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Harnessing Mobile Connectivity to Promote Financial Inclusion in sub-Saharan Africa

Mobile Connectivity: A crucial component in providing innovative financial and non-financial products and services in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Groupe Spéciale Mobile Association (GSMA), a trade body which represents more than 800 mobile money networks globally, predicts that more than half the population of sub-Saharan Africa will subscribe to a mobile service by 2025. The association further opines that the region’s current mobile penetration rate of 44 per cent of the population is significantly below the global average of 66 per cent. The questions that comes to mind include, ‘’Why is mobile penetration important?’’ and ‘’How should stakeholders act to attain the proposed penetration rates?’’.

Providing financial services to the last–mile segment requires the concerted efforts of multiple stakeholders. Financial service providers are continuously innovating in order to reach the unbanked majority who comprise 63% of total sub-Saharan population according to the World Bank. Innovation in financial services is most often synonymous to digitisation or the continued adoption and leveraging of technology (mobile phones) to deliver financial and non-financial services and products.

In this blog, we look at one basic but critical component – mobile connectivity, which contributes to the success of digitising financial services. Specifically, we look at the mobile connectivity situation in Kenya and compare this to the situation in sub-Saharan Africa. The blog will also attempt to evaluate why this infrastructure is key to the successful launch and scale of financial products and services and finally, give a few pointers to comparable sub-Saharan countries i.e. what they need to learn from all this owing to the aggressive innovations taking place in those markets.

Mobile Connectivity in Kenya and Sub-Saharan Africa.

According to F5 Networks, a global company specializing in developing application services and application delivery networking, connectivity refers to the ability to connect mobile devices, such as a cellular telephone to the network. Owing to technological developments, connectivity is no longer a “nice-to-have” but a necessity for organizations the world over. The banking sector has fast moved most of its service delivery from the banking halls and into the palm of customers’ by leveraging the mobile phones hence validating this assertion. The GSMA predicts that mobile connectivity will contribute to reducing poverty, improving healthcare and education, thus driving sustainable economic growth. Through leveraging services such as messaging, mobile money and machine-to-machine technology, organisations will be able to deliver scalable and commercially viable services.

frp1.pngAs such, the importance of mobile connectivity cannot be overemphasized. GSMA estimates that there were 420 million unique mobile subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa with total SIM connections estimated at 731 million in 2016. In March 2017, the sub-Saharan region reportedly had 280 million mobile money accounts, which remains the highest globally. The mobile connectivity index 2017 (Figure 1 above) compares four key enablers of mobile internet adoption – infrastructure, affordability, consumer readiness and content and services in Kenya, a country considered a leader in mobile penetration and its applications versus the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. These four enablers provide the necessary foundation to support widespread adoption of the mobile connectivity and its associated applications.

frp2.pngA focus into one of the key enablers, the infrastructure (illustrated in Figure 2) in Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa illuminate possible reasons why innovative implementations in the rest of the region take longer than expected to start and/or achieve the desired impact. Here, a comparison of metrics such as network coverage, network performance, and the generation of mobile broadband Internet shows the rest of sub-Saharan Africa trailing Kenya.

 

 

Why is this important?

There are increasing efforts by various stakeholders through varied programs to transform the lives of rural people in the sub-Saharan Africa. Financial inclusion programs such as the Mastercard Foundation Fund for Rural Prosperity, a USD 50 million challenge fund, target these populace through funding innovative agribusinesses, fintechs and financial service providers across the region. The grant is provided on a promise to implement innovative business models and improve access to financial and non-financial services for smallholder farmers ultimately resulting in improved livelihoods.

frp3.pngA quick assessment of the Fund portfolio of projects - totalling 38 across 14 countries in the sub-Saharan region reveals varying levels of ecosystem readiness as far as implementing their innovative business models. The situation is further highlighted by the realisation that most of the projects supported under the program leverage some form of technology/mobile technology to realise their objectives. Ultimately, this basic infrastructure will have a telling impact as far as the projects’ desired impact is concerned.

 

 

Mobile connectivity and its associated benefits should result in increased productivity among the population, increased incomes and overall improved livelihoods. Specifically, the connectivity in place should allow for effective communication thereby decreasing unproductive travel time. The 3G and 4G technology in place should enable access to internet related services, which results in increased access to market and general agricultural information for the Agriculture sector and payments services.

The way forward and a call to action.

Despite all the gains made, it is still surprising that almost two-thirds of the sub-Saharan Africa region lack mobile connectivity. Going forward, countries and service providers operating in this region are encouraged to consider the following recommendations in bridging the connectivity gap:

  • Share mobile network infrastructure. Mobile network operators in some of the leading markets such as Kenya and Tanzania have signed infrastructure-sharing agreements thus ensuring connectivity in most parts of the country. This has seen mobile network service providers jointly undertake investment ventures aimed at reaching rural areas where connectivity is lacking.
  • Stakeholders must deliberately enhance the users’ and potential-users’ digital skills and content. Training of the users and operators shortens the adoption periods for mobile driven products and services. This seems to move away from the model of allowing technology adoption to happen at its own pace to provision of targeted services at different segments of the society based on use cases.
  • Simplify regulations for mobile payments to ensure the stakeholders compliance. The regulators are called upon to work closely with implementation partners to ensure enabling regulations are in place. This will fast-track development in the industry.
  • Simplify regulations for agent network build up an example being non-exclusivity of agents. This promotes leveraging existing infrastructure to offer additional services and products e.g. a network of agro-input suppliers acting as mobile money agents and vice-versa.

Ultimately, the questions ‘’Why is mobile connectivity important?’’ and ‘’How should stakeholders act to attain more than 50% connectivity in sub-Saharan Africa?’’ remain relevant to all concerned stakeholders as a lot hinges on this development.

Blog post written by Kevin Genga, Project Manager, Mastercard Foundation Fund for Rural Prosperity.