South Africa - an ideal market for mobile money?

Written by Liz Galpin Saturday, 18 June 2011 12:30
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Sitting on my brother’s deck (patio) overlooking the mountains surrounding Nelspruit in South Africa on a hazy, sunny, warm Winter’s morning, it’s difficult to remember why we choose to live in the UK. Visiting family and friends means more time away from the computer, but given that so much is happening in the MFI and mobile banking sector, it wouldn’t be right to take a complete 2 week break away from it all.

So, with a focus very much on South Africa, I find that I’m picking up on what’s happening here in terms of mobile money. It’s all very topical, given Visa’s acquisition of Fundamo last week. I’ve read articles that there are 13 million unbanked in SA, and 16 million underbanked (about 60% of the population) in the country. Given that there are 15 million people in Kenya using M-PESA, I can understand why there is still plenty of interest in being able to make a mobile money success story in SA. But all the evidence seems to point to the fact that there doesn’t seem to be the appetite for mobile money solutions here. Which is surprising, given the statistics on unbanked and underbanked, and the existence of the same culture and need for ‘send money home’ in South Africa as there is in Kenya, not to mention the way in which S Africans embrace mobile phones, gadgets and gizmos and that applies to EVERYONE in the country.

We spent a few days this week in Sabie – in a lovely resort next to the bubbling Sabie River, next to pine forests and mountains. I took the opportunity to pop into town and to go into the various shops all advertising large red and white ‘Vodacom’ signs. I didn’t spot any M-PESA advertising, but undeterred, I set about going into each of the shops and asking whether I could register for M-PESA. Many of these shops obviously sold Vodacom SIMs and airtime, but none of them had any knowledge of M-PESA and my query was met with reasonably blank stares. Going into the Vodacom shop, the first shop assistant had heard of the product, but didn’t know anything about it. He referred to his co-worker, who clearly thought I had been sent by Vodafone and hastily informed me that she knew all about the ‘Banking thing’, but that they hadn’t yet been trained on how to use it. I was told to go to Nelspruit for more details on the product. By this time I was about to give up, but then I remembered reading an article stating that Vodacom were going to use the clothing store PEP, as agents/ outlets. So, I set off to the PEP stores (a low-end, mainly clothing store). PEP Stores have clearly embraced mobile technology. They sell phones and airtime for all the major MNOs, and there was also a sign advertising Capfin loans and one advertising RICA with MTN – nothing about M-PESA. However, when I went to the cashier to buy the Croc shoe look alikes, upon asking whether I could register for M-PESA, she brought up a full Agent menu on her POS Terminal. I quickly checked all the functionality listed, and could see that it pretty much provides everything that an M-PESA Agent Handsets offers. The assistant didn’t seem too sure about the next steps in the process, but clearly they are gearing up to provide full Agency functionality at all PEP stores, which is encouraging, and also means that issues with Agent liquidity and float will be avoided, if the amount of cash in the cashier’s till was anything to go by.  Most towns have at least one PEP store, situated in the less affluent parts, so that will certainly address a large gap in the market.

Back in Nelspruit I noticed a very unobtrusive M-PESA sign in the Vodacom stall in the very upmarket mall. I’m yet to go in and ask them if I can register for the product – more on that next week!
Having been in Kenya in March this year, where the distinctive M-PESA signs can be seen in abundance, where everyone cannot wait to tell you more about the product, and where there is such national pride in the product, there is a marked difference in the roll-out of the same product in two very different African countries. I’m going to do a lot more research on mobile wallets in S Africa in the coming week. I want to find out more about the FNB and MTN  mobile wallet offerings, as well as WIZZIT, which I believe is based on a subscription basis, rather than on a transaction basis. Subscribers are given debit cards, but definitely more investigation needed there.

This week , I have read that ABSA is launching its branchless banking, with 200 agents equipped with smartphones and plans to partner with 1000 retail partners by the end of the year. I’ve also read  an article that there are 140,000 registered M-Pesa users in South Africa, and that there are plans for launch in Lesotho and Mocambique.

I’m also hoping to find out whether there are other m-wallets in S Africa over and above those mentioned in this blog.This comes at a time when there is pressure in Kenya on potential integration of the mobile wallet systems. A task force set up by the Prime Minister’s office has recommended that mobile firms should create a seamless mobile money transfer system regulated by Central Bank of Kenya. This evening I read a report that  India's Essar Group, which owns the yu mobile business, plans to exit the Kenyan mobile telephony business, two and a half years after its entry. The operator is said to be looking for suitors to buy its business, according the Economic Times of India and sources familiar with the matter. Things are clearly moving in the Kenyan market as well.

NFC, Google and Mastercard are all constantly in the news about their mobile payments platforms and strategies. I’ve seen tweets about interoperability, integration between mobile wallets and other payment systems and how take-up of mobile money in other countries (developing and developed) is increasing. I’ve read articles and seen tweets this week about mobile money successes in Uganda, India, Sweden and launch of new mobile money platform in Botswana. We shouldn’t forget the international remittances and the ‘land-grab’ that is going on there.
Our company writes cloud based mobile solutions that integrate with mobile wallets and prepay cards, so we’re not 100% focussed on mobile money, but I find myself increasingly drawn to what is happening in this sector. What I’d most like to be doing is making a difference in the health and agricultural sectors, through the use of mobiles and mobile wallets. We are starting to see some success stories in those areas, and I hope to be able to share these with you shortly. In the meantime, I’m going to continue to follow with great interest what is happening with mobile wallets.  It’s not dull, that’s no maybe – as folk say here in SA!
Last modified on Saturday, 18 June 2011 14:06

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