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Covid-19, the Sub-Saharan Digital Economy & the power of mobile money services

June 10, 2021 June 11th, 2021 No Comments

The adoption of digital technologies in Africa since the dawn of the last decade has surpassed expectation and raised global commentary. For a continent that significantly lags in terms of technological infrastructure, these recent advancements in the digital ecosystem, have been described as a ‘miracle’ by many leading experts. 

To provide more context, Sub-Saharan Africa has had one the fastest rates of internet penetration in the world for years. Available data shows, there were an estimated 456 million unique mobile subscribers in 2018. This represented an increase of 20 million from the previous year, subsequently increasing the subscriber penetration rate to 44%. (Source: GSM Intelligence: The Mobile Economy Sub-Saharan Africa 2019)

This, along with the rapid expansion of mobile internet services has increased access to internet and presented players in the business ecosystem a unique opportunity to innovate to meet the demands of the technologically-savvy 21st century Africa. E-commerce pioneers like Jumia, and the newest entrants Glovo, are rapidly changing the face of online retail trade alongside ride hailing apps like Bolt and Uber are setting the latest trends for transportation and logistics. Other key areas worth noting are financial services such as e-banking and the accessing of key government services online. 

The recently established African headquarters of Twitter and Google’s Artificial Intelligence research center in Accra, Ghana, in addition to Facebook’s choice of Nigeria as its African headquarters further underscores the continent’s strength/position.  

According to projections, the digital economy in Africa is expected to grow to over $300 billion by 2025 (McKinsey 2013). 

Also, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has identified digitalization to be crucial to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and Africa’s Agenda 2063. 

“Digital applications are already driving socio-economic transformation, increasing efficient production and distribution of goods and services, opening-up new opportunities for income generation for millions of poor people, enhancing connectivity between people, societies, government, and organizations”– Dr. Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary, UN Economic Commission for Africa 

The importance of this transformation, is further demonstrated by the resilience many developing sub-Saharan economies such as Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria, have shown in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

On the contrary, whilst other sectors of the economy contracted significantly, the digital ecosystem on the other hand, recorded tremendous growth. It is safe to say it has come to stay.  

According to the World Bank, “the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the awareness of the importance of digital technologies, and many Sub-Saharan African countries are seizing the opportunity to create conditions for new, better, and inclusive jobs. It has recognized the role of digital technology, not only of its potential to create new jobs, but can also help boost the productivity of existing ones.” (Africa’s Pulse, 2021) 

Restrictions on movement to counter the spread of the virus imposed by some West-African governments largely in 2020, served as the perfect catalyst for the hyper growth of the digital ecosystem. Indeed, behind every dark cloud, is a silver lining. Previously, an issue of trust amongst other key factors, had consistently served as a barrier, as many sub-Saharan Africans were coy on adopting these emerging technologies, much to the delight of stakeholders in the traditional retail sector. 

From the purchase of essential groceries to the ordering of delicacies from restaurants, and the payment of utilities and fares for daily commutes, the transformation has been rapid. Even the religious bodies, who previously were opposed to the idea of lockdowns for obvious reasons, had no other option than to adapt. The payment of tithes and offerings during virtual sermons suddenly is the new norm. 

This has left many stakeholders from traditional retail sector at crossroads. The jury is out. Either they quickly incorporate these digital technologies into their business functions or risk going bankrupt. 

For many who are quite familiar with the paradox faced by the telecommunication giants, it’s more of a deja-vu. How so? The emergence of internet based calls on social platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook, had taken a heavy toll on their revenue streams. Either they diversified their offerings or went broke. Safaricom in Kenya made a breakthrough with its innovative M-Pesa product, (a mobile-based money transfer service, payments, and micro-financing service.) It was an overnight game changer. 

It is important to note that, the success of these digital transformations was not in its mere deployment or sophistication, but rather, the uniqueness of the product or service being offered. That was the underlying factor to mobile money’s success. 

For players in sub-Saharan Africa, the lessons were stark. Whereas global fintech giants had consistently struggled to achieve the desired penetration of their services / products in the various sub-Saharan markets, including Ghana, mobile money was showing some good potential. (An example is when a foreign mission in Ghana had to renege on a decision to only accept card payments for the processing of visa applications it received. It turned out to be catastrophic. For the average Ghanaian, sophistication associated with that form of payment was an issue as e-payments were not only readily accessible, but costly and overly complicated to illiterates. It was thereby perceived to be for the educated and elite. 

Indeed, the emergence and rapid growth of the mobile money services by telecommunication companies such as MTN and AirtelTigo, in Ghana and Nigeria were making massive inroads where these global tech giants had persistently failed. Not only did they capture a large slice of the market, but they also increasingly posed a threat to the existence of traditional banks and financial institutions as well. Reluctantly, these banks had to integrate mobile money into their offerings. A decision which has increased profit margins and promoted financial inclusivity amongst the populace. 

Mobile money did not just check the boxes for a successful marketing campaign (Product, Price, Place and Promotion) but also took into consideration a pertinent barrier, the global fintech giants failed to address. (The education level of most people in the Ghanaian informal sector, a key demographic attribute). Mobile money with its unique USSD service did not only remove the bottlenecks associated with availability of internet / ATM machines, but it also ensured it could easily be accessed through its numerous agents, which increased visibility, thereby reducing the need for expensive marketing campaigns. Aside this, it also ensured people in the informal economy, (who account for a sizable portion of the local economy) could achieve financial inclusivity without any issues.  

Numbers do not lie, they say. According to the bank of Ghana, during the year under review a staggering amount of Ghc569 billion worth of mobile money transactions were recorded.  

This is not to say mobile money services are not fraught with challenges. Indeed, the issue of impersonation, alongside security challenges faced by vendors have in recent times, threatened to erode some gains made. Surprisingly however, it has not slowed the sharp growth of the service. It has become an integral part of the business landscape. 

To incoming fintech technologies or companies: it is all about tailoring your product to suit a key demographic attribute. Using the case study of the success of the mobile money services in Ghana, it is clear the 21st century sub-Saharan African, is all about ‘convenience’ ‘affordability’, and ‘accessibility’. 

 

Author:

Sedor Duadze,
Account Manager at Djembe Consultants

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