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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How Nairobi’s Matatus Defied the Will of Kenya’s Cashless Policy Makers

Nairobi’s failed cashless experiment, an attempt to digitize all commuter payments in Kenya is a poster child on the pattern of thinking that’s left a trail of struggling Fintech experiments in the name of Silicon Savannah.

 

We often fall into the trap of making broad sweeping assumptions about people and places based on our preconceived notions of an what we consider is an ideal world. In the context of East Africa and its bulging informal economy, countless technology entrepreneurs, policy makers, donor agencies and wazungu NGOs have fallen victim to throwing resources at reality hoping to turn it into their Utopian dream. Pick a sector, any sector – be it agriculture, transport, banking, ecommerce. Everything but the kitchen sink has been tried at perceived problems. I say perceived because the definition of the problem depends on who you ask.

Kenya’s short innovation history is littered with such experiments, typically ambitious, well funded but not lasting long before packing up.

Nairobi’s failed cashless experiment, an attempt to digitize all commuter payments in Kenya is a poster child on the pattern of thinking that’s left a trail of struggling Fintech experiments in the name of Silicon Savannah.

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How The Chinese, Africa’s Most Popular Browser , And A Bitcoin Mining Company Are About To Change African Payments

Africa’s most popular mobile browser, Opera is about to radically change the payments landscape in Africa.

China Loves Africa 2 by Michael Soi
Michael Soi’s China Loves Africa Collection

I think before this blog and thread, the global cryptocurrency community will not appreciate the strategic relevance of Bitmain’s $50 million investment round into one of Africa’s most popular Chinese owned mobile browser, Opera. What they will not see is the Fintech connection at play in East Africa, where the wildly successful mobile browser is creeping into digital financial services like mobile payments. For the payment professionals of East Africa, the pertinence of this investment on the future of their industry will not dawn on them perhaps until it is too late.

Last week’s SEC’s disclosure on Opera’s newest investor for their $115 million IPO, was the best strategic news on cryptocurrency ‘adoption’ in Africa I have seen in the last 5 years with far reaching implications on e-commerce, trade and payments for the region than appears at first glance.

My choice of a header image above accurately captures increasing Chinese influence on Kenya and Africa, at both state and commercial level.

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Is Financial Inclusion in Africa Overrated?

People in Africa do not sleep and dream of having bank accounts. What they want is income to put in a bank account. Simply having a bank account gets you nowhere. Simply being cashless gets you nowhere.

Prepaid economy
Logo designed for The Prepaid Economy by Jennifer Mwaogwugwu 3/16/13

 This week I was honored be part of #WhatsNextFinclusion, a series put together by Metta on the state of the Fintech industry in Kenya and more importantly, the future. I was there on behalf of ChamaPesa – a ledger keeping app for social savings groups in Africa. Check out #ChamaPesa on twitter.

This year’s edition was sponsored by Mastercard and the moderator threw some pertinent questions at the panel. I, of course, have my own opinions from my own experience over the past 4 years – what i have observed as an analyst, user researcher, blogger and now co-founder of a startup in the space.

But, I thought it better to pose the same questions to some of the more experienced, brilliant minds from the continent that I have had the privilege to interact with, learn from and exchange ideas.  

What follows is a response from Mwalimu Nyerere – my friend and mentor – on the state of the financial inclusion industry in Kenya and Africa in the raw.  Nothing has been alter-rated so as to preserve the original thought and tone, only polished to give it flow.

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How Kenya’s Digital Financial Inclusion Industry Is Failing Women Entrepreneurs

Mshwari & Mpesa is only half the story. The rest of it is happening offline, in cash and trust networks

Don’t get me wrong, the efforts by the Kenyan financial inclusion industry have not gone unnoticed. Without naming specifics, the industry’s greatest feat by far is building a wide accessible network for formal financial services.

But access is only one item on a long list. It doesn’t matter how many bank accounts you give to the poor. Heck, even throw in a bitcoin cryptocurrency bank account – 2 mobile banks, 5 traditional bank accounts and 2 cryptocurrency bank accounts. Access means nothing when you can’t put money in people’s pockets. I speak for all when I say Kenyan people want to be empowered, they want more pesa in their pockets period. And that’s ok!

So when I criticize the industry, I mean well.

If you’ve been up and about in Kenya, you will appreciate how pesa will almost always positively correlate to some sort of biashara opportunity and even more likely one in the informal sector

My assertion is there is an overall failure by Kenya’s financial inclusion industry to look beyond the digital personas of the people of East Africa’s informal economy. Whereas, much of their lives unravel offline in cash, trust and biashara networks.

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Why Bitcoin ATMs in Kenya are Dead on Arrival

Bitcoin ATMs in Nairobi are only a great idea on paper. Electronic ATMs have lost to human agents in Kenya

I get it. Bitcoin ATMs are cool. You can walk up to a machine, insert cash and instantly get cryptocurrency. But Bitcoin ATMs in Nairobi are only a great idea on paper.  

For cryptocurrencies to take off – for whatever use cases – people need a way to exchange their regular pesa in and out of the system. There is no way around this. It is the only way to bridge access and grow adoption. Calls for Bitcoin and cryptocurrency ATMs in Kenya and Africa typically stem from this access gap.

Unfortunately, this idea in Kenya and East Africa is dead on arrival.

The evolution of banking in nations, like Hong Kong, the US or the UK, took a vastly different form compared to East Africa’s much talked about mobile banking phenomenon. Any successful models for cryptocurrency adoption in East Africa have to be informed by local contexts. For starters, taking notes from existing digital money systems.

Agent networks – henceforth human ATMs – are the key to unlocking access.

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Why Kenya’s Cryptocurrency Agents of 2017 remind me of airtime p2p networks of 2006

Could Kenya’s cryptocurrency peer to peer networks become agents or exchange points in a future where digital currencies and crypto assets are commonplace ?

The lack of an official or formal bitcoin payment gateway has done little to dampen the adoption rate of cryptocurrencies in Kenya. Quite the opposite in fact. People have adapted to this service gap by forming peer-to-peer networks where anyone can buy or sell cryptocurrency. These informal networks, resemble the airtime currency informal networks of pre-2006, that powered remittance payment networks before Mpesa became a thing.

Let me explain.

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