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Mobile networks holding back financial inclusion

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Out of 7.5 billion mobile users, two billion adults worldwide are unbanked. Although banking institutions offer solutions to bridge the gap, little impact is being achieved on the number of unbanked, says BRIAN RICHARDSON, founder of WIZZIT.

Financial inclusion is a key enabler of sustainable economic and social development. Initiatives by the United Nations and the World Bank Group continue to drive financial inclusion and it has become a priority for regulators and policymakers worldwide.

Out of 7.5 billion people and a mobile phone in almost every pocket, two billion adults worldwide are unbanked. Financial service providers (FSPs), FinTech’s and mobile network operators (MNOs) offer superior solutions to bridge the gap. However, despite the size, reach and power of banks and MNOs, little impact is being achieved on the number of unbanked.

Regulation is often blamed as a major barrier. What doesn’t help either are statements from European Central Bank executive board member Yves Mersch, who has given a spirited defence of cash, praising its ability to facilitate privacy, equality and security, insisting there is “no viable alternative”.

Digitalisation is the key to financial inclusion. Basic transactional accounts should be a birth right, together with a concerted effort by governments to remove cash and to support every effort towards financial inclusion. Illegal and illicit activities such as money laundering and funding of terrorist activities are facilitated predominantly through cash. The sooner we accept this fact, the better. What is urgently required is the removal of cash and the enforcement of policies that promote simple and seamless access to bank accounts for all. This provides full audit trails of every single transaction.

MNO’s have the reach and understand the power of marketing. Banks understand compliance and systems. As a leading global FinTech, WIZZIT International works effectively with all leading MNOs and banks in providing digital financial services. However, instead of embracing mutually beneficial partnerships, MNOs in some countries refuse to give banks access to their Unstructured Supplementary Service Data or USSD gateways.

The bulk of mobile phones in Africa are feature phones and the USSD channel provides functionality that is quick, safe and easily accessible from all mobile phones. For the vast majority, USSD will remain the clear channel of choice for many years to come. To date, it is the most successfully integrated and widely adopted technology for financial services in emerging markets and the lower end of the market.

MNOs in some countries seem to think that by denying banks access, they can create a bigger market for their own financial service offerings. This is most evident in countries like Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo where the unbanked populations are 71% and 89% respectively. This abuse of power is tantamount to anti-competitive behaviour and is creating a major barrier to financial inclusion, something communication regulators should be aware of. The lack of progress in these and other emerging markets may well be the result of the prejudiced practices of Telcos gatekeeping access to the USSD gateway.

As smart phones become more affordable, so will the popularity of app-powered platforms as a channel for financial services. However, until there is a dramatic decrease in the cost of smart phones, the number of feature phones will remain at around 70%. USSD is still therefore critically important and banks will depend on MNOs for access – unless as has happened in some markets, banks get their own MNVO licence and control their own destiny.

A bigger pie or a bigger slice? 

The boundaries between the offerings of banks and MNOs are becoming increasingly blurred – yet the playing fields are not level. In some West African countries, for example, banks are by law not allowed to charge customers for deposits to bank accounts. MNOs, however, are unaffected by these laws and have the freedom to charge for deposits into mobile wallets.

Starting out as a convenient way to buy airtime and send money to family and friends, the financial services offering of MNOs has broadened to include offerings such as savings and loans. This is taking the banks on directly.

It will be argued that banks cannot be all things to all people and effectively service all segments of the market. It will also be argued that bank regulators are not there to protect banks from innovative competition from non-banks such as MNOs, Apple, Samsung, Google, Amazon, Pay Pal and Alipay. However, where governments and global agencies are putting enormous pressure on banks to drive financial inclusion, this is made increasingly difficult where banks are denied access to channels such as USSD.

To collaborate or not to collaborate

The Mobile Banking industry globally started some 12 years ago with WIZZIT (South Africa), Mpesa (Kenya) and GCash (Philippines) recognised as the early pioneers. It is interesting to note that there has not been a single successful partnership between banks and MNOs despite numerous attempts.

Perhaps a truly strategic collaborative model is still a ways off and competition between banks and MNOs is here to stay – at least for the foreseeable future. The question is whether or not this competition is supporting global efforts on financial inclusion through digital financial services.

The way forward

Digitisation and mobile penetration will continue to drive the growing trend of MNOs and FSPs infiltrating each other’s space to gain traction in new services. However, these rapidly blurring lines are bound to spark territorial claims regarding customers. This could impede financial inclusion if it lacks the required consumer protection measures and regulations.

Governments must regulate competitive behaviour amongst all role players and promote cross-sector collaboration towards financial inclusion. It is essential for countries to enforce policies that promote responsible financial access, financial capability, innovative products and delivery mechanisms. Any initiative that promotes financial inclusion should be praised and much work needs to be done.

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Meet the ambassador to the future

Tilly Lockey, 14, lost her hands as a toddler, but sees it as a massive opportunity to embrace technology. She chatted with ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK about the human of tomorrow.

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Picture by Arthur Goldstuck

It is a description that defines 14-year-old Tilly Lockey: She lost her hands at the age of 15 months, and now uses bionic hands to show the world how to overcome disability.

That could easily read as an advertisement for a prosthetics company, but Tilly refuses to be defined by marketing messages. She has not only embraced what is supposed to be a disability, but wants to become nothing less than an ambassador to the future.

Picture by Arthur Goldstuck

That is in effect what she is achieving by pushing the boundaries of what is possible with artificial hands. It means that, eventually, she will have more capabilities built into her body than most able-bodied humans can imagine. She collaborates closely with Open Bionics, a start-up that is using 3D printing to create low-cost prosthetics with high-tech capabilities.

“I have very high hopes for the future,” she said during a chat on the sidelines of the SingularityU Summit at Kyalami north of Johannesburg. From Newcastle-on-Tyne in the United Kingdom, she was at the Summit as a guest speaker, chaperoned by her father Adam and sister Tia. 

“When I started working with Open Bionics, I wanted it to include lighting, music, Bluetooth, a projector in my palm, all over-optimistic things. But then I feel that is not too far away, and then a disability would turn into and enhancement of normal human hands. I’m really excited about it.

“I know there’s a couple of things they are working on right now, like trying to get the built-in battery thinner, because it’s hard to get overcoats and jackets over it, so they are trying to get the hands slimmer. They’re working on haptic feedback, to give a sense of touch of vibration, which tells me of I have a good grip on something. It could be coming soon. These hands I’m using now were made in the past five years. In another five years, I think we’ll have all of it.”

The hands in question are called Hero Arms, which its creators, Open Bionics, say is “the world’s first clinically approved 3D-printed bionic arm, with multi-grip functionality and empowering aesthetics”.

Click here to read more about the development of Open Bionics’s Hero Arms.

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How Tilly Lockey became a Hero

Part 2 of ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK’s interview with Tilly Lockey explores her amazing career.

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Picture courtesy SingularityU South Africa 2019 Summit

This is the second part of this series of articles. To start from the beginning, click here.

Tilly Lockey was diagnosed with Meningococcal Septicaemia Strain B when she was 15 months old.

Her mother spotted the tell-tale signs one day in 2007: a fast-spreading skin rash that looks like pinpricks, along with symptoms like lethargy and bruising. She was rushed to hospital, but the bacterial poisoning spread so aggressively, doctors gave Tilley no chance of survival. They had to make a quick decision to amputate her hands to save her life.

Twelve years later, her future truly came into focus: “I was surprised with really cool Alita: Battle Angel bionic Hero Arms and went on the blue carpet at the world premiere of the movie with Rosa Salazar and director James Cameron.”

That pivotal moment in her life would not have been possible without the intensive efforts of her mother, Sara, to raise funds to buy something better than the metal prosthetics issued by the National Health Service in the UK. She increased Tilley’s profile with a campaign to “Give Tilley a Hand”, and today works as a fundraiser and events organiser for the Meningitis Now support group. Her involvement in an event meant she was unable to join Tilley on her trip to South Africa last week, when she spoke at the SingularityU Summit. After coming off stage, Tilley told us that Sara was her biggest inspiration in her life, and the closest to a role model.

“I’m usually a speaker at her events. I tell everyone my story and what I’m doing now and give these kids inspiration, because they often feel they can’t do anything because of what Meningitis did to them.

“I am home schooled now, which is pretty cool, because I’m able to have a career and get educated at the same time. I feel I can do a lot of things that friends can’t do. I can take a whole class on an aeroplane. I have a great time traveling and meeting so many inspiring people who are making a difference in the world.”

The form of Mengingitis that attacked her leaves hidden scars and issues that only become apparent years later. She is almost absurdly cheerful about the challenges that have faced her.

“I personally figured out that my left leg had stopped growing. I’m still finding out things it has caused, but you survive. At least I’m here and I’m alive.”

It does help that she’s comfortable in the spotlight, happy to give interviews, and eager to show what she can do with her bionic hands.

“I want to go into public speaking a lot more, and it could be an option as career. I want it to continue because it’s a lot of fun, and I feel I’ve got a story to share. If I can inspire people to change the world, I will. “

Her travels this year will still take her to Barcelona, Jakarta and New York. In the Big Apple, she will accept a humanitarian award, and intends “to give a funky speech”.

In Jakarta, Indonesia, she will take part in a fashion catwalk and do a makeup tutorial live. She learned to do makeup with one of her bionic hands when she fractured her right elbow in a fall at school

“I got makeup for Christmas and wanted to play with it, and got the idea of doing it with an open hand. It took a lot of perseverance and patience, but after studying how to do it, I was able to recreate a full makeup routine using one hand. It wasn’t a great situation at the time, but now I’m happy it happened because it got me into doing what I do now.”

What she is doing with makeup is remarkable in its own right. She gives tutorials on YouTube, where she says she is “kinda new”, as she has “only around 16,000 followers”. That may well soon expand into cooking videos.

In other words, everything is an opportunity: “I could be sad, just sit on my bed and cry, or I can live my life and realise what I’ve got: these amazing bionic Hero Arms.

“All I want to do is help give people confidence in themselves, accept who they are, accept their scars and everything about them. That they don’t have to impress everybody and just be themselves.”

Read more in the third article of the series about how family remains at the centre of Tilly’s life.

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