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Angry rivers, rough roads? Not for mobile money

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We travel by minibus, by bicycle and by motorcycle covering hundreds of kilometres to five far-flung locations in the Southern region to investigate the reach and impact, or lack thereof, of mobile money. And here is the report, by CHARLES MPAKA

Fides Kabango, 47, does not think there will be a bank at Kambilonjo trading centre in Ntcheu any time soon.

But that’s fine, she said, because mobile money “has taken over”.

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“I don’t think banks worry about ordinary people like me who stay far away from the cities, toiling in the land and making little money. But with Mpamba and Airtel Money, life is good,” said Kabango, an Irish potato farmer.

Kambilonjo lies about 30 kilometres off the M1 Road from Tsangano turn-off market.

The road to the centre takes one through a rich agricultural belt which spans both sides of Malawi and Mozambique.

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But getting there can be some corporal punishment, especially so to the stranger.

In the dry season, your truck, the only available means of public transport, will trundle all the way, the trip seeming endless –which only makes the red-hot iron of this adventure etch deeper into your skin.

That the journey is also a thorough flogging in the rainy season is apparent even in the dry season, for there are concretised marks of how some vehicles endured a wrestling contest with the mud they were stuck in.

On this road, farmers in Kambilonjo travel to get their commodities to Tsangano turn-off market and beyond.

Banks are too smart, too sleek and too modern for such conditions.

But mobile money doesn’t care, we found out.

Over a period of three months –August, September and October –last year, we travelled to five remote locations namely, Kambilonjo and Dzunje in Ntcheu, Nayuchi in Machinga, Nambazo in Phalombe and Chididi in Nsanje to investigate the reach and impact of mobile money.

We can report that mobile money is riding over mountains, flying across furious rivers, gliding over rough roads and bemusing treacherous landscapes –to knock on the doors of rural Malawians.

It is helping to power their education, their health and their agriculture.

Kabango told how mobile money, as provided by TNM and Airtel Malawi, has bettered lives of farmers that have embraced the product.

Now that money is mobile, they no longer have to. The farmers do not need to accompany vehicles transporting their produce to the main markets.

“We just send our buyers the produce; they send us the money. That gives us time to work on our farms while the produce brings the money on our doors.

“It’s about trust between the customers and us. But it’s working well so far,” she said.

In Chididi, Patel Kuyera recalled how a mobile money transaction saved his sister’s life.

One dawn in August 2014, the girl suddenly fell ill from what was found to be severe cerebral malaria.

He didn’t have money to take his sister to Nsanje District Hospital.

He doesn’t have a bank account. His brother, a minibus driver in Blantyre, sent K12,000 through Airtel Money early that morning.

“I left early on a hired vehicle and paid for it when we got to the boma where I collected the money from an agent. Without that, the story about my sister might have been different,” he said.

Such is the confident march of Airtel Money and Mpamba.

Launched in 2012 and 2013 respectively, the two initiatives provide services such as receiving and sending money, airtime top-ups, salary and utility bill payments.

They have become an aspect for financial inclusion, an initiative which the government is driving through the Ministry of Finance and the Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM).

In a country where 81 percent of people are said to be unbanked, where 85 percent of the population live in the rural areas some of which are hard to reach, mobile money is becoming such a force.

Thanks to a mobile phone.

In its 2014 report on mobile money regulation in Malawi, the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) says mobile phones have transformed lives in rich and poor countries alike.

Commissioned by the UN’s Mobile Money for the Poor (MM4P) programme and conducted in consultation with the Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM), the study underlines the potential of mobile money to improve lives.

“Mobile money products and services can be used to provide access to financial services for the unbanked and under-banked, thereby providing greater opportunities for many Malawians to rise above their current standards of living,” reads the report.

And Malawians are keying in.

An RBM National Payment System report for December 2015 says non-bank led mobile money transactions increased in November 2015, although at a slower pace.

According to the report, the total number of subscribers increased by 3.1 percent to 2.2 million; the volume of the transactions increased by 0.8 percent to 4.45 million while the value of the transactions rose by 9.2 percent to K16.1 billion.

With a phone subscriber base of over 3 million, Airtel Malawi has more than 1.2 million customers registered on Airtel Money. Of these more than 500,000 are using the service regularly, Airtel says. The Airtel Money product has over 7,500 agents across the country.

“Statistically, these numbers are growing satisfactorily every day,” said Airtel Money Marketing Manager, Tione Kafumbu.

TNM, on the other hand, has a reach of over 5,000 Mpamba agents nationwide, and the numbers keep growing too, said TNM Public Relations and Sponsorship Manager, Limbani Nsapato.

Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) says in broader terms, mobile money is responding to its mission to ensure universal access to ICTs in Malawi.

“Macra aims at promoting ICT services to the whole country without discrimination of geographical area…. If ICT services are provided throughout Malawi then operators should be able to provide mobile money services thereby helping addressing the financial inclusion objectives,” says Clara Mwafulirwa, Macra’s Communications Officer.

That is, riding on the sweeping might of the ICT age, the mobile money revolution is here –well and truly.

Yet, it is not incapable of distributing frustrations.

Lamecks Kiyare is Executive Director for Youth Response for Social Change (YRSC), a small organisation in Nayuchi in Machinga.

Located in an area without proper, well-stocked shops to meet some of its requirements, YRSC relies on shops found 60km away in Ntaja and 90km away in Liwonde.

The organisation does not have a car. It does not have a motorcycle. A train reaches the area once a week.

Travelling to Ntaja or Liwonde by bicycle is not an option. A motorcycle is the most viable alternative. But hiring one costs K14, 000 return trip to Ntaja.

The organisation would make do with mobile money service for some of its minor transactions. But the agent in the area, which does not have electricity, regularly suffers from network failure. The service is almost non-existent; the area is financially excluded; and it is feeling the pinch.

“Absence of banking services here including mobile money has had serious negative impact on health services, our operations, on small scale businesses and agriculture,” said Kiyare.

We also established that where agents are functional, they are struggling with liquidity problems.

In Dzunje, Matilda Nkhoma nearly “got a heart break” in 2014 when her Form Two daughter was turned away from Ntcheu Secondary School because she had not paid school fees.

“It was one week before exams. We had outstanding fees balance which included arrears from the previous terms. It amounted to K33,000,” she said.

The girl’s uncle, based in Nkhotakota, sent K40,000 through mobile money for the fees.

But the agent at Dzunje did not have enough money on him.

“He said he had 12 customers that day all of them waiting to cash out large sums of money. He gave me only K10,000 and said he would pay out the rest over several days. I was angry. Fortunately, he paid all of it the next day,” she said.

Malani Nyirongo, an Airtel Money agent at Kambilonjo, sees between 8 and 10 customers daily.

He said his major problem is that those cashing out are often more than those cashing in.

“So you have a problem when people come to cash out, say K100,000 because you don’t have that much money. We spread such payouts over a number of days,” Nyirongo said.

TNM said liquidity has been a challenge especially for agents in the remotest locations due to less economic activities in such areas.

Nsapato also said many more Malawians are still stuck with cash payments and “transition is not an overnight occurrence”.

Kafumbu, on the other hand, said the biggest challenge has been to get stakeholder buy-in on the benefits of mobile money and gaining confidence in its reliability.

“There will always be stakeholders, key of which being customers, who want to wait and see,” he said.

He also cited the problem with agent network.

“Agents that have understood that mobile money is a volume business are making serious profits while those that haven’t grasped the concept think the commissions are little. As such, it is difficult for customers to find agents in certain parts of the country.

“We are on a continuous engagement journey with more and more customers to ensure that customers conveniently find the service when they want to cash in or cash out,” he said.

The United Nations report lists several challenges affecting mobile money progress in Malawi. These include:

  • Low levels of literacy
  • Little trust in mobile money transactions;
  • Very small incomes for agents to establish profitable business models
  • Many Malawians do not have a mobile phone or do not regularly use one;
  • Limited infrastructure in remote rural areas, hence network problems.

Macra says it is keen on mobile money as a financial inclusion drive, which is why it pays particular attention to network hitches.

“Macra ensures that network is provided throughout the country despite that operators do provide network where they deem commercially viable. We make sure that network failures are at a minimum in provision of this service,” says Mwafulirwa.

She says the authority expects that mobile money will tap deep into the 6 million phone subscribers in Malawi.

The UN report describes Malawi’s mobile money market as fledgling. It therefore challenges regulators to make it bigger and better.

“It will be critical for Malawi’s regulators to find the right balance between providing appropriate protection for the end-users and adopting risk-based regulatory approaches which support greater financial inclusion,” it says.

And while Macra, other regulators and service providers worry about how to expand the service and make it more efficient, the unbanked Kabango sounded like a woman free at last.

“We don’t dream of government rehabilitating this road, which could pave way for banks to come. But mobile money is taking care of us,” she said with a smile of triumph on her face.

Asked about the cash problem which her agent experiences, she said: “It’s frustrating to be told there is no money. But we get the money anyway, before long. So we can cope with that.”

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