News, views and commentary from the telecoms sector across emerging markets and developing countries worldwide

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Cellco-branded mobile banking to thrive without challenge?

If you were asked to reach for an example of mobile financial services gaining traction really impressively, perhaps you would think immediately of the M-Pesa service offered by the Kenyan cellco Safaricom, in which Vodafone owns a minority stake.

I daresay most readers are somewhat familiar with the service. For those who are not, Safaricom's TV advertisement provides a concise demonstration of the simplicity and utility of M-Pesa:

Since its launch in 2007, M-Pesa has attracted widespread praise. In February 2008, the 'send money home'-themed marketing campaign, of which this ad was a component, scooped the 'Best Broadcast Commercial' gong at the annual Global Mobile Awards ceremony hosted by the GSM Association. This year, 'Best Mobile Money Service' was introduced as a new award category at the same ceremony - Safaricom and Vodafone were joint winners. More recently, M-Pesa has been feted by UN-HABITAT, the United Nations agency for human settlements whose mission is to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all. In June, the agency announced the first Habitat Business Awards for best practice in categories including affordable housing, clean urban energy solutions and innovative ITC solutions. In the latter category, Safaricom made the winning submission for M-Pesa, which the jury felt boosts urban entrepreneurship and clearly demonstrates the impact of innovative IT solutions for sustainable urbanisation.

In its submission to the judges, Safaricom mentions Kenya's large 'unbanked' population - people, largely from the urban poor, to whom opening a bank accounts is off limits. The submission document explains that such people face challenges around the safety of carrying cash (mugging and carjacking are cited as dangers they face) and the high cost of transferring monies to relatives in rural areas via existing channels.

The benefits for the consumer, then, are quite clear - but what does a mobile operator such as Safaricom gain from entering the mobile money space? Dawn Marshallsay of mobileSQUARED, writing in January, emphasised how mobile financial services drive up cellphone usage. She also quotes Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph, who told delegates at a London conference that "banking is a value-added service for mobile, not a money-making product"

"The main purpose of mobile banking is getting the customer to have an emotional attachment with the operator as they entrust their monetary details with the operator. Customers then start using their phones more in general," Joseph continued.

Where one operator in a developing country achieves differentiation as the only provider of such services, benefits for that operator, then, would presumably include achieving a high degree of customer stickiness in a market where the vast majority of mobile users are highly price sensitive (due to their relative poverty vs. their counterparts in developed countries) and where prepaid plans are dominant.

This model, in which consumers are locked into a specific mobile operator's set of financial services, is open to challenge, however. Earlier this month, Richard Wray of the UK's Guardian newspaper wrote about a recently-announced deal between mobile banking firm Monitise and Paynet, a company which operates ATMs and electronic payment services across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in partnership with thirty-five banks. Wray writes that the deal "will bring financial services to millions of people in Africa for the first time". The suite of services will include checking balances, moving money between accounts, and enabling customers to fill a mobile-wallet with cash to pay bills or send money to relatives.

A pretty close resemblance to M-Pesa and other mobile operator-run services, then. The crucial difference emphasised by Wray, though, is that while operator-branded services demand that users are customers of a particular MNO or are connected with a specific bank, the Monitise system is open to any financial institution and any mobile phone network that wants to plug into it. If I have understood this correctly, it seems, then, that M-Pesa and rival services such as Zain Kenya's Zap are to be challenged by an operator-neutral alternative. Monitise CEO Andrew Lukies believes that "mobile money is most effective as an 'open ecosystem' where you can transact with anybody or any organisation, regardless of your bank or mobile operator. Another differentiator, according to the Monitise Group's press release on this deal, is that "uniquely among mobile banking services, [it] enables people without a bank account to use its services, as well as providing traditional mobile banking to those with accounts."

It remains to be seen how far operator-neutral services of this sort pose a competitive threat to cellco-branded solutions such as M-Pesa, Zap, Orange Money (launched by France Telecom's mobile operation in Côte d'Ivoire) and the service launched by MTN Uganda in March, which the South African group hopes to roll out across its African footprint.

Assuming any such threat can be withstood, services like M-Pesa - improving the lives of the unbanked while providing cellcos with a customer retention tool - seem to be good for consumers, good for society and good for the operator.

None of this is to suggest that M-Pesa and services like it are never subject to criticism or concerns around their reliability and security.

Earlier this month, writes Victor Juma of Kenya's Business Daily, a technical hitch in the M-Pesa service caused anxious customers to crowd at outlets to have their accounts updated. For several days, it seems, users were unsure of whether some transactions had been properly credited to their accounts.

The service also appears to have been targeted by organised criminals depositing counterfeit currency via M-Pesa agents. Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper reported on 4th August that staff in two bureaus in the towns of Kutus and Kianyaga had received fake money worth Sh29,000 (about USD 380). Accounts used by the fraudsters were topped up without agents spotting the counterfeit cash. I assume that fraudulent deposits of this kind can be stopped once noticed, but this incident demonstrates that no system is completely immune from human error. Having visited Kenya, but never having stepped inside a retail bank there, I have no idea whether counter staff in banks there are more highly trained than M-Pesa agents and therefore less prone to making mistakes of this kind. Whatever the case, my feeling is that if mobile operators in developing countries are to capitalise on consumers' lack of access to traditional financial services and institutions, the authorities in those countries would be justified in insisting that the cellcos' services are subject to many of the same regulations imposed on the banking sector. I daresay, however, that incidents like the two mentioned here are relatively rare, so none of these observations are meant as a very serious criticism of mobile financial services in developing countries.

Kenya - and more specifically Safaricom's M-Pesa - stands out as a mobile money success story. How far is it an exceptional story? Can we expect services of this type to face greater obstacles to consumer acceptance and commercial success in other developing countries?

Sarah Rotman of the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) could presumably take a view on this, having written in July about the question of whether the success of mobile banking in Kenya can be replicated in neighbouring Tanzania. Rotman notes that unlike the rapid service uptake and quick development of an agent network in Kenya, things have moved much slower for Vodacom’s M-Pesa product in Tanzania. Explanations offered are as follows:
  • Geography/demographics: Tanzania is a less densely populated country than Kenya, which is important in light of the idea that the density of an agent network is a key factor in the success of any mobile financial services suite.
  • Market and competition: Safaricom in Kenya dominates its market (77.59% market share as of June 2009, according to WCIS), holding its own very well against established competitors and new entrants. Vodacom in Tanzania has just a 35.28% market share (according to WCIS) and is losing ground to the local operation of the Zain group and Millicom International Cellular's Tigo-branded operator.
  • Control over agent networks: according to Rotman, it appears that Vodacom Tanzania has less direct control of and influence on its airtime distribution channel than Safaricom. Also, Vodacom works directly with just six airtime wholesalers, compared with 300 for Safaricom. Safaricom’s airtime distribution network was a key element in the rapid development of the M-Pesa agent network.
  • Marketing and strategy: Initial Vodacom M-Pesa marketing seems not to have communicated the easily understood 'send money home' message we say in the Safaricom advertisement. As a result, writes Rotman, customers were unsure of what the product offered them and if it was really geared at the average Tanzanian.
While there are plenty of reasons to be bullish about the success prospects of mobile money services offered by cellcos to unbanked people in developing countries, then, it seems this enthusiasm should perhaps be tempered by an awareness of possible competitive threats from operator-neutral solutions and an understanding that a one-size-fits-all approach might not work effectively across a multi-country footprint.

1 comment:

  1. Joe
    Interesting analysis and certainly a topic that I believe all mobile operators (and many service providers) should be looking at but not only in Africa but for example in the entire MENA region
    Why? Well at the end m-banking in all these countries / regions is attractive because 2 overall gaps:
    a) Lack of alternative for micro-payments
    b) Lack of banking infrastructure in general
    c) Lack of development of Internet banking due to the infrastructure (together with lack of quality alternatives)

    Obviously mobile operators are in optimal position to cover gap a, as at the end they have the billing and as seeing in the m-pensa case, it not that difficult to crate the right applications and processes for this opportunity
    However when micro-payments become a huge chunk of the banking business as it may be in the African continent, and mobile operator starts replacing the banks we are dealing with the second gap. And here I agree with Joe on mobile operators having to fulfill the same regulatory and obligations that banks do, Possible? Yes, but it is a new business (mobile operator should set up different companies or ventures for this and treat them as startups). But heads up as the banks will lobby to avoid this or imposed banking licenses and tenuous processes for mobile operators
    This leads me to point/gap 3. Mobile banking will be what Internet banking has been in Europe and North America (and probably many Asian areas although I lack the knowledge to make this statement). When the Internet boom started some independent (non-banks) tried to jump into the opportunity (first-one, e-bank, uno-e) but at the end most of the Internet banking champion have been banks themselves, except maybe for specialized product aggregators? Will the story repeats? I believe mobile operators could have an opportunity, but only those that are fast, can create ventures and have the right lobby capability at local level and the capacity to develop strong relationships as "financial providers" with other mobile operators


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