M-Pesa, the world’s largest mobile money network, has enabled millions of Africans to gain access to safe and secure banking solutions. The idea has become a pioneering innovation for the continent, and is now used as a model for similar systems around the world.
Launched by telecommunications group Vodafone/Safaricom in 2007, M-Pesa (“pesa” is Swahili for “money”) has become a way of life for 30 million Africans in 10 countries. More than 80% of Kenyans use the service. The network also enjoys market dominance in Tanzania and Uganda.
The ingeniously simple method of money transfers made via cellphone messaging (SMS) has connected many to formal banking systems and enabled opportunities for small business and informal commerce, as well as played a part in helping to eradicate poverty, particularly in rural areas.
The system uses simple, text-based technology available on older cellular phones. While more sophisticated mobile banking is the norm around the world, the simplicity of M-Pesa is that customers do not need bank accounts to use the network.
The adoption and rise in popularity of mobile money networks in Africa has been steady. M-Pesa and its various competitor networks now not only include money transfers and other standard banking procedures, but also healthcare provision, access to international money markets and long-term lending.
In 2016, according to Vodafone, M-Pesa was used in six billion transactions. Additionally, research by Digital Frontiers found a 22% drop in female-headed households living in poverty in areas with access to M-Pesa. The same study noted that the source of income for almost 200,000 women in rural areas shifted from the low-income, labour intensive agricultural sector to more prosperous small business creation. The research also showed an increase in saving and investing money through using the M-Pesa network.
M-Pesa transactions are expected to surpass $1.3-billion (R17-billion) in the next three years, according to research by consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.
The future of mobile money markets presents both growth opportunities and challenges. Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore told CNN that the network wanted to focus on developing a better user experience, with an eye on increasing the use of smart device technology in Africa compared to standard text-based mobile technology.
As with any innovative product, a focus on developing more ground-breaking mobile financial services is also a key objective. “One of the big problems has been the relative clumsiness of using M-Pesa,” Collymore said, adding that new, simpler solutions would work hand-in-hand with better technology, such as the “tap and pay” method and EMV smart chip cards.
Another focus is breaking into new markets, the rest of Africa primarily, but also increasing its presence in Asia, Eastern Europe (M-Pesa is used in Romania and Albania, which has a large informal economy, often operating without bank accounts) and the Middle East.
M-Pesa was introduced in South Africa in 2010, gaining more than a million users. It aimed to conquer a market of 13 million economically active people who did not use bank accounts. However, because of stricter banking regulations in South Africa, as well as the development of more tech-savvy banking products, the system found little foothold in the country.
While more and more competing mobile and smart phone banking systems are aiming to provide services for larger transactions, M-Pesa aims to keep the focus on what made it the dominant, most longstanding player in the market, namely safe, convenient micro-banking (M-Pesa does not transact anything larger than $675 (R8,000).
“The banking sector across the world has always ignored the so-called base of the pyramid. We haven’t because we understand that the base of the pyramid needs to be served and there’s also commercial viability in doing that.”
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