The State of Mobile Money in Africa — Milestones, Gaps and Untapped Opportunities

Photo Credit: GSMA State of Industry Report

Measuring the growth of mobile money is an annual tradition spearheaded by the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA). Their State of the Industry Mobile Money Report has helped stakeholders to realise the immense growth rate and development of mobile money across the world, while also highlighting the untapped potentials still locked within the sector.

The 2020 pandemic provided the mother of all stress tests for mobile money infrastructure as the world economy grinded to a halt and the operations of traditional financial service providers were stilted by lockdowns and social distancing protocols. In what eventually became mobile money’s finest hour — governments were able to leverage mobile money services and networks to get palliative funds across to citizens while citizens were able to continue accessing their funds, making payments for goods and sending remittances to their loved ones across borders in spite of the lockdowns that swept majority of the planet.

Indeed, 2020 proved more than ever just how critical mobile money has become in the global financial inclusion journey with a stronger narrative than ever before.

In this article, we summarise some of mobile money’s biggest milestones in 2020, the outstanding gaps and untapped opportunities as reported in the State of the Industry report. We also highlight important lessons that can be gleaned based on the current state of the industry.

With the right regulatory frameworks, mobile money is unstoppable

Mobile money accounts smashed growth forecasts for the year, growing by 12.7% to 1.21 billion accounts. According to the GSMA report, this impressive growth was due to “regulators implementing more flexible Know Your Customer (KYC) processes and relaxing on-boarding requirements to make it easier to open an account.” It also noted that the fastest growth was in regions where governments provided significant pandemic relief to citizens.

We’ve warned in previous articles that innovation can be regulated to death (and it usually is). Innovations that move the financial inclusion needle are always backed by the regulator (and oftentimes also the government). Central banks may talk a big game regarding their desire for innovative financial products and services, but with inhibitive policies in place, providers will continue laboring in vain. In countries where mobile money has championed financial inclusion advancement (like Kenya and Ghana) regulation enabled innovation and supported its growth.

There’s also something to be said about conviction — when there’s conviction about a solution/innovation, regulators would do their best to remove every obstacle impeding the innovation’s potential.

Agent networks are the real heroes of mobile money

The pandemic further strengthened the importance of decentralised banking and cast the spotlight on the role agent networks play in the financial inclusion equation. In the heat of the pandemic, when financial services were declared essential services during the lockdown, agents and their supply chains were also recognised. Operators prioritised maintaining liquidity for agents while some governments integrated them into the G2P delivery chain.

Today, there are 4.8 million active mobile money agents across the world (an 18% increase from 2019), processing and digitising over $500 million every day. There was a significant spike in agent registrations last year as well. As at December 2020, there were 5.2 million unique agent outlets globally (a year on year growth of 12%).

Remittances via mobile money remained resilient through the pandemic

While the World Bank projected a significant drop in international remittances (both in value and volume), the GSMA reports that mobile money-enabled remittances experienced little to no negative impact and have been more resilient than other channels. Amazingly, international remittances sent and received through mobile money increased by 65% (or $5 billion) in 2020, reaching $12.7 billion on an annual basis. This means that, on average, the mobile money industry, for the first time, processed more than $1 billion in international remittances per month.

Africa maintains its leadership in mobile money

No surprise here.

Africa is home to the most successful mobile money service in the world (MPesa), the highest number of mobile money services, the widest network of mobile money operators and largest base of customers (171 live services, 2.7 million unique agent outlets, 562 million customers respectively). Where the continent lags is in G2P payments.

Governments in the Pacific, East Asia and Latin America are leveraging agent networks to deliver G2P payments to their citizens by a magnitude of at least 200% more than their African counterparts. This means that there’s still considerable room for mobile money growth in Africa, once more governments are onboard.

Mobile money and Nigeria

Unlike other African countries where mobile money has grown exponentially, mobile money does not occupy center stage in Nigeria due to the existence of a relatively advanced payments system. Nigerians are spoiled for choice with mobile banking apps, USSD banking, and agency banking. In fact, mobile money growth compared to the rest of the industry has been underwhelming with just 3.3% of the adult population using mobile money in 2018 (EFinA A2F Survey, 2018).

Notwithstanding, mobile money’s bullishness on the continent is a positive indicator to the international community, and has encouraged the entry of more foreign direct investments (FDI) into Nigeria, to support fintechs and other operators facilitating mobile payments for excluded and underserved citizens.

Untapped Opportunities

Digitising Savings Groups

Savings groups are composed of 15 to 25 self-selected individuals who meet regularly and frequently to save pre-specified amounts (based on each member’s ability). They provide members a secure place to save, the opportunity to borrow in small amounts and on flexible terms, and affordable basic insurance services. The GSMA report highlighted savings groups as an untapped market for visionary operators.

Savings groups have financial reserves, economic opportunities and the ability to foster community development particularly among women. In addition to anticipating and planning for future financial needs, savings group members participate in group meetings for social interaction. The social interactions are fundamental to member loyalty and the long term success of the group. The lockdowns of 2020 and resultant social distancing measures have impacted these in-person meetings, which in turn has curtailed their social interactions, community building, financial literacy programs and more.

This presents a huge opportunity.

Using a mobile first approach, providers can help digitise savings groups by enabling members to save digitally through financial accounts and mobile money wallets, maintain records seamlessly using digital tools, and foster community engagement via social media.

Currently these savings group dynamics happen informally. By integrating themselves into this value chain with better value propositions (or partnering with informal providers to do so), providers can break into this nascent market, onboard more financially excluded citizens, increase their customer base and ultimately increase their bottom line.

Win-win.

Conclusion

With 2020 behind us, mobile money is longer trying to prove itself as a viable innovation capable of moving the financial inclusion needle. Rather, we imagine the coming years will further deepen the infrastructure, expand the network and increase the use cases for mobile money, not just for the poor, marginalised and economically excluded, but for every customer cadre.

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We work with government, financial services regulators, donors and the private sector to drive financial inclusion in Nigeria through #research #advocacy

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