One billion mobile money accounts.
This is the headline figure that emerged from this year’s State of the Industry Report on Mobile Money by GSMA. The growth in mobile money accounts is indeed remarkable. But beyond this number, the report tells the story of an evolving industry, marked by significant advances in volume of activity, types of transactions, people using the services, and emerging business models.
Based on the current trajectory, mobile money accounts are on pace to generate $1 trillion in annual transactions by 2023. Will COVID-19 derail this progress? Or will the pandemic demonstrate the power of mobile money, and further fortify the critical role mobile money plays in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs)?
The Digital Ecosystem Comes to Life
Ever since mobile money emerged in the mid-2000s, businesses, researchers, and those working to advance inclusive finance have talked about how to get more money to stay in the system (see examples here and here). If funds stay in the mobile money ecosystem, the complexity and inherit cost of cashing in and out in remote areas is diminished and users can benefit from other products and services beyond money transfer. In the early days, most people put money in for the sole purpose of someone else taking it out. That story seems to finally be changing (at least in some markets) as we now see a higher value circulating than exiting the global mobile money ecosystem ($22 billion vs $18 billion). Further, we also now see more digital transactions than cash-based transactions, indicating that people are leaving money in their digital wallets and using those funds to make digital transactions.
The report points to a few reasons for this shift. First, digital payments are quickly becoming a routine part of people’s lives. Taxis, schools, shopkeepers, and even governments increasingly accept mobile money payments, so the need to take cash out of the system to conduct daily transactions is lessening. Second, the industry is finding ways to make it easier for people to make those routine transactions, such as QR codes and overdraft coverage. For example, the report cites that merchants using QR codes transact three times more in value than those without. And third, mobile money providers are offering value-added tools to help micro and small enterprises not only better manage digital payments but also other business functions, such as inventory management and accounting.
The evolution toward a digital ecosystem is uneven worldwide.
That said, this evolution toward a digital ecosystem is not necessarily seen evenly throughout the world. Latin America and the Caribbean saw a decline in active accounts and transaction volume in 2019. And while South Asia has a high overall number of registered accounts, the percent of active accounts in the region is the lowest in the world. In India and Bangladesh, a survey of adults with a SIM card but no mobile money account found that their primary reasons for not using mobile money include a preference for cash and a high number of alternate ways to transfer money.
Sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, has the highest percentage of active accounts at 50 percent (see graph below). In Mozambique, the same survey found that literacy and skills were the biggest obstacle to mobile money usage rather than a preference for cash. It’s clear that the evolution of mobile money is context specific and the trajectory will not look the same everywhere. But in many parts of the world, more is needed to develop the ecosystem in a way that provides value to the user, either by providing a service that beats the alternative options (e.g. faster, more convenient, less expensive) or offers new services not available via other channels (e.g. digital credit, value-added services for MSMEs, insurance, etc.).