datasets of remittance transactions to better understand the profiles of remittance senders and receivers.

COVID-19 update

The pandemic has threatened the jobs and livelihoods of migrant workers, who tend to be more vulnerable to loss of employment and wages during an economic crisis in a host country. In June 2020, UNCDF conducted a survey with remittance service providers in collaboration with the International Association of Money Transfer Networks (IAMTN) and found that 76 percent of participating providers identified limited access as a key difficulty for migrants to remit money. Scaling digital channels has emerged as a key strategy to overcome this challenge. In this regard, UNCDF will continue to work with remittance service providers, like Thunes, to support the needs of migrants amidst COVID-19, both as a response to the ongoing crisis but also as an important tool for economic recovery.

About the United Nations Capital Development Fund

The UN Capital Development Fund makes public and private finance work for the poor in the world’s 47 least developed countries (LDCs).

UNCDF offers “last mile” finance models that unlock public and private resources, especially at the domestic level, to reduce poverty and support local economic development.

UNCDF’s financing models work through three channels: (1) inclusive digital economies, which connects individuals, households, and small businesses with financial eco-systems that catalyze participation in the local economy, and provide tools to climb out of poverty and manage financial lives; (2) local development finance, which capacitates localities through fiscal decentralization, innovative municipal finance, and structured project finance to drive local economic expansion and sustainable development; and (3) investment finance, which provides catalytic financial structuring, de-risking, and capital deployment to drive SDG impact and domestic resource mobilization.

UNCDF’s Shaping Inclusive Finance Transformations (SHIFT) in ASEAN programme is supported by the Australian Government.


The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of UNCDF, the United Nations or any of its affiliated organizations or its Member States.


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