Africa banks on cell phones

ACCRA, Ghana — Most working people here do not exist, at least not in the records of any trustworthy bank: The taxi drivers stash their salaries beneath floor mats and the market women tie their earnings up in the waistlines of their wrapper-skirts.

They are the “un-banked” — potential customers but for now invisible, lost among the 80 percent of Africans who do their banking in tin cans and fanny packs. They do not keep the sort of accounts one can present to a loan officer.

Africa's economy of cash handovers and stowed-away savings has long been a hindrance to the continent's economic growth, as well as a cause and excuse to deny credit to its poor.

But now, at a time when 10 million Ghanaians own a phone, the world's banks, cell phone networks and aid agencies are coming here to flip one thing into the other — to tweak a few features on a sim card, circumvent some regulations, and voila: The ordinary pre-paid cell phone becomes something not unlike a checking account — a way to text money from person to person throughout this intricate economy.

“It's the next big gold rush,” said Michael Amankwah, CEO of CoreNet, a Ghanaian ATM manufacturer whose business, the chief executive freely admits, “is going to take a big hit,” when cell phone banking takes hold. “It's the future of transactions and payments here.”

Already, telecom companies in Kenya and South Africa are shuffling millions of dollars in rands and shillings a day, as customers text along their excess income — perhaps to help an ailing but faraway relative buy medicine, or to pay workers harvesting a distant farm.

In March, the continent's largest cell phone network, MTN, announced plans to bring their Mobile Money service to 21 nations — they’ll even throw in an MTN-branded debt card. In Cote d'Ivoire, French telecom giant Orange is hammering out a similar program, and in eight East African nations, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the British firm Monitise, which is not a telecoms firm, will do the same.

“This is a way to include quite a number of people who are outside the reach of the financial system,” said David Andah, executive secretary of Ghana’s Microfinance Institutions Network. “I'm talking about that woman on the beach selling fish. People who are not linked up at all.”

Analysts expect similar programs to take off in most African countries within a year. They forecast that several hundred million of Africa's least connected traders, farmers and laborers will be brought into the banking system within three to five years.

For the small towns and unreachable villages that have sent generations of talented youths and natural resources to the booming cities, this is an especially big deal. The technology should ease the path of remittances home, and make it easier for agriculturalists to operate multiple, far-apart farms.

Those lucky enough to procure a micro-loan will be able to receive payments without traveling for hours. Those hopeful enough to apply for a loan will be able to bring to the counter some evidence of their income, if only in text messages.

And in the capitals of each new country where mobile banking takes off, governments face the enticing option of taxing millions more petty purchases a day, in all the impractical corners where bureaucrats seldom go.

“As the cash-less society grows, the consequences are going to be pretty heavy,” said Ghana Manager Kofi Kufuor, of Afric Xpress, a company that helps Ghanaians pay their bills and transfer money via text messages. “This is a lot of money we are talking about.”

And a lot of people: “You have 6.1 billion people on this planet, out of which only one and half, two billion have an account,” said Prateek Shrivastava, head international strategist for Monitise. “Billions are going to be interested.”

Yet, out of those billions of people — whose infinitesimal transactions were once so extraneous to the world’s financial institutions — nobody stands to benefit quite like Africa's increasingly powerful telecom companies, the conglomerates who built this continent's cellular towers and enable its calls.

“These guys are going to be more powerful than Google, more powerful than Microsoft, within the locality in which they operate,” Amankwah said. “Already, telecoms move more money than the banks. And they have control over the channels — it's their sim card. You're using their network.

“These guys are going to be kings.”

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