25 Mar 2021 / Article

Will financial inclusion come out on top in the electronic payment battle?

New players such as fintechs and mobile operators are pushing the burgeoning payment industry to rethink its organisation. Behind the scenes, a war rages over market share and the hope of providing banking solutions to an entire continent. 

Between fintechs emerging and mobile operators bursting in on the action, a revolution is underway in a payment industry ecosystem previously dominated by specialist players like VISA and Mastercard. Mobile operators have a considerable ace up their sleeves – their databases, which are up to five times larger than those of traditional commercial banks. The ubiquitous French mobile operator Orange did not look twice before diving into the industry when they created their own “Orange Bank”, in what was the banking equivalent of crossing the Rubicon. With the electronic payment industry’s value estimated at several billion dollars, how are the various players organising themselves to make the most of this opportunity?

 

At any rate, everyone agrees that the African customer will benefit the most from this new aggiornamento. This represents “real progress in terms of trade development and payment in general” according to Aida Diarra, Senior-Vice President of VISA’s Sub-Saharan Africa division. But is it enough to set aside the market-share conflict? Yes, for Omar Cissé, CEO of InTouch, a Dakar-based fintech operating in around fifteen African countries. This ecosystem ripe for financial inclusion must “be built by the various players working in ‘cooperative competition’” rather than the “battle” that many predict. This opinion is shared by Serigne Dioum, Group Chief Digital and Fintech Officer at MTN, for whom “partnership exists and is on the rise”. However, he does fully acknowledge that behind this friendly facade, “in the field we can often forget that the war is not against each other, but against cash”. As far as inclusion is concerned, hard cash remains public enemy number one.

 

Regulators at the heart of the action

Fintechs will have a significant role to play, as they have the means to reach users who do not fit into traditional banking criteria. But their development is particularly dependent on regulation. This is where the main concern lies for players like Omar Cissé, to whom governments are struggling to adapt: “we are not seeing any convergence between financial and technical regulation”. The head of InTouch has called on regulators to support interoperability between the different players and to be more flexible with fintechs regarding financial regulation. The problem is this: the regulator still guarantees the security of the financial system, consumer protection and their equal access to the service in question. “Dialogue with the regulatory authorities is essential to finding the appropriate measures in order to handle the different issues”, says Aida Diarra.

According to Yves Eonnet, director and co-founder of TagPay, “Africa is the Silicon Valley of banking”. For this technological tool provider, the real challenge facing banks is not the competition that mobile operators or fintechs might provide, but rather their ability to reach the most people. To accomplish this, the banks have to use the most suitable technological tools in order to provide their customers with the financial services they require.

Cross-border payment remains one of the most laborious and onerous financial services on the continent. All the players hope that the new African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) will make changes possible. Serigne Dioum believes that “the problem we have is regulatory”. They are now calling on the various regulators to increase cooperation, without which such a project could never succeed.

 

The clamour for this kind of regulation never ceases to grow when someone brings up the interests of the new adversaries in the payment battle – Big Tech. The arrival of another WhatsApp in the sector could indeed shake up the playing field. In any case, these giants acting with no regard for borders have shown that they pay little heed to national regulations. Although African businesses all claim to be ready to collaborate with GAFA if they were ever to set foot in the market, Yves Eonnet believes “they run the risk of being under-equipped to fight back against the might of these multinationals”. According to Omar Cissé however, “tomorrow, the fight will not be over access but rather the solutions that we provide for our customers” and they must “continue welcoming all players”!

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