Understanding the complex continental war to be the digital bank for the African consumer

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Image credit: Alexander Andrews via Unsplash

In the centre of Gauteng Province, a reluctant winter sun paints the Roodepoort sky with the day’s first semblance of warmth. Amongst lush flora in suburban utopia — Fairlands, an apt name — the gentle whirr of the heating AC quietly dominates the room. A wall of pixels is the centrepiece of attention, as a business analyst sips her coffee and closely watches the graphs.

The city of Kampala, an hour ahead of South African time, is fast approaching the peak of mobile money usage for the day. Even a few minutes of downtime can be costly in a country where 34 million dollars moves through an intricate digital highway every day, and you’re the one in charge of traffic control. …

Two very important days in your life as an African are the day you get your first phone and the day you open your first bank account. Are these days about to become a thing of the past?

I come from Malawi. A country where only 12% of the population have access to electricity, 36% have access to mobile and 19% have a bank account.

In the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa, the story isn’t very different

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Percentage of adults with bank accounts | Image credit: World Bank

With about 62.1% of the employed workforce earning less than $3.10 a day, most people would only need the services of a bank or a telco after they have been earning for a significant amount of time.

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Mobile Phones and Education in Sub‐Saharan Africa: From Youth Practice to Public Policy | Image credit: Journal of International Development

There isn’t a lot of exhaustive research on the matter, but the data available would seem to suggest that these two days are significant milestones in the life of an ordinary African citizen.

I know first hand that access to communication and formal finance systems can do a lot to make one’s life better — it’s no surprise that banks and telcos are among the most profitable ventures on the continent. …

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A Nokia feature phone dialling a USSD code (Image credit: Rachael Wambua)

Every time you dial *XYZ# to check the airtime balance on your phone, you are using a decades old technology standard called USSD. For a very long time, that’s pretty much all it was used for, but now the game has changed.

USSD stands for Unstructured Supplementary Service Data and I suppose it never got a catchy mainstream alias because it never really took off

(I’m looking at you, Bitcoin).

Mobile operators (especially in Africa — where the market is primarily prepaid) typically use USSD for their internal applications such as balance checks, top-ups, data bundles and promotions.

More recently, banks and utility companies have started taking advantage of the protocol to build mobile banking and utility management applications all across the continent. …


Wiza Jalakasi

strategy head @usehover • ex BD/expansion lead @africastalking • cofounded @djuaji • https://wiza.jalaka.si

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