There are opportunities aplenty in mobile money, says Chris Skinner – to bank the unbanked, make money and eradicate the expense of being poor.

I was asked this question at a recent conference and yes, banks do believe that the mass poor are just that: poor. How do you make a profit out of the poor? Well truth be told the poorest are the most profitable. They’re the ones who need loans and go overdrawn, therefore pay all the fees for the rest of us – the mass affluent – to get our banking for free. Thank you the impoverished.

It is the poorest who take out payday loans, but they prefer to have a payday loan than to deal with a bank, because at least the payday loan firm is upfront about what it’s going to charge them. James Barth of Auburn University observes that payday lenders congregate in neighbourhoods with higher rates of poverty, lower education and minority populations, but at least they can get a loan rather than an unauthorised overdraft that here in the UK charges more than a payday lender.

Cost of borrowing £100 for 28 days. Source: Which?; BBC

Source: Which?; BBC.

At least they’re only paying £90 to borrow £100, which is less than some Kenyans were being charged before M-Pesa. Sending money before mobile payments arrived used to be a tricky affair involving getting a bus or taxi driver to take your £100 from Nairobi to the villages. Quite often it wouldn’t arrive. Even if it did arrive, it would often cost 25% or more.

Similarly, the high fees of Western Union and other remittance providers were fairly punishing … until fintech came along. Now those costs are dropping rapidly. For example, here are the comparisons of a few players when sending $1,000 from the US to the Philippines.

Ria Money Transfer is the cheapest at $6, taking 3-5 days, or $10 if you want it to move in minutes. A bunch of other players are in the $10 or less mark – OFX, TransferWise and Abra – but this rises a little when you look at the more traditional players. Wells Fargo is $21 for a 3-5 day transfer, while Western Union is $28 for a 5-7 day transfer. Interestingly, the most expensive choice would be a fintech company! Skrill would charge you $64 for a $1,000 transfer and take 3-5 days to do it, so don’t always assume a startup new player is the best. Meanwhile, as can be seen, there are many players trying to unbundle the old model of Western Union and co.

Western Union US money transfer app unbundled. Source:

Finally, the most exciting area of change isn’t payday loans or remittance exploiting the poor, but the inclusion of billions of people thanks to mobile, who were never included before. These vary from the millions in China who are now using Ant Financial to those in India using Paytm to the Venmo’d of America. The numbers are stunning: 450 million people using Alipay, 200 million using Paytm, and Venmo’s user numbers aren’t quoted* – and it is the fact that mobile has moved from dealing with money in buildings, to dealing with money in apps.

* Venmo ... click to open
Although PayPal has 200 million active users worldwide, Venmo is only available in the US and user numbers aren’t quoted. The Q4 2016 v Q4 2015 difference speaks volumes though … Venmo payment volume

Outside the apps is just as exciting (if not more so) because Africa and other nations stuck in poverty for decades are reinventing the whole concept of money with mobile. This is summarised neatly by Financial Inclusion Insights research, which notes that:

  • more than 90% of the world’s poor are covered by a mobile signal
  • 60% of Africans live in rural areas and mobile money is the only way to reach them cheaply, affordably and at scale, which is why people in Cote d’Ivoire, Somalia, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe are using mobile money more than a traditional bank account
  • in Tanzania, ownership of mobile money accounts surged from 1% of the population in 2009 to 32% in 2014
  • digital accounts cut the costs of transactions by as much as 90%
  • digital accounts give people the ability to save and budget for the first time in their lives, allowing them to withstand financial shocks and direct money toward specific uses, such as education and healthcare.
  • four out of 10 adult Nigerians have no access to any form of financial services, making life not only more difficult, but also more expensive for these people.

Now we get back to that question: When will banks stop seeing financial inclusion as a charitable venture? It’s not charity, otherwise M-Pesa would be making no money. It’s making money. In fact, it’s the second largest revenue generator for the Safaricom Group, which is why it protects its monopoly in Kenya.

M-Pesa revenue

Telco Orange to open bank next monthIn other words, financial inclusion is a charitable venture if you are a bank with physical distribution, but it’s a good business if you’re a telco with digital distribution. And telcos will upscale as they learn the model, as evidenced by Orange, who, after learning that this was good business in Cote D’Ivoire and Mali, opening mobile money services in Poland, Romania and other European countries, and finally realised that, with its 650 stores (branches?) in France, it might as well open a bank.

Bank the unbanked

So what’s the bottom line here? The bottom line is that mobile financial inclusion is a massive market opportunity to bank the unbanked, make money out of it and eradicate the expense of being poor.

Two billion individuals and 200 million micro, small and midsize businesses in emerging economies lack access to savings and credit, and as a result economic growth suffers. A research report from McKinsey in September 2016 finds that widespread adoption and use of digital finance could increase the GDPs of all emerging economies by 6%, or a total of $3.7tn, by 2025. This is the equivalent of adding to the world an economy the size of Germany, or one that’s larger than all the economies of Africa. This additional GDP could create up to 95 million new jobs across all sectors of the economy. In other words, it’s worth it.

READ NEXT: Tomo Yamadera on the unbanked of Asia

– This article is reproduced with kind permission. Some minor changes have been made to reflect BankNXT style considerations. Read more here. Photo: Joao Silas, Unsplash

About the author

Chris Skinner

Chris Skinner is an independent commentator on the financial markets through the Finanser, and chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club, which he founded in 2004. He is an author of numerous books covering everything from European regulations in banking through to the credit crisis, to the future of banking.

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