Magazine article Foreign Policy

Mobile Financial Services

Magazine article Foreign Policy

Mobile Financial Services

Article excerpt

AN ESTIMATED 2.5 BILLION adults do not have access to banks. Unsurprisingly, they are among the world's most destitute: According to a report released by the World Bank and other development groups, about three out of four adults living on less than $2 a day, from farmers in Tanzania to slum-dwellers in India to seamstresses in Bolivia, lack an account with a formal financial institution.

But many of these people do have cell phones. Globally, there are some 7 billion mobile-phone subscriptions, up from about 2 billion in 2005. Beyond simply helping people stay in touch, the devices are being used to report fair-market prices for crops, document wartime atrocities, and even track the spread of disease. The technology is also reinventing a key tool for economic growth: banking.

In countries across the world, mobile operators--think the equivalents of Sprint and Verizon--now offer services that enable individuals to transfer cash via text message. In 2014, according to the international mobile-carrier trade group GSMA, there were 255 mobile-enabled electronic money services working in 89 countries, and nearly 300 million mobile-money accounts. The trend is particularly significant in Africa, where in at least 15 countries mobile-money accounts now outnumber formal bank accounts. With even the most basic cell phones, users can pay taxes and taxis, send remittances to faraway families, and even receive salaries and government subsidies.

To be sure, it's still the early days for this booming industry. Developing economies remain dominated by cash. But mobile money has in many ways already started to reshape the very architecture of financial services for the better.

THE COSTS OF EXCLUSION

Mobile money isn't just convenient; it's a boon for financial stability. While mobile banking offers formal saving opportunities, it also provides loan options to the 55 percent of borrowers in developing countries who have traditionally relied on friends, neighbors, or, problematically, local moneylenders. In rural areas in the developing world, informal predatory lenders offer loans at exorbitant rates. In (1) India, for example, a 2010 government report indicated that some farmers using unofficial sources were paying interest rates above 30 percent.

THE MODEL: M-PESA

M-Pesa, developed by international telecom giant Vodafone, is the poster child for mobile money's ascendance. …

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