Dr Thompson, a former Goldman Sachs equities analyst who has also worked with the UN, the the European Commission and Amnesty International, persisted with her pitch to investors and finally raised the money to launch the Amanacard in 2016.
The Dutch Development Bank was a key institutional investor.
Amanacard – which derives from the word “amana” meaning trust – allows governments and charities to distribute money to paid workers, local businesses or health and education facilities.
It also allows resettled refugees to send money home to families.
Account holders still have a physical bank card, but it can only be used once a secure digital account (via a mobile phone app) is created and verified by the company’s on-the-ground team.
Digital transactions are confirmed by electronic signatures between two parties – eliminating the fraud that can occur from traditional hand-written, paper-based alternatives.
Amanacard is not a bank, but a digital platform that helps points of fixed value move between accounts to mirror actual purchases of goods and services, says Dr Thompson.
The merchant then redeems the traded value and they are paid from banks outside of the “unbanked” crisis zone.
Before that, money transfers were either cash or in the unregulated black market. It’s also opened up a new world for people in conflict zones, which many banks have exited following anti-money laundering regulations and sanctions.
“It’s critical in those regions. As far as I know we are the only solution to bridge the gap between the informal and formal [monetary] system,” she said. “We are providing an absolute critial service that not only fills a gap but protects people.”
Amanacard is operational in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but Dr Thompson said they are seeking more capital to expand into other countries which are not war zones, such as the Philippines.
One of the people who has experienced first-hand the dilemma of moving money in a war zone is Syrian doctor Hamza al-Kateab who helped keep Aleppo’s only surviving hospital open between 2012 and 2016.
Dr al-Kateab – whose plight was the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary For Sama which featured at last Monday’s Academy Awards – was forced to drive hundreds of kilometres to secure cash to keep the hospital afloat.
He fled to the UK United in 2016 and was recommended to Dr Thompson by a fellow Syrian refugee working at Amanacard.
Although starting on administrative duties, Dr Hamza is now Amanacard’s operations manager for Syria, Yemen and Iraq. (He still harbours dreams of working as a physician in Britain).
While he may have been able to save one hospital in Allepo, Dr Hamza said he now believes he can do more by helping across the region.
“I realised it’s not necessary to be on the frontline to help. I could keep the lifeline open to Syrians and other distressed people from wherever I am,” he said.
“Imagine living in London or Australia without a banking system. You can’t surive. Amanacard can ensure money is still flowing at times of crisis and chaos.”
Dr Thompson, who has a core team of 15 people in Britain and field teams on the ground in several countries, is very clear she is running Amanacard as a business.
“We wanted it to be a private company that sustained itself and made money rather than rely on a charitable fund,” she said. “We are basically a charitable purpose because no one else wanted to step into this role, but we want to make this a successful business.”