26 October 2006

The Economist on mobile telephony and banking

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“Most South Africans do not have bank accounts. But most do have mobile phones,” writes The Economist today in a story about mobile telephony and banking with a particular focus on Africa.

“About half a million South Africans now use their mobile phones as a bank. Besides sending money to relatives and paying for goods, they can check balances, buy mobile airtime and settle utility bills. Traditional banks offer mobile banking as an added service to existing customers, most of whom are quite well off. But Wizzit (an innovative provider of financial services), and to some extent First National Bank (FNB) and MTN Banking (a joint venture between Standard Bank and a mobile-phone network), are chasing another market: the 16m South Africans, over half of the adult population, with no bank account. Significantly, 30% of these people do have mobile phones. Wizzit hired and trained over 2,000 unemployed people, known as Wizzkids, to drum up business. It worked: eight out of ten Wizzit customers previously had no bank account and had never used an ATM. […]”

“In most of Africa, meanwhile, only a fraction of people have bank accounts—but there is huge demand for cheap and convenient ways to send money and buy prepaid services such as airtime. Many Africans, having skipped landlines and jumped to mobiles, already use prepaid airtime as a way of transferring money. They could now leap from a world of cash to cellular banking. […]”

“The technology remains clunky in some cases, with downloads requiring dozens of text messages. Several rival platforms are still in the fight, but so far those that emphasise simplicity and ease-of-use over state-of-the-art technology and security have made the greatest strides.”

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