Can central banks and mobile money work together to rebuild? Kenya says yes.

  • By Vince Kadar
  • Thursday, April 30, 2020

The current pandemic has bludgeoned markets around the world, splitting the COVID-19 battlefront across two arenas: one in which we’re fighting for our lives, and another in which we’re fighting for our economic future. 

Something interesting is happening in that second area. In select regions of the world, banking regulators and mobile money operators are working together to rethink monetary policy. This alliance, forged in unprecedented times, could have an unprecedented impact on what happens next, and on how well we emerge from this sharp downturn and navigate whatever economic turbulence may follow. This is especially true in poorer countries where households were already vulnerable to fragile financial ecosystems before this pandemic delivered its economic shock. 

Traditional monetary policy hinges on the levers and dials controlled entirely by Central Banks. The most important lever is the interest rate; raising it can slow inflation, while lowering it can help to stimulate a struggling economy. But that’s only true as long as most of the money in circulation falls under the purview of the traditional banking sector. What about areas of the world where more people use private-sector mobile money platforms than traditional banks? What happens when that balance of power shifts away from Central Banks and toward mobile money operators? 

Take Kenya, for example, where half the country’s GDP moves through mobile money platforms every year. In a gesture that appears to acknowledge this reality, the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) has invited mobile money operators (MMOs) to the table as co-creators of a way forward. Working together, these public-private partners are now doing what banks alone have never been especially good at: they’re strategizing to extend accessible, streamlined support to individual people in Kenya’s informal labor market–people who represent well over 80% of the country’s total workforce.

The domestic workers, cleaners, street vendors, and others who make up this enormous group don’t typically have access to a line of credit or a healthy savings account to soften the sudden economic fall caused by the measures in place to contain COVID-19. What they do have is a digital wallet; reports show that there were nearly 50 million mobile accounts in the country by the end of 2018, or about one for each Kenyan on average. By lowering transaction rates, increasing account limits, and reconfiguring other elements to make mobile money more accessible and affordable, the CBK and private MMOs are authoring what some observers call “a watershed moment in economics.”

Part of this initiative is born of practical public health concerns. The more people adopt mobile money in lieu of cash, the better prepared they are to follow physical distancing protocol. But policymakers and MMOs are finding that by reconfiguring certain elements of mobile money transactions, they can have at least as much economic influence as adjusting benchmark interest rates. There will be lessons yet to learn, and the transition to a public-private partnership won’t be entirely smooth. But economic policy driven at least in part by mobile money is increasingly the only kind of policy that will have an impact in many parts of the world, both during this pandemic and long into the future. It just goes to show that mobile money is not only here to stay… it’s here to make a meaningful difference in the way the world works.