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Tibet financial services ep.3: Mobile banks bridge gaps, fuel growth

July 25, 2015
Hu Yinan

Door-to-door banking has been in Tibet for decades. Finance professionals have braved dirt roads, snowstorms and a lack of oxygen to bring loans to those in need atop the Tibetan Plateau. Today, in the final episode of our three-part series on financial services in Tibet.

Since joining the banking sector in 1979, Guru Kunsang has been on horseback, offering door-to-door services for rural residents of western Tibet's Purang county.

Back when road conditions were worse, the 115 kilometers from the county to this herding area would take him four days on horseback in the winter.Those days are long gone.

As permanent residence becomes increasingly popular in rural Tibet, banks on horseback have given way to ones on motorcycles and cars. But occasionally, the old-school approach still applies.

Today, the 55-year-old is taking Tselwang Namgyal, who is half his age, for a horse ride to visit Tsering Sangmo's summer tent. Sangmo makes regular deposits when they visit. She raises livestock for a living and rarely goes to town, where the bank outlet is.

"I work at home all the time. Because of transport and economic restrictions, it's hard for me to go to the bank. But people from Agricultural Bank of China come to my doorstep every year and help us do business. It has greatly benefited us," said Tsering Sangmo, herdsman of Purang County in Ngari, Tibet.

In this sparsely populated area, mobile financial services are a practical necessity.

"Transportation in this place used to be a lot tougher. There wasn’t a single car in the entire region. You simply had to ride on horses and carry luggage around. In places where transportation is less developed, you have to offer services this way. Now, roads and living conditions have improved tremendously," said Guru Kunsang, former director of ABC Purang County Outlet.

About 92 percent of all deposits and 99.97 percent of all loans in Purang’s superior Ngari Prefecture are processed through Kunsang’s employer, the Agricultural Bank of China.

The bank's Tibet Branch devotes a dominant majority of its resources to rural areas, offering localized financial products through door-to-door services.

The branch has set up 17 outlets in places with an altitude of at least 48-hundred meters, and 65 outlets in border counties and towns. Accessible banking is crucial for small businesses in these remote areas.

"As a pasturing area on the Plateau, Ngari is such a hard place to be in. The weather is atrocious. Warm weather stays for just three to four months a year. Under these conditions, herdsmen on the Plateau rely on loans from the ABC," Gonpo Tashi, a 54-year-old businessman said.

Mobile services are an integral part of the branch’s work in serving two million rural Tibetans. That’s as officials work to improve infrastructure to allow wider rural access to banking services. Banks have also been financing permanent settlement for herdsmen to enable more efficient services.

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