When it comes to mobile wallets, and indeed most things instant payments related, Africa tends to be ahead of the game.
During the 80’s and 90’s, much of the continent missed out on the desktop PC revolution, and in the 90’s, internet penetration across the region was negligible. Since then, however, the pendulum has swung very much in Africa’s favour, and especially so in the last decade.
Africa has skipped a generation and, where personal finance is concerned, gone straight to mobile. Users across the continent are comfortable with the technology, and a mobile app, where a simple selfie can provide the kind of formal ID that so many of Africa’s “unbanked” population lack, to many Africans represents the perfect way to hold, send and keep track of money.
When Bob Diamond, the man who turned Barclays’ investment banking division from a small fish in a big pond into a bona fide shark, acrimoniously left the company, the financial world waited with bated breath to see what he would do next.
The most charismatic financier of his generation decided that he would be amongst the first people to target Africa as the next high growth destination for cutting edge banking technology. The company he founded, Atlas Mara, alongside African entrepreneur and billionaire Ashish J Thakkar, was clear about its vision; to be sub-Saharan Africa’s premier financial institution.
If Diamond is amongst the most high profile westerners to have seen the incredible growth potential of Africa and tried to harness it by building its banking infrastructure from the ground up, there are more than enough African companies vying for similar status. One such company is Ecobank.
Ecobank’s website proclaims that “the future is Pan-African.”, and the bank, which has been operational since the ‘80’s has a presence in 36 of Africa’s 54 countries. The banks caters for individuals, businesses and governments, and although it provides a solid, traditional form of banking, which it refers to as “providing convenient, accessible and reliable financial products and services to individual customers”, it has a disruptive element too; to whit, “mobile, internet and remittance banking platforms.”
Last week in Nigeria, Carol Oyedeji, Ecobank’s Executive Director of Consumer Banking, was fielding questions from journalists about the new Ecobank Xpress account; an account that promises to put banking, literally, at user’s fingertips.
The Xpress account is mobile-based, and its target audience very much includes the demographic referred to as the “unbanked”; those with financial resources, who would struggle to, and probably now never will; formally open a bank account.
The Xpress account can be opened in five minutes using only a mobile phone, and, being a “tier 1” wallet i.e. just used for holding and sending money, does not require any formal identification.
According to The Nation Online, “Oyedeji said Ecobank is focused on leading the consumer banking industry by leveraging its robust digital channels to drive financial inclusion for the un-banked in the different parts of Nigeria.”
The account can be funded via bank transfer, or by visiting a local Ecobank Express store and paying in cash.
Using technology to create simplicity is the goal of almost every disruptive fintech firm, no matter whether they are based in Europe, Africa, or China, but it is probably in Africa where customers are most accepting and used to this way of doing things. The population in Europe, in particular, are still mistrustful of mobile banking, whereas Africans are embracing it.
Diamond et al may be trying to introduce Western style banking infrastructure to Africa, but they may already be too late. Banking has moved on, and it is the likes of China’s Alipay, and as we can see, African firms like Ecobank, that currently understand the landscape best.
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