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IMobile money revolution

© Reuters/Mike Hutchings

Interview with By Lee Babcock, managing director of the mobile strategy unit at ACDI/VOCA, an economic development organisation based in Washington, DC in the United States. ACDI/VOCA is dedicated to promoting economic opportunities for cooperatives, enterprises and communities through the innovative application of sound business practice.

Mobile money is seen in some quarters as the next big innovation in finance. What exactly is mobile money?

Mobile money uses the cell phone to send, receive and store economic value.

How is mobile money different from other innovations, such as microfinance?

Microfinance was the last big innovation in finance. When Mohammad Yunus pioneered the Grameen Bank in 1976, nobody believed microfinance institutions (MFIs) could be commercially sustainable. But there was hope in the model’s ability to provide lending to the very poor, so donors helped to set up MFIs around the world.

The organization I work for, ACDI/VOCA, established a dozen MFIs, with USAID support, that have disbursed more than US$1 billion in loans to microenterprises, smallholders and rural families. Once it was clear that MFIs were commercially sustainable, the private sector stepped in to expand financing. Donor-financed and now privately financed MFIs have served more than 154 million clients worldwide but fall far short of serving the 2.5 billion adults that are unbanked. This is because we can’t build a physical MFI or bank in every community that needs one.

Mobile money leverages an investment that an increasing number of poor people around the world already have made – a cell phone – in order to bring banking services, including savings, transfers, loan disbursements and repayments, directly into the home. It can extend financial inclusion into even the most remote areas. According to the International Telecommunications Union, we now have more worldwide mobile subscriptions than there are people in the world! About 39% of those in the developing world have mobile subscriptions, a number that’s rapidly rising.

Who, specifically, stands to benefit from mobile money?

While everybody will benefit, the people who live at the base of the economic pyramid have the most to gain from mobile money. The long-term value of the phone for communication, safe storage and transfer of money means people will make substantial sacrifices to save to buy a phone.

This is so important because it means we now have a self-financed infrastructure that extends all the way into the household. Now that we have this robust infrastructure there can be multiple value-added applications such as mobile money, m-agriculture, m-health, m-education and more. The use of mobile money will transition the base of the pyramid from informal, non-transparent, inefficient economic activity to formal economic activity. What’s a good example of a mobile money innovation that is already being used?

There are numerous examples in this brand-new industry. 

The most often cited example is M-Pesa in Kenya. M-Pesa is a joint venture between Safaricom and Vodafone. In agriculture, Zoona is a third-party platform in Zambia that started with the cotton value chain. Both M-Pesa and Zoona received support from DFID (UK Department for International Development) and USAID, respectively, at their formative stages. Opportunity Bank Malawi leveraged mobile finance for their agriculture loan portfolio. SmartMoney is another third party that is serving agriculture sectors in Tanzania and Uganda. Agricultural mobile finance helps to reduce side-selling and administrative as well as security costs while increasing efficiency, farmer productivity and transparency of economic transactions.

Who makes up the ‘ecosystem’ that’s needed to ensure mobile money can be successful?

There are currently 190+ mobile money platforms worldwide with many more in the pipeline. The ecosystem of participants can include mobile network operators, card payment providers, financial institutions, solution providers, third-party providers and others.

This industry is all about business model innovation. With very few exceptions the 190+ platforms are based in the urban city centres. As the industry looks to expand into rural areas in pursuit of nationwide penetration they are coming to realise they don’t know how to deal with illiteracy, financial illiteracy and lack of trust. Therefore, business model innovation in rural areas must embrace NGOs and other development implementers that are more adept at dealing with these challenges.

By aligning the mission-driven objectives of the non-profit development sector with the profit objectives of the private sector we might be looking at mobile finance doing for the base of the pyramid what the commercial banking sector did for the industrial revolution!

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