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September 24, 2009

Mobile Money Could Benefit World Poor as Much as Mobile Phones Already Have

The Economist magazine has a special feature on how mobile money could benefit the lives of the world's poor as much as mobile phones already have.

Mobile phones have become tools of economic empowerment for the world’s poorest people. These phones compensate for inadequate infrastructure, such as bad roads and slow postal services, allowing information to move more freely, making markets more efficient and unleashing entrepreneurship. All this has a direct impact on economic growth: an extra ten phones per 100 people in a typical developing country boosts GDP growth by 0.8 percentage points, according to the World Bank. More than 4 billion handsets are now in use worldwide, three-quarters of them in the developing world. Even in Africa, four in ten people now have a mobile phone.


Everyone having a mobile phone should be an 8% boost to GDP growth over no one having a mobile phone.

Mobile Money

Mobile money, which allows cash to travel as quickly as a text message. Across the developing world, corner shops are where people buy vouchers to top up their calling credit. Mobile-money services allow these small retailers to act rather like bank branches. They can take your cash, and (by sending a special kind of text message) credit it to your mobile-money account. You can then transfer money (again, via text message) to other registered users, who can withdraw it by visiting their own local corner shops. You can even send money to people who are not registered users; they receive a text message with a code that can be redeemed for cash.

By far the most successful example of mobile money is M-PESA, launched in 2007 by Safaricom of Kenya. It now has nearly 7m users—not bad for a country of 38m people, 18.3m of whom have mobile phones. M-PESA first became popular as a way for young, male urban migrants to send money back to their families in the countryside. It is now used to pay for everything from school fees (no need to queue up at the bank every month to hand over a wad of bills) to taxis (drivers like it because they are carrying around less cash). Similar schemes are popular in the Philippines and South Africa.




Extending mobile money to other poor countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, would have a huge impact. It is a faster, cheaper and safer way to transfer money than the alternatives, such as slow, costly transfers via banks and post offices, or handing an envelope of cash to a bus driver. Rather than spend a day travelling by bus to the nearest bank, recipients in rural areas can spend their time doing more productive things. The incomes of Kenyan households using M-PESA have increased by 5-30% since they started mobile banking, according to a recent study.

Mobile money also provides a stepping stone to formal financial services for the billions of people who lack access to savings accounts, credit and insurance. Although for regulatory reasons M-PESA accounts do not pay interest, the service is used by some people as a savings account. Having even a small cushion of savings to fall back on allows people to deal with unexpected expenses, such as medical treatment, without having to sell a cow or take a child out of school. Mobile banking is safer than storing wealth in the form of cattle (which can become diseased and die), gold (which can be stolen), in neighbourhood savings schemes (which may be fraudulent) or by stuffing banknotes into a mattress. In the Maldives many people lost their savings in the tsunami of 2004; it hopes to introduce universal mobile banking next year.


The economist special report on telecoms in emerging markets.

In the year to March 2009 an additional 128m people signed up for mobile phones in India, 89m in China and 96m across Africa, according to TeleGeography, a telecoms consultancy. The total mobile phone users will reach 6 billion by 2013 [up from about 4 billion now in 2009], according to the GSMA, an industry group, with half of these new users in China and India alone.

operators have developed new business models and industry structures that enable them to make a profit serving low-spending customers that Western firms would not bother with. Indian operators have led the way, and some aspects of the “Indian model” are now being adopted by operators in other countries, both rich and poor. This model provides new opportunities, especially for Indian operators. The spread of the Indian model could help bring mobile phones within reach of an even larger number of the world’s poor.

The second trend is the emergence of China’s two leading telecoms-equipment-makers, Huawei and ZTE, which have entered the global stage in the past five years. Initially dismissed as low-cost, low-quality producers, they now have a growing reputation for quality and innovation, prompting a shake-out among the incumbent Western equipment-makers. The most recent victim was Nortel, once Canada’s most valuable company, which went bust in January. Having long concentrated on emerging markets, Huawei and ZTE are well placed to expand their market share as subscriber numbers continue to grow and networks are upgraded from second-generation (2G) to third-generation (3G) technology, notably in China and India.

The third trend is the development of new phone-based services, beyond voice calls and basic text messages, which are now becoming feasible because mobile phones are relatively widely available. In rich countries most such services have revolved around trivial things like music downloads and mobile gaming. In poor countries data services such as mobile-phone-based agricultural advice, health care and money transfer could provide enormous economic and developmental benefits.


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