Welcome to Africa Research Institute’s blog. Africa Research Institute is a strictly non-partisan think tank based in London. Our mission is to draw attention to ideas which have worked in Africa, and to identify new ideas where needed.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Network-less mobile banking

In February 2011 Michael Joseph, former CEO of Kenyan mobile phone operator Safaricom, was appointed by the World Bank to spearhead the expansion of mobile banking worldwide. Joseph grew Safaricom from five employees to a business with an 80% share of the Kenyan mobile phone market. But his most lasting legacy is undoubtedly the introduction of M-PESA, the company’s flagship mobile payment system, and the most successful of its kind in the world. M-PESA facilitates more transactions each day in East Africa than Western Union does in a year, globally.

Joseph’s appointment highlights the growing importance of mobile banking to businesses and donors alike. But it also signals a shift in thinking about how to provide poor communities with access to financial services. In sub-Saharan Africa, one in five households have access to formal financial services, whether bank accounts, microcredit or insurance. The majority of people rely on informal methods of saving, sending and receiving money. Whether storing savings at home or sending money to family living in rural areas, the majority of Africans take disproportionate risk when managing their finances.

The precedent set by M-PESA suggests that mobile banking is beginning to change this. M-PESA allows account holders to deposit funds into an electronic kitty through a network of over 20,000 agents. M-PESA is not a service designed for the unbanked population, but it is used by them. Since its launch in March 2007, the number of users has grown to 13 million. Users can send – and receive – money to another M-PESA user through their mobile phone. As the service has gained popularity it has evolved. Kenyans can now pay for utility bills, groceries and even goods from the internet using the service.

The growth of mobile banking challenges previous assumptions that low-income populations are not a viable constituency for business. Low income populations are not averse to innovation, but simply to risk. Evidence from Kenya indicates that once risk is eliminated, people quickly demand more sophisticated products and services. ‘Initial [mobile] banking uptake focuses on low value transactions (e.g. mobile transfers and payments), but customer needs for higher margin products develop quickly’, concluded a report published by Bain & Company, the global consultancy firm

Individuals, businesses and charities have integrated M-PESA into the services they offer. Musoni, a Kenyan microfinance institution, operates a completely cashless business model. All disbursements and payments are conducted through M-PESA, and rival services including Airtel Money and Orange Mobile Money. Kilimo Salama – KiSwahili for safe agriculture – is a scheme which enables farmers to insure farm inputs against crop failure caused by adverse weather. Insurance payouts are disbursed via M-PESA.

The lessons for other countries are clear. Regulation plays an important role. In Kenya, Safaricom and the Central Bank of Kenya reached a compromise where the former could act as a formal channel for taking cash deposits without adhering to cumbersome banking regulations. A large network of dedicated agents, brand recognition and trust in the service are all crucial. But Safaricom’s 80% market share gave them a cutting edge that most other networks cannot rely on. Transferring the M-PESA model has proved difficult.

In Nigeria, for example – Africa’s most populous country – competition between mobile service providers is fierce. The mobile market is fragmented. But in December 2010, the Nigerian central bank sanctioned a number of licences for mobile banking platforms. They have insisted on “inter-operability” – i.e. a system that allows people to make transactions across mobile networks. Network-agnostic services, they argue, will offer a better service to customers, allowing them to transact with anyone, regardless of network.

“[It] seems unfortunate for a customer to have to interconnect two mobile money platforms by cashing out from one platform on which it is receiving money and cash into another on which it needs to make a payment. Let’s cut out the cash in the middle” Ignacio Mas, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
There is some pressure for “inter-operability” in Kenya, but Safaricom claims that it “[risks] killing innovations in the money transfer market”. The Central Bank of Kenya has backed the company. But in countries where the mobile phone market is not dominated by a single service provider, network-agnostic mobile banking services could be a more productive approach to replicating M-PESA success. The progress of mobile banking in Nigeria will be a telling indicator for the viability of mobile banking elsewhere in Africa.

Chris Marshall
Guest blogger

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Aid: protection or production

On 17th-18th February I attended a workshop entitled “Aid and Development in Asia and Africa: The Role of Infrastructure and Capacity Development in East Asian Growth and its Implications for African Development”. It was co-hosted by the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and held at SOAS in London.

On Tuesday 1st March, Britain’s International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell announced that the number of countries receiving aid will fall over the next four years by a third – from 43 to 27. The total aid budget will not decrease, in keeping with Prime Minister David Cameron’s pledge that Britain will meet the UN target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid by 2013. But the allocation of aid will alter. There is to be a greater focus on ‘fragile’ war-torn states which pose a security threat to the UK, such as Afghanistan and Somalia. This redistribution and concentration of funds implies an assumption that the efficacy of aid - to promote economic growth, social development and therefore stability - can be improved by increasing the volume of aid to a ‘fragile state’.

The ability of aid to foster economic growth and development, and the merits of ‘scaling-up’ aid are hotly contested issues. This debate is propelled most articulately by economists Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Colombia University and William Easterly, Professor of Economics at New York University.

In his book “The End of Poverty”, Sachs argues that poverty can be overcome by increasing aid spending on items such as water pumps to increase agricultural productivity, or mosquito nets to reduce the incidence of malaria. And increased wealth improves political transparency and governance. In contrast, Easterly argues there is no empirical evidence to show that aid leads to economic growth or political reform. He advocates local entrepreneurship and the growth of the private sector to reduce poverty and increase accountability, which he finds lacking in the aid industry.

Evidence for both arguments can be found on the ground, depending on where, and when, you look. Perhaps it would be better to acknowledge that aid does not - and cannot - have the same impact in all locations and under all political, economic and social conditions. To position yourself ‘for’ or ‘against’ aid is to ignore the local context. At the workshop I attended, there were some enlightening contributions to the ‘aid debate’ from speakers keen to examine the large middle ground between the black and white arguments.

Finn Tarp, Director of the World Institute for Development Economics Research at the United Nations University, shared research which argues that aid can have a positive effect on growth over the long-run. With no empirical evidence to suggest that increasing the volume of aid increases economic growth to the same degree, he argued that international donors increasing their aid allocations must be clear on where and how money should be spent. Local institutions are key to the achievement of economic growth through aid, and their capacity to absorb increased aid flows should receive particular consideration.

Jane Harrigan, Professor of Economics at SOAS, argued that over the last decade donor conditions have been pre-occupied with ‘good governance’ and social welfare. From 1990 to 2004, the percentage of aid allocated to governance in African countries increased from 7% to 21%, to education from 6% to 21%, and to health from 4% to 9%. The proportion to agriculture fell from 27% to 11% and to infrastructure from 42% to 30%. Whilst acknowledging the importance of contributions to social welfare, Harrigan is concerned that the relative reduction in allocations to productive sectors - agriculture and infrastructure - is hindering economic growth.

Kenichi Ohno, from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Japan, agrees that in order for aid to promote growth, a shift in emphasis to productive sectors is needed. African countries, he contends, should study East Asia’s success and adopt country-specific industrial policies. For example, as an advisor to the Ethiopian government, Ohno has proposed limited export promotion; import substitution; increasing private-public partnerships; building industrial clusters and the adoption of the Japanese philosophy of kaizen - the continuous improvement of processes in manufacturing and business.

With Britain re-embracing a closer alignment of aid programmes with foreign policy, will support be given to countries attempting to build a base for their economic growth? The rhetoric of results-oriented aid policy would seem to suggest this is a possibility. But the concentration of aid to countries deemed to pose a security threat to Britain could yet deny African countries with the highest potential for economic growth and wealth creation the support they require to establish themselves in international markets. An achievement which would reduce the requirement for aid, and help promote peaceful ties with the rest of the world.

Jenny Congrave

Policy and Publications Officer - Africa Research Institute