How Nokia and Prepaid Airtime Fractionalization Gave Rise to Africa’s Digital Economy: Guest Post by Niti Bhan

What can we learn about the digital society emerging in Africa without the trappings of legacy infrastructure and institutions?

3 seemingly unrelated events in different parts of the world in the early to mid 90s converged, to culminate in the perfect storm  – what we now call Africa’s Rising digital economy.

One was in the mid 1990s, in a small city in northern Finland, where engineers and designers began work on the product development of a mobile phone that would eventually become one of the best selling Nokia models ever – the 3310, released in Europe and the Far East in the year 2000. The continent of Africa was not yet on their radar as a target market and Nokia’s impact on sub Saharan Africa, as well as its iconic success for its legendary durability was still some years in the future.

The second event was around the same time, in 1994 – 1995. Portugal Telecom’s mobile telephony division TMN, invented the prepaid business model whilst researching ways to lower barriers to credit services, and thus reach a wider audience. They too, were not thinking about the farmers, traders, or biashara vendors on the African continent, for whom the prepaid plan would turn out to be a godsend, matching their needs for flexibility and control over the timing and amounts spent on cellular services. This, too, was still a handful of years in the future.

The third is the liberalization of African state owned monopolies such as in telecommunications in the mid 1990s which opened the doors to private sector operators in cellular telephony, and thus, to competition.

These 3 events would prove to be a fertile time for the perfect storm and the firm foundation on which today’s African digital economy thrives.

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Why Africa’s Policy Makers Should be Worried About Virtual Platforms and Virtual Currencies

In a lot of ways, Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company. What does this mean for Africa’s Governments, fintech industry and policy makers?

“In a lot of ways, Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company” – Mark Zuckerburg

The rise of virtual internet platforms such as Facebook, Whatsapp, Telegram, Kakao is challenging established regimes of state and sovereignty, monetary policy and issuance of currency, control, ownership and governance of virtual resources in developing countries in Africa.

Billions of users, including Africans are spending more time on virtual networked platforms that command the attention of far greater audiences than the populations of individual nation states. WhatsApp has 1 billion, Telegram 200 million users and Facebook has 2.3 billion users worldwide.

Now, these virtual platforms are all getting into the business of  issuing currencies using ‘blockchains’ or shared ledgers to monetize all the possibilities of economic activity within the confines of their platforms. 

Out of all of them, Facebook’s Libra coin drew the most attention. No surprise at all considering the sheer size of its 2.3 billion people user base.

What does this mean for Africa’s fintech industry and policies, that tech giants from overseas can monetize the digital economy of Africa through non-sovereign means including issuance of digital currencies?

What follows is a transcript of conversations between Michael Kimani  and Andile Masuku, about the current shift to internet virtual platforms, and currencies, and what lies ahead for Africa’s Fintech policy.

Michael Kimani is Head of Business Development East Africa at Zippie, a mobile blockchain platform, a Fintech Innovation Advisor for Visa and Secretary General of the Blockchain Association of Kenya. He is one of East Africa’s renowned digital money analysts.

Andile Masaku is a Co-founder and Executive Producer at Africa Tech RoundUp.

Some parts of this Q&A were pulled from a podcast with Andile, while some of it are from phone discussions with Malak Gharib of NPR and Ronit Ghose of Citi Bank.

The structure is presented in the format of a Question and Answer. Enjoy!

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5 Reasons Why Facebook’s New Cryptocurrency ‘Libra’ is Bad News for Africa

For many emerging ‘mobile first’ consumers from East Africa the internet is indistinguishable from Facebook and the internet does not exist outside of this singular social network.

Facebook is plotting a new cryptocurrency dubbed ‘Libra’ for its vast social network scheduled for release in 2020. Libra coin, a virtual currency, will be governed by Libra association, a conglomerate of 28 American and European corporations who will decide everything from who can join the network, process transactions and how much currency will circulate.

As an African, it is my opinion that the peoples of Africa, its governments and central banks should be concerned, because we risk ceding more control, from the little we have now, to a digital colonial version of the internet.

That is because, for many emerging ‘mobile first’ consumers from East Africa the internet is indistinguishable from Facebook and the internet does not exist outside of this singular social network.

In a future post, I will write on how Africa can redress this imbalance. 

But today, I have 5 Reasons Why Facebook’s New Cryptocurrency ‘Libra’ is Bad News for Africa.

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How PayPal & the UK Government are nudging Kenyan Online Workers to Bitcoin

Kenyan online workers, PayPal and the UK Government are entangled in a mess that is paving way for Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies

A spat between the UK government, PayPal and Kenya freelancers has got everyone mixing up issues.

“Thousands of jobless graduates from Kenya who help lazy university students in developed countries to cheat academically could soon be forced to find something else to do after the UK government started clamping down on essay mills.

On Thursday, international digital money transfer service, PayPal, announced it was withdrawing its services to essay-writing firms selling to university students. This was after weeks of pressure from the UK government, which insists stopping payments for essay mills would go a long way in beating academic cheating.’ Daily Nation

There are 3 parts to this story.

First, the British Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, says when UK students tap cheap labor in Kenya for their assignments, it is unethical and cheating. 46 university vice chancellors last year wrote to Hinds, calling for the banning of cheating websites.

Secondly, PayPal is caught up in the wrangles for facilitating online payments between UK students and Kenyan freelancers. PayPal has come under pressure to stop processing these payments and declared it will not support unethical academic behaviour by UK graduates. Some people have suggested, cryptocurrency may serve well as an alternative for Kenyan freelancers.

Finally, in Kenya, we are all caught up debating whether it is cheating or job creation, as thousands of graduates are dependent on the thriving business for wages and employment.

This case is a glimpse of tectonic shifts at play on the future of Africa, its youth population and the web economy. It is easy to miss the forest for the trees.

To get at the heart of the matter, we need to go back to 2009 when it all began.

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Why Facebook’s New Cryptocurrency Is a threat to Mpesa and Safaricom

Using blockchain and cryptocurrencies, popular internet platforms, are about to disrupt Mpesa in East Africa, the same way Mpesa disrupted banks.

According to sources, Facebook Is Developing a Cryptocurrency for WhatsApp Transfers known a Facebookcoin. If true, this spells doom for Mpesa and Safaricom as they will soon end up as a commodified dumb pipe, like a utility company resigned to a passive role in the medium to long term future.

Popular internet platforms in East Africa have grown beyond social, and now support value exchange within their closed environments – for example Facebook  and whatsapp, both social platforms where people engage in online trade and biashara.

By adding a US dollar pegged coin known as a stablecoin within its virtual network, more value can be captured and retained within the network until it is absolutely necessary to cash out into local currency.

Facebookcoin, platform based currencies and network cryptocurrencies pose a threat to Mpesa just because of the sheer size of the networks they command and everything that goes on within them. This is great news for Fintech startups and banks in East Africa who can reinvent themselves in a post Mpesa world.

Here is how I see it.

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How Africa’s Airtime Currency Traders Birthed A Fintech Innovation Playbook

This is a story of how informal airtime currency resellers of Africa birthed mPesa, mobile money, and an innovation playbook for Africa’s emerging economy.

Not everyone can see it.

If you are keen though, you’ll realize Africa’s informal economy is an open playbook on how to innovate, build and scale successful products and services for the emerging African consumers. Ask me how I know, and I’ll point you to the little known story of prepaid airtime currency re-sellers in Africa who, by cobbling up a rudimentary hack, were able to model a country-wide money transfer network, that would later be adopted by Africa’s telecommunication companies (Telco), spun off into a massive revenue generating business to eventually dethrone the monopoly of banks in East Africa.

But the real story is neither about airtime, nor Telcos. What it is really about are the lessons we can draw upon Africa’s informal economy on how to approach innovation in Africa.

This is a story of how the prepaid airtime re-sellers of Africa not only birthed mPesa, and mobile money, but an innovation playbook for Africa’s emerging economy.

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Why African Fintech Wants To Digitize Chamas, But Can’t Seem To Get It Right

Why is the digitization of Chama groups so valuable for Fintechs and Telcos and Banks? And more interestingly, why is it such a tough nut to crack?

 

A group of high profile organizations including Facebook, Mastercard, FSD Kenya, Safaricom, Fintech startups,  and even the World Bank have convened in Nairobi for a one day workshop to try figure out how to digitize the chama groups of East Africa. While it has been over a decade of digital financial inclusion estimated at 80%, none of them have figured out how to successfully digitize chama groups.

Just so we’re on the same page, I use chamas as a catchall for any group of people who come together with a shared goal, agree on a self governing mechanism and pool together resources such as time, labour or capital to achieve their shared aspirations. This simple form of self organization, self governance and chama identity makes it a highly flexible people-structure and why it exists in different forms across the world and Africa as Paare in Chad, Asusu in Nigeria or Chilemba in Zambia.

So why is the digitization of Chama groups so valuable for Fintechs and Telcos and Banks? And more interestingly, why is it such a tough nut to crack?

I found the answers to these questions from Toffene Karma, the one person who successfully digitized the social savings group of Chad West Africa known as Paare using a mobile product known as TigoPaare.

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