Many telecom companies across Africa are setting up mobile money transfer services to tap into a billion dollar market. This trend has also served to bring in many of the unbanked, on a continent where access to money services was once entirely the preserve of the rich. However, the lack of interoperability between different services could slow down the process.
MFS Africa is carving out a niche by helping users to send each other money regardless of their country or network. It achieves this by allowing service providers to facilitate transactions across networks, borders and currencies via a single API ensuring compliance with all necessary regulations. In late 2016, it claimed a customer base of 120 million across 30 African countries with a service which includes mobile operators such as Airtel, Econet, MTN, Orange, Tigo and Vodafone.
IDG Connect caught up with Dare Okoudjou, founder and CEO of MFS Africa about the state of interoperability in the telecoms market across Africa. A lightly edited Q&A can be found below.
Could you give us an overview of the company?
The company was started in 2010 and we have an office in Johannesburg, Lagos, Nigeria, Accra, and in London. We offer additional services that are not directly available from the mobile service providers. We connect mobile money systems to each other and to money transfer organisations [like] banks and other financial institutions, enabling money remittances to and from mobile money accounts.
Expanding into different African countries can be challenging. What are the obstacles you faced and how did you overcome those roadblocks?
One obstacle has been regulatory approval, which is sought and obtained by our partners (mobile network operators) and granted by central banks in the relevant countries. We routinely prepare sections of the application dossiers explaining the technical and operational elements of the service, and often guide our partners through the application process, as we have now done this many times.
There are problems with payments outside the continent. How can Africa tap into that international system with mobile money?
One of the value propositions of the MFS hub is to connect African consumers to the digital global economy, and likewise to connect international merchants, organisations, and services to African mobile wallet users – whether for payment collection, disbursement, or other services. The MFS hub can also connect to banks and card systems, which means we can settle to merchants operating in any payment environment.
Do you have plans to also venture into online payments?
That is the next step in our journey as MFS Africa. PayPal is one of the types of payment that we need to connect with and we are engaging with them on that front. The idea is if you have a mobile money account you could buy things on Amazon or iTunes.
What kind of opportunities are there for other operators and startups around the mobile money industry?
There are many opportunities to take financial inclusion and payments further using mobile money. We see more and more e-commerce and financial services players leveraging our hub to connect many mobile wallet users across countries and networks through a single API.
Mobile money continues to grow throughout Africa, with 222.8 million registered accounts across Sub-Saharan Africa as of the end of December 2015, according to the GSMA [PDF]. While 85% of mobile wallet growth from 2014 to 2015 occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa, there are still many unbanked or financially excluded mobile users who do not yet use a mobile wallet. Mobile network operators are continually pushing customer acquisition and usage to boost these numbers.
On average are telecom companies loosening ‘the lock’ on their products to third party developers and companies?
Telecom companies remain open to working with value-added services providers for many kinds of services, and in particular these types of partnerships enrich the ecosystem to enhance the value of mobile money to users, networks, and technical providers alike. Hubs like MFS Africa allow telecom companies to streamline the ways in which financial services and merchant partners connect to mobile money systems.
What does the future hold for the mobile economy?
I believe in the next two to three years we will see market acceleration and by the time we reach 2020 I think mobile money will become the de facto digital payment across Sub-Saharan Africa.
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