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South Africa – emerging market or not?

Written by Liz Galpin Monday, 06 June 2011 12:10
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In just under 5 days, I’ll be heading off to Africa, primarily to see family and friends. I’m going to take this opportunity to speak to folk out there about mobile and internet solutions, and having been in Kenya in March, I think it’s going to be interesting to contrast the two countries. Having lived in South Africa for the first 30 years of my life, of course I know it much better than Kenya, but having worked with mobile money and mobile solutions out in Kenya for the past 4 years, I think it’s going to be really interesting to see whether the same levels of optimism and interest prevail in South Africa, regarding opportunities and solutions that mobiles and cloud technologies bring to emerging markets. That’s another question I’ll be asking a lot – ‘Is South Africa an emerging market?’ – have the feeling that I may be in for a lot of abuse and controversial discussions when I ask that question, so I may choose my targets carefully….


As long as I ever lived in South Africa, my parents, family and then eventually myself – we all had Bank Accounts, Cheque books, Travellers cheques for going on holiday(!) and then credit cards and debit cards. I never thought about why our domestic helpers were always paid in cash, or why Friday was always the day that many workers could be seen with little brown envelopes. It just didn’t occur to me that there were 2 parallel money systems – why would it have occurred to me as a child? Our domestic help had to ask for time off to go and visit her mother, as well as to give her money, but it just didn’t occur to me that there could be other ways of dealing with this. Of course, I’m mainly talking about a time when I was between the ages of 8 and 12, land-lines were a bit of a challenge out in the rural areas where we lived (I think land lines may still be a bit of a challenge in those areas, actually, but that is off topic), and the Internet and mobiles didn’t even make an appearance in science fiction novels (other than Dick Tracy’s watch). We certainly didn’t have television, and newspapers reported in a reasonably ‘narrow’ way. I went to a Convent school which was mainly staffed by sisters from Europe, and they did their best to explain that life was a bit different in other countries. Of course I read books avidly – Enid Blyton was my favourite, and mainly caused me to puzzle over how in England youngsters my age were allowed to cycle from one village to another on their own (cycling to our next village would have taken the best part of a day over a dusty dirt road – my mother would NEVER have allowed me to do that with my friends). I also spent masses of time in the library researching any number of subjects, but I guess the point I’m trying to make is that it was exceedingly difficult to see the world from another perspective when growing up in a privileged society, without TV, the news, the Internet and freedom of the press.


But everything is different now. With the abolition of apartheid, the advent of TV, internet and mobile technology, I’m happy to say that the youngsters in the UK I meet and speak to are very, very different. A lot of them have travelled and / or volunteered out in developing countries. They’ve had a broad education, which is different to being told to finish your food because ‘there are starving people out there’, they are so much more aware of what is going on in the world and many of them would like to work in ‘development’ -  to them that doesn’t mean writing IT programs; rather it means working with emerging markets to help to increase their well-being.


With so much more knowledge, awareness, understanding of how different our lives are to those of people in other parts of the world, along with all the mobile and internet technologies which are being embraced by developing markets, surely things are about to change?


Mobile Banking in developing markets target primarily the ‘unbanked’ or the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP), although in Kenya, it can be seen that the solution has been adopted across various sections of the population. In developed economies, we are going to see mobile banking coming into play within the next 5 years. However, the solution in Europe and America is going to be totally different to that which is being rolled out across Africa. In developed economies, there is an opportunity to use mobiles as an extension to debit / credit cards – so an additional service which makes use of your existing bank accounts, or offers a new account, over and above your existing ones. Instead of swiping your debit card to pay for a purchase, you’re going to be able to swipe your mobile. Of course, your mobile provides opportunities for marketing / additional information to be made available to you. Whereas the Card reader is used as a basic and quick mechanism for concluding a debit or credit card transaction, once your mobile has been swiped, there is opportunity to bombard you with so much more. I think a similar comparison can be made as follows - when you currently buy something off the internet, you have to hand over your email address, and unless you click the very unobtrusive boxes which says ‘tick here if you do not want to receive email from us’, it means that from that point onwards you receive emails from them on special offers etc. Once the merchant has your mobile number, they will make use of it to offer you insurance / ‘Buy one get one free’ offers and the list goes on and on. On a positive note, the merchant can also use this as a means of providing more information about the merchandise or services.

We shouldn’t forget that there are also people in developed economies who don’t have Bank Accounts, and where a virtual bank account / prepay model linked to their mobile phones would suit them very well. Let’s hope that they aren’t forgotten along the way.


I digress….. In South Africa I am looking forward to a number of interesting and controversial discussions. At the moment, my view is that South Africa is part developed and part emerging economy, which makes it interesting geographically to implement both mobile banking for the unbanked as well as for those with existing accounts. Let’s see if this trip changes my views and let’s see if I have the same sort of interesting discussions with taxi drivers and workers in SA, as I had in Kenya. I’ll definitely be blogging about that next week. 


Elizabeth Galpin has over 25 years’ experience in the IT industry and is the co Founder of PAYG Solutions Ltd.

She now lives just outside Cambridge and her introduction to mobile money came about when she joined the team at Sagentia plc as the Development Manager, to develop and support the M-Pesa project shortly after its launch in Kenya.

Last modified on Monday, 06 June 2011 12:18

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