Across developing economies in Africa, the use of digital payments is growing at a rate even faster than the global average. This mobile-led transformation is so far-reaching that the typically conservative banking sector is on the forefront of mobile money technology to reach individuals who have been historically excluded from traditional financial systems. Some reasons for this financial exclusion can include cost barriers to opening an account, astronomically high remittance fees, a lack of identifying documentation, limited access to physical bank branches, and an economy that still largely operates on cash.
This rapid growth of digital payments in Africa—11-fold over the past decade—is empowering millions of people with access to goods and services without the need for cash, breaking down the barriers noted above. With upwards of 65% of adults across sub-Saharan Africa unbanked, this can be a truly transformative time for a huge swathe of the population. And as crypto simultaneously sees substantial market growth across Africa—up 1,200% in recent years—there’s an opportunity to merge this technology with existing mobile money infrastructures to further increase financial inclusion. While mobile money can make domestic payment rails more efficient, crypto-enabled services can reduce costs, increase security, offer financially inclusive payment options and further streamline international transactions for businesses and consumers alike.
WHAT IS MOBILE MONEY?
Mobile money is a digital payment technology that allows money transfers between mobile devices using a SIM card so users can freely transact without needing to connect to a bank. This technology has been touted as a revolutionary tool for broadening access to financial services in areas where financial infrastructure might be lacking. The SIM card can be used on both smartphones and non-smartphones, greatly expanding the reach of mobile money technology.
Nearly half of the world’s mobile money users are in Africa, making up approximately two-thirds of global mobile money transactions.
KEY SUPPORTING TRENDS
Regulators in certain parts of the region, including Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, have leaned into the opportunities presented by greater access to payment systems through mobile money. Revised guidelines around agent banking and e-money in Ghana has allowed operators to offer mobile money accounts to their customers—tripling the number of Ghanaians with these accounts in just three years. Policy progress in this industry has seen success in Cote d’Ivoire as well, growing mobile money users by 40% in three years.
In addition to rising mobile money adoption, inbound remittance payments in Africa to developing economies increased by 6.2% to $45 billion in 2021. Despite this increase, traditional payment rails still charge users high fees to send remittance payments—a whopping 8% in Sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s highest rate. There is very clearly a demand and market for crypto-enabled remittance payments in the region, particularly those that can significantly reduce fees and complete payments in seconds.
Furthermore, in April 2022, the Central African Republic officially adopted Bitcoin as legal currency—only the second country to do so—and legalized other uses of crypto across the economy. Shifts like these can help broaden market access to more non-bank competitors, helping to drive down user-incurred costs and drive up formalized financial participation.
BARRIERS + CHALLENGES TO SUCCESS
Across Africa, there is a complex and competitive landscape between countries, resulting in low rates of interoperability. For instance, incorporating crypto and blockchain technology into existing mobile money infrastructures—of which there are over 300 in Africa alone—can be difficult as they are often closed-loop systems, meaning the money in a given account can have very narrow use cases.
There is also a significant learning curve for the average person to familiarize themselves with crypto—including using crypto applications and digital wallets, and how to buy, sell and hold crypto. While new technology like mobile money has garnered success, the high rate of adoption may be due to comfort levels with traditional fiat currency being a more familiar option compared to cryptocurrency.
Lastly, money laundering and organized crime rates using mobile money has increased in Africa as these platforms have become more popular, even as the region is taking initiatives to slow this criminal activity and implement proactive strategies to avoid it entirely. Unfortunately, illicit activity is a byproduct of any payments platform, and there may be public hesitation with continuing down the road of crypto-enabled digital payments until the technology and overall crypto payments landscape becomes better understood.
OPPORTUNITIES + WHAT’S NEXT
To address concerns around organized crime, building safeguards like Know Your Customer (KYC) and Anti Money-Laundering (AML) into the rules for mobile money transactions through blockchain and crypto technology can help adoption become more widespread, safe and scalable. It could also assist in overcoming the region’s battle with money laundering — and further position Africa crypto for long-term success.
Increasing awareness of these safeguards and educating end-users and institutions on both the benefits and ease of use of crypto is key to gaining trust and buy-in from the public and enabling the successful adoption of this technology.
Finally, there is a tremendous opportunity for fintech in Africa to piggyback on the success of mobile money to push the adoption of crypto-centric tools which will make payments even more accessible, approachable and affordable for everyday users. Mobile money was initially an obscure technology but has gained trust from its users in Africa with successful implementation and widespread adoption—crypto now has the opportunity to achieve the same. For example, PayDek has enabled real time payments using crypto to freelancers and on-demand workers in Africa.
And as the world’s workforce continues to shift towards becoming remote or hybrid-first, this opens up even further possibilities for Africa to unleash its potential and further stimulate its economy with crypto-backed payments. The African workforce now has the opportunity to go global, uplifting millions from poverty and enabling remote workers to be efficiently paid with crypto via digital wallets on their mobile devices.
Not only will use cases like these provide opportunities for both traditional banking providers and non-banking entities to serve untapped populations at scale, it will also broaden access to financial services for the massive unbanked population across Africa’s developing economies.
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