Kate Bevan   03 February 2018

mobile money agent

There are more mobile money accounts in sub-Saharan Africa than there are traditional bank accounts. Picture credit: WorldRemit

If you’re using a mobile phone in sub-Saharan Africa, you’re part of a wave of growth and innovation in the continent.

With some 420m mobile subscribers in the region, a number that’s expected to grow to more than half a billion in three years’ time, mobile is leading the way for financial services, says the GSM Association (GSMA).

Already there are more mobile money accounts in sub-Saharan Africa than there are traditional bank accounts, says the global trade body for mobile providers.

Of the 277 mobile money services available earlier this year, when the report was published, around 140 of them are in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the GSMA, and it’s countries in west Africa that are powering their use.

More than 40% of adults in seven African countries are using mobile money regularly, says the report: Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

That the adoption of mobile money in sub-Saharan Africa has outpaced the rest of the world comes as no surprise, of course: African countries have generally been mobile-first.

Roxanne Bauer noted for the World Bank back in 2015: “In places with bad roads or unreliable land lines, mobile phones allow people to determine price data, reach wider markets, participate in mobile money, and obtain news and entertainment.”

While the move towards mobile money started with simple airtime top-ups and direct person-to-person payments, the sector has become a vibrant one offering a number of other financial services, from bill payments to remittances, says the report.

That in turn has driven financial inclusion in the region, adds the report, which notes that “the gender gap in respect to mobile money usage in sub-Saharan Africa is less pronounced: at 19.5%, this is almost half the average for all low- and middle-income countries”.

Ghana

Rural areas are increasingly getting mobile coverage, but there's plenty of room for growth. Picture credit: WorldRemit

It adds: “The improvement in financial inclusion across sub-Saharan Africa has reduced inequality, particularly in line with the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including those focused on alleviating poverty, decent work and economic growth and reducing inequality within countries.”

GSMA analyst Rishi Raithatha adds that mobile money has driven sectors such as water and sanitation, with for example the Dar es Salaam Water and Sewage Corporation boosting its revenue by 38% in 2013 when it started offering bill payments via mobile.

Meanwhile, using mobile money to pay teachers in Liberia has meant they “are no longer giving bribes or [paying] unofficial fees to bankers and security guards just to collect our salaries,” one teacher told USAid.

The growth of mobile money has also meant a rise in work for local agents, whose numbers have risen tenfold between 2011 and 2016. Raithatha says that the number has increased from around 100,000 in the region in 2011 to around 1m in 2016.

In just nine months – the period between September 2015 and June 2016 – mobile money revenue in the region grew by 27%, while the leading mobile money operators paid out nearly half of their revenues (47%) as commission. Over the whole of 2016, that amounted to more than $400m, says the report.

Raithatha also makes the point that “the physical footprint of agents is not only instrumental in promoting and growing mobile money, but also plays an important role in enforcing ‘know your customer’ regulations. This ensures that money-laundering and terrorist financing possibilities are countered very early on.”

So what’s the future for mobile money in the region? Raithatha of GSMA points to the scope for growth in rural areas: earlier research by GSMA shows that only 17% of the “addressable rural markets” are being served by providers – and that in turn depends on governments working to build the infrastructure.

So the message is clear: if you’re using WorldRemit and other providers to manage and move money in and around sub-Saharan Africa, you’re part of a world-leading wave of technology adopters – and that’s only going to expand and grow.

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