Mobile Phone Remittances Increasing in Africa with Questions Unresolved

mobile-money1New Orleans   The constant risk in reading the business press, and, yes, I’m talking about Rupert Murdock’s Wall Street Journal, is picking a path between the facts, the news, and blatant sales and promotion. That’s especially dangerous because at ACORN we eat up almost any article that pretends to talk about lowering the costs of money transfer remittances for migrant workers and immigrants as if it were an ice cream sundae. Needless to say, I scooped up an article with the headline, “Turning African Phones Into Wallets,” particularly because days ago in a Canada to France to the USA skype conference we had been all over this topic!

First the news. The World Bank, years away from the G-8 commitment to lower all costs of remittances to 5%, is now saying that they believe the cost globally is 8% and in Africa 12%. The facts continue to be that they are hedging their bets on the figures by not including all of the charges, but I’ll get to that. They do offer that remittances to sub-Saharan Africa rose by 2.2% to $32.9 billion in 2014 compared to 2013, doubling the average growth rate globally and projected to hit even higher between 2015 and 2017.

Interestingly, a lot of the transfers are now cross-border transactions between migrant workers in other African countries led by Nigeria, Senegal, and Kenya. Seeing that development elsewhere ACORN has been trying to change our strategy in Honduras and Ecuador. In Africa many of the transfers are being enabled by mobile phones, led by MFS Africa a 6 year old South Africa based company. Importantly, a smartphone is not required. 500 million users of cooperating communications companies allow access through a mobile payment account on the cell enabling transfers to the mobile phones of other enrolled customers who can essentially text something like a money order to the receiver’s phone and confirm completion with a PIN number. Pretty straightforward. MFS Africa makes its money, according to the Journal on a 30 cents per transaction charge with the average transfer being $80, which also resonates with ACORN International’s research.

There’s still a devil in Paradise though, which is where the story takes a bad turn into sales and promotion for the businesses and against the workers who are moving money home. There’s no discussion of the charges applied for currency exchange and pickup. The Journal obliquely mentions that MFS Africa gets a taste of the exchange from some communications companies, but it’s silent on how much rip-and-run is there. Same problem with the World Bank figuring.

In a conversation with an interesting startup called Wave.com that thus far was only transferring money from Kenya and trying to open soon in Ethiopia to channels in the USA and Canada, their representative told me they take no front end charge but make all of their money on the exchange rate, though assuring me they took less than the 5% cap ACORN has been fighting for globally. There are huge, deep-pocketed companies trying to get a slice of migrants’ hard earned wages going home, including MasterCard and other joint ventures, so having no money for marketing makes such small efforts like Wave imperiled, but it also signals that without strong rules and regulations the exchange and after-transfer charges will likely continue to be predatory.

For a change it would be nice if the G-8, the World Bank, and countries around the world, desperate to maximize the money for development and personal investment in communities represented by remittance receivers, actually got ahead of the dark-side of this market, rather than just sitting in the stands and waiting for businesses to flash an applause sign. ACORN Canada is hopeful that it can convert a platform commitment from the Liberals to remittance reforms and caps into reality, given their recent election success, which would break new ground.

In the meantime the best we can hope is that we’re at two steps forward and only one step back, but it’s hard to be certain.

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