Fast, cheap and safe. Mobile banking – the possibility of transferring sums of money from one cell phone to another via text messages – is a big success in Africa. In 2007, Safaricom, the biggest telephone operator in Kenya, launched M-Pesa ("pesa" means money in Swahili). 9.5 million people have used the service, exchanging 8.5 million dollars a month. Not bad for country where only one out of four people has a cell phone.
The secret lies in the speed of the transaction. A man working in Nairobi as a builder can send part of his wages to his village of origin via a message, thus avoiding long journeys, inefficient postal systems and the bureaucracy of banks. The service is free, with no transaction fees. Even though there is no interest given on deposits, more and more people are choosing M-Pesa as an alternative form of banking. The same is true for South Africa, where Wizzit, a kind of mobile banking that allows users to open current accounts and request loans, has been launched recently. Microcredit has thus found an excellent ally. Thousands of people have opened small businesses with money received via mobile phone. In the town of Motherwell, in South Africa, the most widespread kind of business is the "spaza shop", stalls made of sheet metal and plastic that sell a bit of everything – snacks, soft drinks, newspapers and the ever-present phone top-ups.
Mobile banking has become a part of African life. Mothers pay their children's school fees via text message, and the same goes for shopping bills and the purchase of seeds. Businessmen too use it for paying taxi fares without having to carry cash. The driver can 'redeem' the message in one of the many stalls that sell phone cards.
Mobile banking is by no means a marginal phenomenon. Africa is the continent with the fastest rate of growth in telephone use. Four out of ten people possess a mobile phone. According to a World Resources Institute study, telephone expenses are increasing at a faster rate than those for energy, water and food.
"For Westerners the cell phone is something incremental, to be added to the fixed line" says Isaac Nsereko, of Mtn, Africa's biggest operator. "Here, though, it's revolutionary". Mtn connects 80 million people in 21 African nations. In 2009 it launched a mobile money service in Uganda in a joint venture with Standard Bank. The service is identical to M-Pesa and could soon spread to the rest of Africa. So far, the banks have just been looking on. Most people in sub-Saharan Africa do not have a bank account because they have no money to deposit. These are the very people M-pesa, Wizzit and the other services are targeting. The rate of growth is amazingly fast. According to a forecast by Berg Insight, by 2015 mobile banking systems will have 800 million users worldwide and only 115 million in Europe. But of the many possibilities, the service most used by Africans is a free preset text messages that says "Please, call me back".