Africa’s quest for cashless economy gains momentum

WHEN she needed to transfer money to a friend in a faraway village last March, Mouna Ahmed, a gender equality activist in Liberia, did not have to worry about long bank queues and complex paperwork. Instead, she took her phone, tapped on the mobile money app, punched in an amount and pressed the send button. Minutes later, her friend acknowledged the kind gesture.

“Transferring the money took less than a minute,” Ahmed told Africa Renewal.

A leading Liberian telecoms company, Lonestar Cell MTN, launched mobile money in the country in 2013. Since then, Ahmed says, “I pay my electricity, water and cable television bills through my cell phone.” Last year, the company announced it will offer transfers in both US and Liberian dollars, a relief for customers who must currently use the US dollar for payments.

Liberians haven’t had much experience with cashless payment methods, particularly mobile money (popularly known as mobile wallet); even credit and debit cards are little used. Although, businesses and individuals still issue age-old cheques, mobile wallet use is steadily increasing.

Unlike in Liberia, where mobile money is the primary means of making cashless payments, Rwanda is using several different methods. The country’s ambitious Smart Rwanda Master Plan (SRMP) seeks to digitise all government financial transactions by 2018, which will allow citizens to make online payments as well as use debit and credit cards for services in health care, finance and education, among other areas.

This strategy is an offshoot of Rwanda’s Vision 2020, a government blueprint designed in 2000 for achieving a knowledge-based economy (in which growth depends more on information than on production) and leading the country to the middle-income bracket by 2020.

Already, most bus operators in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, accept prepaid cards. Thousands of commuters riding swanky city buses need only swipe a debit card on a card reader fitted on a bus dashboard before taking their seats. Gone are the days when conductors collected cash payments.

The Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA), the London-based industry group that represents mobile operators worldwide, has lauded Kenya’s M-Pesa’s pioneering effort for demonstrating “the potential of mobile technology to transform access to financial services in emerging markets.”

Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa are also bellwethers of cashless payment use in Africa, according to GSMA.

The Nigerian government and MasterCard are on to a national ID programme with biometric functionality that citizens can use to pay for goods and services and to receive salaries. That project, targeting 100 million citizens, will be the largest of its kind on the continent.

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