Are Mobile Network Operators shackling digitalisation of Africa financial inclusion?

It will be argued that bank regulators are not there to protect banks from innovative competition from non-banks such as MNOs, Apple, Samsung, Google, Amazon, Pay Pal and Alipay.

By Brian Richardson

Financial inclusion is a key enabler of sustainable economic and social development. Initiatives by the United Nations and the World Bank Group continue to drive financial inclusion and it has become a priority for regulators and policymakers worldwide.
Out of 7.5 billion people and a mobile phone in almost every pocket, two billion adults worldwide are unbanked. Financial service providers (FSPs), FinTech’s and mobile network operators (MNOs) offer superior solutions to bridge the gap.
However, despite the size, reach and power of banks and MNOs, little impact is being achieved on the number of unbanked.
Regulation is often blamed as a major barrier. What doesn’t help either are statements from European Central Bank executive board member Yves Mersch, who has given a spirited defence of cash, praising its ability to facilitate privacy, equality and security, insisting there is “no viable alternative”.
Digitalisation is the key to financial inclusion. Basic transactional accounts should be a birth right, together with a concerted effort by governments to remove cash and to support every effort towards financial inclusion.
Illegal and illicit activities such as money laundering and funding of terrorist activities are facilitated predominantly through cash.
The sooner we accept this fact, the better. What is urgently required is the removal of cash and the enforcement of policies that promote simple and seamless access to bank accounts for all. This provides full audit trails of every single transaction.
MNO’s have the reach and understand the power of marketing. Banks understand compliance and systems. As a leading global FinTech, WIZZIT International works effectively with all leading MNOs and banks in providing digital financial services.

In countries like Angola and the DRC the unbanked populations are 71% and 89% respectively

However, instead of embracing mutually beneficial partnerships, MNOs in some countries refuse to give banks access to their Unstructured Supplementary Service Data or USSD gateways.
The bulk of mobile phones in Africa are feature phones and the USSD channel provides functionality that is quick, safe and easily accessible from all mobile phones. For the vast majority, USSD will remain the clear channel of choice for many years to come.
To date, it is the most successfully integrated and widely adopted technology for financial services in emerging markets and the lower end of the market.
MNOs in some countries seem to think that by denying banks access, they can create a bigger market for their own financial service offerings.

This is most evident in countries like Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo where the unbanked populations are 71% and 89% respectively.
This abuse of power is tantamount to anti-competitive behaviour and is creating a major barrier to financial inclusion, something communication regulators should be aware of. The lack of progress in these and other emerging markets may well be the result of the prejudiced practices of Telcos gatekeeping access to the USSD gateway.
As smart phones become more affordable, so will the popularity of app-powered platforms as a channel for financial services.
However, until there is a dramatic decrease in the cost of smart phones, the number of feature phones will remain at around 70%.
USSD is still therefore critically important and banks will depend on MNOs for access – unless as has happened in some markets, banks get their own MNVO licence and control their own destiny.
A bigger pie or a bigger slice?
The boundaries between the offerings of banks and MNOs are becoming increasingly blurred – yet the playing fields are not level. In some West African countries, for example, banks are by law not allowed to charge customers for deposits to bank accounts. MNOs, however, are unaffected by these laws and have the freedom to charge for deposits into mobile wallets.
Starting out as a convenient way to buy airtime and send money to family and friends, the financial services offering of MNOs has broadened to include offerings such as savings and loans. This is taking the banks on directly.
It will be argued that banks cannot be all things to all people and effectively service all segments of the market. It will also be argued that bank regulators are not there to protect banks from innovative competition from non-banks such as MNOs, Apple, Samsung, Google, Amazon, Pay Pal and Alipay.
However, where governments and global agencies are putting enormous pressure on banks to drive financial inclusion, this is made increasingly difficult where banks are denied access to channels such as USSD.

To collaborate or not to collaborate

The Mobile Banking industry globally started some 12 years ago with WIZZIT (South Africa), Mpesa (Kenya) and GCash (Philippines) recognised as the early pioneers. It is interesting to note that there has not been a single successful partnership between banks and MNOs despite numerous attempts.
Perhaps a truly strategic collaborative model is still a ways off and competition between banks and MNOs is here to stay – at least for the foreseeable future. The question is whether or not this competition is supporting global efforts on financial inclusion through digital financial services.

The way forward

Digitisation and mobile penetration will continue to drive the growing trend of MNOs and FSPs infiltrating each other’s space to gain traction in new services.
However, these rapidly blurring lines are bound to spark territorial claims regarding customers. This could impede financial inclusion if it lacks the required consumer protection measures and regulations.
Governments must regulate competitive behaviour amongst all role players and promote cross-sector collaboration towards financial inclusion.
It is essential for countries to enforce policies that promote responsible financial access, financial capability, innovative products and delivery mechanisms. Any initiative that promotes financial inclusion should be praised and much work needs to be done.

Brian Richardson is CEO of WIZZIT International.

 

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