banking the unbanked

M-Banking the Unbanked

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Oct 08, 2009
M-Banking the Unbanked data sheet 1784 Views
Alex Comninos, Steve Esselaar, Ali Ndiwalana, Christoph Stork
ISSN/ISBN Number: 
Publication Date: 
Jan 2008
Publication Type: 
Journal article

While the role of the informal sector in promoting economic growth in Africa is increasingly acknowledged, access to capital remains one of the biggest obstacles hindering the development and growth of the sector (Stork & Esselaar, 2006). Africa is struggling with access to formal financial services for its citizens and the informal sector. In addition to the underlying structural limitations of poverty; risk-averse bankers, unsuitable financial products and high bank charges have also been blamed for this state of affairs.

Poor people with irregular income and informal businesses often have no choice but to make use of informal financial services, which are many times more expensive than formal ones. Formal financial services are usually only extended to those with regular income or collateral (Firpo, 2008). Informal businesses also often lack the required accounting skills and systems to generate necessary data to convince a bank to extend loans to them.

Other obstacles include the bureaucratic and educational bottlenecks that prevent many Africans from having identity documents. This fosters corruption around documents such as birth certificates, IDs and passports, increasing the risk for banks in dealing with new customers.

A critical issue to overcome is that of asymmetrical information. Someone without a bank account approaching a bank for a loan is likely to be rejected unless collateral is at hand. The bank has no transaction history for this person or informal business and hence does not know anything about the applicant’s creditworthiness. Transaction patterns can be used to predict whether or not a customer will be able to repay a loan. Absence of a transaction history means that the ability to repay loans is unknown to banks, making it risky for banks to serve such a person unless the loan is fully collateralised.

Few individuals in the informal sector have access to collateral. They either have their own informal small businesses (such as street vendors) or work on an ad hoc basis. Mobile banking (m-banking) can be seen as one solution to these problems. Despite having been around for some time in several African countries, the existing offerings are mostly value-added services – where the mobile phone is a complimentary channel to operating an existing bank account. Such services are not geared towards the inclusion of the poor and unbanked, and while they are growing in popularity, they have yet to shift the access frontier in order to become “transformational” (Porteus, 2007).

To become transformational, m-banking must progress towards bringing more informal businesses and the poor into the formal economy so that they are better able to access micro-loans and other financial services. Transacting on a mobile payment platform can also generate a transaction history that can act as a basis to evaluate creditworthiness. This would address the inadequate access to finance that restricts the entrepreneurial potential of Africa's informal sector and the poor.

This paper seeks to explore how the ubiquitous mobile platform may be leveraged to move beyond simple transactions and provide an alternative banking system that provides access to formal financial services to the unbanked. This can be achieved by using applications that facilitate transactions over mobiles, which go beyond the& usual voice communications, and the money or airtime transfers.