What’s next for mobile money in Africa?

  • By Joanne Kiskis
  • Tuesday, August 06, 2019

For a few days in July this year, some of the world’s most accomplished leaders in the tech and telecom industries arrived in Rwanda for the GSMA’s Mobile360 – Africa conference. They gathered at Kigali’s new convention centre, whose futuristic design provided a suitable backdrop for discussions of the conference theme: the rise of the digital citizen.

One of those leaders, our own Vince Kadar, CEO of Telepin, stepped onto the #BetterFuture stage on July 18 to drive this discussion forward. His presentation, called “From Africa to Asia: Global Developments in Mobile Money and eCommerce,” invited Africa’s tech and telecom players to follow a simple guiding principle: Innovation over replication. 

WHERE WE ARE TODAY

When it comes to e-commerce, says Vince, Africa has two big advantages: plenty of innovators, and plenty of mobile devices (for example, more than half the population of Sub-Saharan Africa will be connected to a mobile service by 2025). This duality has created fertile ground for homegrown ride-hailing services and food delivery options, and has contributed to the meteoric rise of Africa’s e-commerce giant, Jumia. After Jumia’s IPO in April, its stock price immediately climbed by 75%. Its laudatory nickname, “The Amazon of Africa,” says it all.  

Or does it?

LESSONS FROM THE WEST

As sunny as it sounds, the “Amazon of Africa” epithet has a cloudier side. It implies that success ought to be measured against an American-made standard. But the US has as many flaws as it does successes in its e-commerce model—maybe more.

If you need to pay a bill in the US, for example, you’re better off with a checkbook than a mobile device. Banks and billers aren’t well connected, and e-commerce security protocols lag behind the global industry standard. For all of their front-end advances, the American mobile economy is marred by a siloed, inefficient setup with many cautionary lessons encoded in its back-end protocol. Following in these stumbling footsteps would only commit the African digital economy to a similarly problematic future.

INSPIRATION FROM THE EAST

By contrast, the Asian e-commerce market offers an abundance of success stories. Its mobile payment systems are predicated on interconnection. One system talks to another, passing securely encrypted information across borders and between individuals, operators, banking systems and billers. It’s not perfect, but within this rapidly growing ecosystem are the glistening gems of Things Done Right. Pick one up, examine it, and learn from its structure, says Vince. Then take those lessons and do something new with them.

One such gem comes from Singapore, where over 1.3 million migrant workers earn a living for themselves and, usually, several people back home in the Philippines or Indonesia or Bangladesh or wherever their family members are. In order to send wages to those family members, these migrant workers have traditionally relied on services like MoneyGram or Western Union, enduring long waits, high fees and sluggish processes for the privilege.

Then one of these traditional remittance providers, Singtel, decided to disrupt their own model. They launched “mRemit” in 2012, which allowed migrant workers to send money in real time from their own devices. The service launched using the same SMS-based menu that users already relied on to buy airtime as well as an over-the counter approach, which encouraged rapid adoption. The service became so popular that SingTel expanded its functionality and rebranded it as SingTel Dash, an all-in-one payments solution that subscribers can use to pay for public transit, buy meals, and shop cash-free in over 1.6 million stores. Its remittance service remains one of its core functions. Powered by Telepin’s flexible API, Singtel Dash services over 60 percent of Singapore’s migrant worker population today.

AFRICA’S NEXT STEPS

A cautionary tale from one side of the globe, a success from the other. This is where Vince’s credo of “innovation over replication” moves into action. We must metabolize these lessons—the good and the bad—into something new, something right-sized for today and flexible enough to adapt for tomorrow. 

The fact is, Africa has all the same elements in place that Asia had 15 or 20 years ago, at the beginning of its digital transformation and corresponding rise in power. In some ways, they have even more than that: high (and still climbing) rates of mobile adoption, a well-established wireless communications network, and a few made-at-home success stories that are blazing the way forward (like the emergence of Malaysia’s leading e-wallet provider, Valyou). African mobile operators have a demonstrated appreciation for the power of flexible, inter-operational APIs that prevent the isolated nature of the US e-commerce system. And they have a progressive approach to supporting international remittances through low-cost, efficient mobile platforms, as first demonstrated in the Asian market. There’s a lot of good work going on here, informed by lessons from abroad.

To keep that good work going, Vince concludes, we need to move forward incrementally, testing and modifying and improving on what we think we know. Building a behemoth won’t work; a massive MFS platform would only limit future agility. Steady, cumulative, innovative progress is what’s necessary, not just for the business of mobile money, but for the people who rely on it to shape and improve their everyday lives. 

The future of the digital citizen is upon us, and it’s up to us to make it bright.