Africa’s Tech Edge

Dayo Olopade | The Atlantic | April 16, 2014

How the continent's many obstacles, from widespread poverty to failed states, allowed African entrepreneurs to beat the West at reinventing money for the mobile age

...For me, M-Pesa was convenient, often simpler than reaching for my credit card or counting out paper bills. But for most Kenyans, the service has been life-changing. Kenya has one ATM for every 18,000 people—the U.S., by contrast, has one for every 740—and across sub-Saharan Africa, more than 75 percent of the adult population had no bank account as of 2011.

When Safaricom, the major Kenyan telecommunications firm, launched M-Pesa in 2007, pesa—Swahili for “money”—moved from mattresses to mobile accounts virtually overnight. Suddenly, payment and collection of debts did not require face-to-face interactions. Daylong queues to pay electric- or water-utility bills disappeared. By 2012, 86 percent of Kenyan cellphone subscribers used mobile money, and by 2013, M-Pesa’s transactions amounted to some $35 million daily. Annualized, that’s more than a quarter of Kenya’s GDP.

M-Pesa isn’t the first mobile-money service. The Philippines has had at least rudimentary mobile money-transfer systems since 2001, but nine years later, fewer than 10 percent of Filipino mobile users without bank accounts actively used them, while the long tail of mobile-payment systems has already transformed Africa. Parrot programs like Paga, EcoCash, Splash Mobile Money, Tigo Cash, Airtel Money, Orange Money, and MTN Mobile Money have sprung up in several African countries. Even government has elbowed its way in: the Rwanda Revenue Authority has introduced a service that allows citizens to declare and pay taxes right from their cellphones...