macroafricaintel | Mobile phones, internet and jobs in Africa (2)

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

Digital IDs would be key
It is not a certainty that Africans, when availed of low cost internet, would use it for productive economic activities, to earn income, say. According to a recent study, most Africans use the internet for social online activities. However, this is not unique to African countries. Most of the world’s poor use the internet for leisure. That is not as bad as it seems. With about half a billion Africans without official identification, online social activity could become a credible source of information for personal identification, address, and credit scoring. This is not a pie-in-the-sky idea: visa applicants to the United States are now required to submit their social media account details. Banks could easily do the same for know-your-customer (KYC) documentation for opening of bank accounts and lending.

In any case, African countries are beginning to establish digital identification systems. With digital IDs, Africans would be better positioned to participate in the estimated $300 billion continental digital economy by 2025. As is already the case in India, there is evidence of economic benefits in the aftermath of digital ID schemes. In Ghana, physical addresses have been digitalized. Kenyans began registering for digital identification numbers in April 2019. In Nigeria, all mobile phone subscribers undergo biometric registration and all bank account holders have a so-called “bank verification number”. So, there is a positive trend towards some form of national digital identification system in a host of African countries. Progress is slow, however. There are ongoing multilateral efforts to help African countries pick up the pace in a sustainable way.

Africa is leading global mobile money adoption
79 percent of the growth in global e-commerce transactions in 2018 was via mobile money. As shown in Table 4, 66 percent of the $40.8 billion mobile money transactions in 2018 were in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa’s lead in mobile money makes it well-placed for an e-commerce boom. There is a rising trend towards cashless transactions on the continent. Banking via mobile phones or mobile banking, is now ubiquitous and normalised. And with the unbanked able to use digital payment systems like mobile money, they are also increasingly financially included. In other words, both formal and supposedly informal economic agents in African countries are increasingly able to participate in the digital economy.

Table 4: 2018 mobile money statistics
  Registered accounts (mln) Active

90-day accounts (mln)

Transaction volume (bln) Value (US$bln)
Global 866.2 298.7 2.4 40.8
Sub-Saharan Africa 395.7 145.8 1.7 26.8
South Asia 287.6 89.3 0.6 8.8
East Asia & Pacific 94.6 29.8 0.1 3.7
Latin America & The Caribbean 27.0 13.1 0.1 1.0
Middle East & North Africa 48.9 18.6 0.0 0.5

Source: GSMA18

If the trend continues, as it seems likely, much of the informal economy would become formalised in due course. The ubiquity and increasing affordability of mobile phones make the potential of mobile money to formalise the over 300 million adult Africans currently financially excluded (without any account) great indeed.

Of the more than 866 million registered mobile money accounts in 90 countries around the world, 46 percent are owned by Africans. 54 percent of the adult population in Ghana, Cote D’ivoire, Benin and Senegal use their mobile money accounts regularly. The same cannot be said of the three most populous African countries, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Egypt, where only 30-40 percent of their combined 242 million adult population have mobile money accounts. That may be about to change. It is expected that more than 110 million mobile money accounts could be created in the three continental behemoths over the next five years. There is good reason for this expectation. In October 2018, for instance, Nigeria’s central bank issued guidelines for the licensing and regulation of non-bank firms (including telecommunication firms) as “payment service banks.”

Still, there are constraints. Taxation, KYC requirements, cross-border remittances and data regulation are some of them. Almost all African mobile money service providers pay three layers of taxes: value-added tax, general tax, and mobile sector-specific tax. Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Gabon tax mobile money transactions specifically, for instance. Digital IDs allow for electronic KYC (e-KYC). But not all African countries have digital ID systems. Although it is still expensive to remit funds across borders, the cost is reducing. For instance, while a mobile money customer is currently charged 1.7 percent on average to send $200 across borders, it is still 40 percent less than the rate in 2016. More internationally compatible operating models would almost certainly push the cost down even further. New data regulation frameworks, while welcome, add to costs. Still, objective collaboration between regulators and other stakeholders could allow for just the right balance between strong regulation and unbridled innovation.

Article was first published by the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies at Nanyang Business School, Singapore. References are in the original article.

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