Cell phones plug Africa's poor into mobile banking

By Rebecca Harrison

Tue Nov 1,11:39 AM ET

SOWETO, South Africa (Reuters) - After years of stashing his cash under the mattress, Jeremiah Mpanza now transfers money with a flick of his thumb to his girlfriend in South Africa's rural heartland.

His trick? The humble cell phone.

Mobile technology has already revolutionized communications in the world's poorest continent, bringing phones to millions of poor and isolated people who had never before made a call.

Now cell phones are serving as a bank in your pocket, providing virtual accounts for South Africans excluded from the financial mainstream by exorbitant charges and branch networks clustered in wealthy white suburbs.

"I used to keep my money in an envelope stuffed under my mattress," said Mpanza, a community worker in the Johannesburg township of Soweto. "With most banks you need lots of papers, but with this one, all you need is a cell phone."

Open to anyone with a phone, mobile banking has proved a hit with people such as Mpanza in South Africa's townships and villages, and looks set to spread quickly across Africa. Account holders use text messages, or SMS, to pay for goods, transfer money to friends and family and top up the credit on their pre-pay phones. Bosses can pay salaries direct into cellular accounts and customers can deposit cash at Post Offices and some bank branches.

"It's cheap, it's easy, it's unintimidating," said Jenny Hoffmann, head of MTN Banking, which launched the service earlier this year. "And if you live on a hill in (rural Africa) you don't have to go to town to make a payment."


Widespread banking services are seen as crucial to boosting growth in Africa's biggest economy and shrinking the huge gap between mostly well-off whites and poor blacks, but banks often put off low earners with cumbersome bureaucracy and high fees.

A 2003 survey estimated that only half of South African adults had a bank account, but a third of those without an account owned a mobile phone. Cell phones have spread quicker than bank accounts across the rest of Africa.

"People might not have shoes but they have a cell phone," said Brian Richardson, chief executive of Wizzit, a small start-up that pioneered cell phone banking in South Africa. "We can turn that phone into a bank in your pocket."

FinMark, a British-backed non-governmental organization that looks at ways financial markets can help the poor, estimates at least half of all bank accounts in South Africa will be administered via cell phones within five years.

MTN (MTNJ.J), Africa's biggest mobile operator by sales, hopes the new banking service will serve as a retention tool for existing high- spending cell phone customers.

Finmark expects the new technology to attract a rush of demand from low earners, who critics say have been neglected by big banks focused on more lucrative business.

Under fire over excessive banking charges, Absa (ASAJ.J), Standard Bank (SBKJ.J), Nedbank (NEDJ.J) and FNB (FSRJ.J) last year clubbed together to launch the "Mzansi" entry-level account for low-earners, and are opening new branches in townships.

However, some commentators say mainstream banks have not done enough to develop services for the poor and are merely paying lip-service to pressure from the government.

"The cost of banking is an impediment," said Finmark Chief Executive Mark Napier. "If people have to travel 40 minutes and pay 20 rand for a taxi to visit their bank, then a transaction cost on top of that, it's not something they will consider."

MTN Banking's Hoffmann said it still made more financial sense for the rural poor to keep their life-savings at home -- a risk given South Africa's notorious crime rates -- than to open a conventional bank account.

Internet banking is not an option for the majority on a continent where only a fraction have Web access.


Cell phone banking was launched earlier this year when Wizzit send 1,100 'wizzkids' -- all previously unemployed and decked out in smart black uniforms -- into townships and rural areas to sell virtual bank accounts.

MTN Banking -- a joint venture between MTN and Africa's largest bank Standard Bank -- followed quickly, and Absa and First National Bank launched less ambitious offerings.

They say the cell phone is as safe as ATM machines or the Internet since each customer has a personal PIN and MTN even uses voice recognition technology to screen customers.

Wizzit said it aimed to open 300,000 accounts in the medium term and MTN Banking hopes to sign up 400,000 customers by the end of next year. Neither gave current figures. Wizzit says it expects to expand into other African countries next year and has been approached by potential partners in Kenya, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Malawi.

MTN will also consider expanding into other countries where it already offers cell phone services, such as Nigeria, Uganda, Cameroon or Rwanda. Both hope to offer savings, credit and investment services in the future.

Cell phones are booming in Africa with subscriber numbers expected to hit 100 million by the end of the year from 40 million in 2002. The technology has already been adapted for myriad projects to enhance quality of life and create business opportunities.

In Senegal, farmers and fishermen get the latest market prices for their goods via their phones, in South African townships

AIDS counselors monitor patients on life-prolonging drugs via cell phone applications, and in tiny Lesotho, farmers receive weather forecasts via SMS.

MTN's Hoffmann said that, in the same way as wireless systems leapfrogged Africa past generations of fixed-line technology, it could end up transporting the continent into a new age of electronic banking, circumventing debit and credit cards.

"We may find that credit and debit cards never really take off in Africa because people go straight to electronic transfers on their phones," she said.

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