Traveling across Africa’s 54 countries, you could potentially transact in roughly 40 different currencies, on over 150 mobile money services, and through a countless number of payment solutions. While a growing number of businesses accept international credit cards, mobile money, and other payment apps, you’ll likely spend a small fortune through transfer fees and unfavourable exchange rates.
Africa’s high number of currencies and payment platforms creates several challenges for intra-regional businesses and banks. While past campaigns towards a single monetary union have succumb to political gridlock, the recent Continental Free Trade Agreement (CFTA) has revived optimism for many, including South Africa’s President Ramaphosa. In the meantime, regional banks and tech investors have joined the race to ease intra-regional payments and transfers.
Before discussing regional issues however, let’s start with some challenges consumers face at home and the innovative solutions making headlines.
The Rise of Mobile Wallets
The dream of fintech is a cashless future where we apply for loans, pay bills, and buy groceries at the local market all through our mobile phones. However, these activities often happen on different apps that draw from different accounts. As the industry evolves, many of these solutions will likely consolidate but until then mobile wallets seem to be the best solution.
While Visa claims to be “everywhere you want to be”, if you’ve ever had your card turned off while travelling in Africa, you know this isn’t the case. In the meantime, growing mobile payment apps are slowly expanding their footprint by negotiating with merchants, utility companies, and banks to further accelerate adoption. Thus, mobile wallets are often the best solution for consumers to use whichever credit card or mobile money service a given vendor is willing to accept.
Ghana’s Zeepay started a POS solution for merchants to accept mobile money payments from different telecom providers, and then built a mobile wallet app for consumers to receive international wire transfers and immediately transfer funds to their MM accounts. Zeepay’s recent partnership with MoneyGram is an interesting example of how a global giant facing disruption can stay relevant and enable wire access to several mobile money platforms.
Nigeria’s leading mobile money company, Paga, also launched a mobile wallet earlier this year and helped solve unique, local challenges. For banked Nigerians, the Paga wallet enables users to add their local and international credit cards, and make free transfers to their bank accounts. Having raised another $10 million from investors, Paga’s already looking ahead to adding savings and loan services through partnerships with banks.
Yet another challenge Africans often face is how to make credit card payments on international websites. Thus, Wallet.ng has quickly gained traction for their solution which leverages partnerships with international hotels, airlines, and ecommerce sites. The app has also become popular among foreigners who face a similar challenge using their internationals credit cards locally.
Rather than compete with fintech start-ups on-the-ground, Visa and Stripe recently led an $8million Series A round into Nigeria’s Paystack. This announcement came just months after Alipay’s parent company, Ant Financial (China), signed a multi-country partnership with Coral Pay (Nigeria). Further proving the immense potential African fintechs might realize, as well as the daunting barriers to entry foreign competitors face.
But how long will these barriers—and the resulting competitive advantages—last?
Last year, fintechs pulled in roughly a third of all start-up funding in Africa ($195M), and have kept pace thus far in 2018. What makes these start-ups so attractive is in part the unique, local challenges they’re able to solve; however, could this also be their limitation?
Beyond payments and mobile wallets, there are several B2B fintechs working in the background supporting banks and merchants. Flutterwave, which recently raised $10 million, builds the underlying infrastructure merchants need to accept a broader variety of digital payments in one place. On the bank side, Mines raised $13 million to further develop their credit-as-a-service platform which has helped open up entirely new revenue streams for local traditional banks.
The promise of the CFTA however, requires solutions at a much larger scale. While many of the above payment and infrastructure solutions might support most consumer payments and credit needs—think t-shirts and plane tickets—big business still desperately needs solutions that don’t require paying a small fortune in fees and exchange rates.
For this reason, Afreximbank has launched an initiative to build a Pan-African Payments and Settlements Platform which aims to formalize intra-African trade, estimated at over US $40 billion, while significantly reducing dependence on US dollars and other foreign currencies. Starting with six West African countries by the end of this year, Afreximbank hopes to soon support trade transactions across the continent in African currencies.
However, this won’t be the continent’s first multi-national settlement system. That honour belongs to the SADC Integrated Regional Settlement System (SIRESS). Since 2013, the South Africa-based system has settled over one million cross-border transactions worth over ZAR 4 Trillion (~US$280 Billion). At the same time however, despite serving 14 southern African nations, SIRESS has thus far only transacted in South African Rand and only recently announced that it will now accept US dollars.
With so many challenges facing each banking jurisdiction, payment platform, and transfer settlement system, certainly no one expects fintech start-ups to solve all of them. But the number of innovative companies tackling these issues from the bottom up is certainly encouraging. It is equally encouraging to see Afreximbank launch such ambitious platforms to tackle some of these interconnected issues from the top down.
When describing the challenges African financial markets face, it’s important to remember that these challenges are not as ‘unique’ as they seem. During their recent announcements, both Paga and Mines alluded to their plans to expand their services to Mexico, South America, and Southeast Asia. Thus, while some worry what Alipay’s expansion means for African fintechs, perhaps we should expand our own expectations for just how far our homegrown innovations might find greater opportunities to compete.
Mutoni Karasanyi is a marketing and communications expert, and a member of the Africa Fintech Summit Advisory Board. He has managed campaigns for The World Bank Group, Corporate Executive Board, MTN, and others; and is currently based in Washington, DC.
Follow Mutoni on Twitter at @Karasanyi.