African girl using her mobile phone in Stone Town on the island of Zanzibar, Tanzania / iStock
2020-08-25

Africa mobile agent sustainability crucial for last mile

Greater collaboration is needed to shore up the sustainability of mobile money agents as community lifelines enabling vulnerable groups in Africa to access financial services, said AFI members and partners in a virtual meeting co-hosted by Bank of Tanzania on 19 August.

More than 60 participants from 27 countries took part in the webinar on strengthening last mile delivery channels for digital financial services (DFS) under AFI’s Public-Private Dialogue platform, a global collaboration of public and private sector decisionmakers working together to advance financial inclusion.

Speakers showcased various incentives aimed at encouraging consumers and providers in switching to a cash lite economy by building access to and trust in digital services. Among them was Central Bank of Egypt’s head of payment systems regulations, Mohamed Abd El Rahman, who said that the financial regulator had temporarily removed some electronic banking fees and pursued simplified Know Your Customer as part of a broader push to boost the number of mobile wallet customers.

Other standout interventions came from Bank of Zambia, with Assistant Director of Payment System Development and Operations Mirriam Kamuhuza explaining how permission was granted for mobile money providers to dip into interest funds to ensure protective equipment for agents. This, she said, sent a “clear message” to stakeholders on the importance of mobile delivery channels as well as provided vital reassurances to consumers and agents on safety measures being taken amid the pandemic.

Crucially, she noted that DFS had been classified as an essential service in Zambia – a move enabled by continued engagement with other government agencies – and that measures were put in place to prioritize “agents in critical areas” in the event of a nationwide lockdown.

“COVID has been a wakeup call for all of us,” she said. “It’s become apparent to strengthen protection measures and healthcare related to these people that provide these services, during and after the pandemic”.

Supporting this approach was Vodacom Managing Executive Judith Obholzer, who outlined steps taken by the mobile communications company to build consumer confidence with the transformation of 30,000 agent touch points into hand washing stations.

As with other speakers, she encouraged closer ties with both public and private stakeholders from across the digital ecosystem, as well as greater flexibility to ease liquidity constraints and provide consumers with financial breathing space.

For women, she argued that efforts need to go further to bridge the gender divide in information technology. While experts predict that half of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population will own a mobile phone by 2025, women risk missing out on many of the gains – such as access to digital financial services – owing to limited mobile phone access.

“We need to accelerate access to mobile phones for women and create trust by targeting women with specific products and services,” she said, adding that women-led group savings schemes had demonstrated the value of the market segment across the continent.

Bank of Zambia’s Kamuhuza echoed the need to focus on increasing access, education and equipment for women, as well as on sex disaggregated data. For this, she said that continued engagement was needed to develop more in-depth understanding of the issues as well as tailored solutions.

Complimenting this was Mastercard Senior Vice President Government and Development Salah Goss, who said that mobile money agents’ ability to reach women with limited freedom of movement further underscored their importance. Even so, she noted that they must adapt to changing market demands before adding potential expansion into bill payments and savings.

“We see agents as super hubs of connectivity,” she added, explaining that they can lower customer costs by acting as aggregation points catering to a variety of customer needs.

For Visa, Government Engagement Vice-President for CEMEA Salvador Perez-Galindo said that his company had made it a priority to increase the capacity and digitalization among women entrepreneurs. He also urged regulators to ensure the availability of digital infrastructure and to look at tax legislation, particularly where it was limiting growth among micro merchants.

Other challenges were raised by Thunes Head of Partnerships Gabor Hava, who spotlighted difficulties with electronic signatures and slow approval turnaround times by regulator as limiting growth.

The session was part of a larger four-day annual event for members of AFI’s African Financial Inclusion Policy Initiative (AfPI), the main platform for network members across the Africa region to support and develop financial inclusion policies and regulatory frameworks, and to coordinate regional peer learning efforts.

AFI’s PPD partners include leading global and regional private sector institutions that have a keen interest and proven capacity to advance financial inclusion in developing and emerging countries. Each AFI PPD Partner contributes unique knowledge, resources and expertise to support AFI programs and activities. In turn, they benefit from a variety of offerings that promote frank dialogue and knowledge sharing on financial inclusion with regulators and policymakers in the AFI network.

The four-day annual event for members of AFI’s African Financial Inclusion Policy Initiative (AfPI)was partially financed through AFI’s Multi-Donor Financial Inclusion Policy Implementation Facility, with participation of the French Development Agency (AFD), German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and Ministry of Finance of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.