Addressing the mysteries of the Pyramid through mobile financial services

Pyramids have fascinated civilizations for centuries, with the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt today remaining the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. While the Egyptian pyramids are most famous, Nigeria, Greece, Spain, India, China, Indonesia and even Europe and the Americas have their share. The unique design and the sheer weight of the stone ensures that the structures do not topple, and there is no question of material at the bottom ever getting displaced. Now in these and other countries mobile financial services are taking off, to address financial inclusion. I was fascinated by C. K. Prahalad’s book “The Fortune at the bottom of the Pyramid” which has been an inspiration to me over the last decade I’ve spent as a practitioner in mobile financial services.

Carol Realini’s work at Obopay has also been inspirational to me, as I had an early opportunity to meet her and follow her achievements in the US, Africa and India. I was therefore delighted when Carol shared with me about the book she and Karl Mehta were writing, “Financial Inclusion at the bottom of the pyramid”. Naturally I wanted to share her story, below – Enjoy!


Carol, great to have you here today, please could you share with us a bit about what motivated you to write this book, and what you hope to achieve?

My interest in Financial Inclusion started in 2002 while travelling in Africa after a company I founded had a successful public offering.

My eyes were opened to—

  • The wonderful entrepreneurial spirit that exists throughout developing countries
  • The lack of infrastructure for participating in global online commerce
  • The lack of infrastructure for making day-to-day living easy. Locals were standing in line all day to just pay their utility bill and small businesses were confined to operating on a cash basis with their customers and suppliers.  
  • The absolute inability of entrepreneurs to scale and grow their businesses.

I became focused on fostering entrepreneurship and the development of new technologies that would empower everyone’s life and work.

The epiphany—

I had never really thought about life without access to affordable financials services. Mobile phones were everywhere and now exceed the world’s population. I realized this could be a game changer for financial services, creating a very different future for all of us. After witnessing the overwhelming poverty and unwieldy payment systems, I knew that mobile banking would be the key to altering how people exchange money, and in turn, create access to financial services where none had ever existed.

To whom do you feel this book will be most useful and why?

Our book primarily targets two audiences: Firstly the FinTech community, as the mobile phone is a key enabler for innovation. Secondly, really I would love for it to reach all people interested in how the world could change for the better. We hope that our book entertains and informs both audiences. It delves deep enough to share new insights with the FinTech community, yet effectively explains the financial services landscape to those who are ready to learn and be inspired. So far reviews have been very positive from both groups. Having been exposed to real-life case studies that are changing the face of financial services, readers from all over are inspired by the global shift that lies in front of us.

You are yourself one of the pioneers, can you share a bit about your story?

2authorstogetherI have founded two companies within the Financial Inclusion sector and I am an active board member for several other companies working in mobility and “mass-market fintech.” My co-author, Karl Mehta founded a global payments company which was later sold to Visa. Throughout that transition he was key mobility executive and now is an active Venture Capitalist  and Founder/CEO of EdCast— a disruptive approach to higher education.

My first company, Obopay was a pioneer in Financial Inclusion and is currently one of the leading providers of mobile money in East Africa. We were early to enter the market and saw first hand the challenges when the infrastructure for identity, settlement, and communications was immature.

Mobile phones are now a mainstay all over the world and many countries in Asia and Africa have sorted out regulations to handle incoming technologies. Smart phones are also scaling very fast, creating more space for innovation.

Once the technological and regulatory landscape was primed, my second company (a US-based faster payments company) scaled quickly and was acquired in under 2 years. I am now on the board of 5 companies all working in this space and help others wherever possible.

In a nutshell, what do we need to get right, for financial inclusion @ BoP to become a reality?

Regulations and infrastructure are key to massive change. Institutional banks and investors also need to embrace innovation. Opening our eyes to including innovation from unexpected places will create more opportunity (for instance, Telcos have become the last mile to the customer for banking). Finally, considering new players in the space with disruptive models can bring a new perspective, and sometimes, a better solution to a problem.

At the end of the day, the financial needs of those at the BoP will not match those who use traditional banking. We need to create products and services that are relevant to each customer and their lifestyle. These will look and behave differently across countries, states, towns, and villages.

We hope our book helps to open the reader’s eyes to what is possible, what is currently working, and where there is opportunity for change. It proves that solutions DO exist—they are just not evenly distributed.

You give a call to action at the end of your book, could you share a bit about this?

If you are inspired to change the world, it is easy to get involved. You don’t have to quit your day job or be a “mover and shaker” within the FinTech community. If every reader made one small shift in their lives to support financial inclusion (start a group, show a preference for companies who are committed to financial inclusion, or join the conversation @SuccessatBOP), we’ll be well on our way to a better place for all.

I have found that once readers realize they already have a voice, they become inspired to create change, whether by one simple action or through massive effort. Either way, I think the book shows how important these initiatives can be. As Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University (and generous author of our Foreword) puts it: “The end of poverty is coming our way and this brilliant book explains how and why.”

Carol, Who are the unbanked and could you share about “Financial Nomads”, something I found very interesting when I read your book

Half the world are Financial Nomads. The world population is roughly seven billion. Of these, 4.6 billion are aged twenty or older. They comprise the pool of adults who could be regular customers of a financial services provider—a bank, savings and loan, credit union, or even Wal-Mart. Estimates suggest that of this eligible pool of 4.6 billion adults, over half—2.5 billion—do not use an established and reputable financial services provider. They are financial nomads who either have no access to financial services or use financial services on a casual basis when they need them.”

Apart from income, what are some of the other factors that have an impact on financial inclusion?

Gender, education levels, age, rural or urban life - all of these matter, but especially gender. In developing economies, forty-six percent of adult citizens have bank accounts, but only thirty-seven percent of women do—and this number includes joint accounts held by both husband and wife. In developing economies, this disparity exists at all income levels. In high-income economies, the difference is less and only approaches a four percent difference for poor women.”

Carol, how does this affect me, a middle class individual living in a developed country?

The lack of affordable and adaptable banking services is an issue that should concern everyone, not just the people who are living at the bottom of the pyramid. At its worst, a lack of banking creates a downward spiral of disenfranchisement, widens the gap between rich and poor, encourages outlaw or extralegal behaviour, and inhibits the social mobility that keeps any society vibrant and open. An accessible and reliable banking system helps to create stability and overall prosperity.

We have seen the costs to living at the bottom of the steep pyramid, and the obstacles that keep many hardworking individuals and families from making the long climb to the top. However, the goal of this book is not only to point out the challenges but to draw attention to the real-world solutions that exist today.

How far have we come so far in addressing this issue?

We’ll see that, in many cases, the future is already here; it’s just not equally distributed yet. Innovation is emerging as a patchwork. We’re entering a new era where the world will see a shift from incremental advances in financial inclusion to exponential growth. Part of the revolution in personal finance is driven by global social change: the growing empowerment of women, the rise of stable democratic governments, and the increased recognition of basic human rights. Technology is also a major force; the rise of the Smartphone, improvements in banking infrastructure, cloud computing, social networking, the management of vast amounts of real-time and archival data, mobile technology and networks, and the successful scaling of regional models to national and international scale - are all drivers of change.

Carol thanks so much for taking the time to address this important area and I wish you the very best for the success of your book and this key initiative


Carol Full Avatar

Carol Realini is co-author of “Financial Inclusion at the Bottom of the Pyramid”. An expert in financial service innovation, Carol Realini is a serial entrepreneur and globally-recognized technology pioneer. Attending the World Economic Forum, she led global discussions on alternative banking. Recognized as a top woman in Silicon Valley, she sits on boards and advises financial services and mobile companies.

Building an agent network for a direct-to-bank led strategy for remittances to Africa


In this exclusive interview with Charmaine Oak of Shift Thought, Samish Kumar, CEO of cross-border payments company Transfast, shares about his vision and the recent expansion of Transfast in building a network in 23 countries across Africa. Kumar discusses why the network is good for Africa, how Transfast hopes to be different from its competitors, and how it addresses financial inclusion needs, to further goals of governments in Africa.


Samish, thanks for your time today. I am keen to understand more about Transfast and your expansion in Africa

image Transfast is a provider of online and cross-border payments solutions. One of the fastest growing cross-border funds transfer companies in the industry, we operate the third-largest proprietary network, covering 120 countries. We recently announced the launch of an extensive direct-to-bank network in Africa, reaching 23 African nations, and covering up to 90 percent of adult bank account holders in those nations. We believe this to be the most extensive network of its kind on the continent.

Our omnichannel offering enables customers in the US and Canada, and shortly from UK and EU as well, to send money online or via mobile, directly into recipient bank accounts or for withdrawal in cash at around 600 banks representing an estimated 6,000 cash pick-up locations of banks in Africa.

Direct deposits are currently available at banks in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Ethiopia and Mali. Soon, direct deposits will be available in 17 more countries, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Chad, Congo, Egypt, Guinea, Morocco Niger, Sierra Leone and Togo.

How could this be beneficial for Africa?

Remittance plays an important role in African nation economies, as an estimated 30 million Africans diasporas send around $160 billion to the continent annually. Direct bank deposits and electronic payments can play a key role in building financial inclusion and help further the financial inclusion goals of governments in Africa by engaging account holders in the banking system.

But how is this different to the services of other cross-border payments companies?

Direct-to-bank is the most efficient and cost-effective way to receive funds. At present we believe that we are the only cross-border payments company enabling direct-to-bank in this many countries in Africa.

We are able to do this because of our proprietary network and excellent bank partner relationships. But direct-to-bank isn’t all we’re doing in Africa. Stay tuned for more announcements on new product offerings in Africa in the coming weeks!

Can you explain how your direct-to-bank network builds financial inclusion?

Banking penetration continues to grow in Africa. For unbanked recipients, the ability to pick up cash at a bank provides a positive experience in a bank environment. This is a first step toward becoming banked, when they can enjoy further advantages from our direct-to-bank deposits.

Could you share a bit about the challenges faced in getting this of the ground?

Building a network is definitely one of the most challenging aspects of this business, and at the same time, it’s been very rewarding. Our independent, direct-to-bank network is arguably one of the world’s largest, and the result of blood, sweat and air miles racked up by Transfast executives travelling to India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Bangladesh and more countries than we can list here, to create and solidify relationships with banks globally.

When it comes to compliance, regulation and fraud protection, they can present challenges in this industry as well. We believe in keeping those functions in-house, and our compliance teams and well-established regulatory systems have taken years and millions of dollars to build, including obtaining and maintaining the licenses necessary to operate in over 50 jurisdictions around the world.

Then comes the talent framework needed to comply with each separate and distinct set of regulations. This translates to hiring experts that make up more than 10% of our employee base – who are solely dedicated to compliance.

Fraud protection completes this trilogy of important factors. Fraud control is serious business, as remittances supply vital funds that support families back home and keep them thriving. Our bank-level security has to ward off hackers on a daily basis. So we have systems in place to ensure our  security and privacy for our customers.

How do you plan to differentiate your services?

One of our goals is to build a close relationship with our customers, and that’s always on our minds as we move forward. To us, this means not inviting a third party into the process of sending our customer’s money around the world. 

The real untold story of cross-border payments is that many companies don’t have their own bank networks. They “ride the rails” of other companies.

Our customers come to Transfast and whether or not they realize it, the reason they are satisfied is that everything we promise as part of our value proposition – great rates, reliability and fast delivery times – is backed up by our product and network, not potentially unreliable third-party offerings. We also run our own in-house treasury, which cuts out the middleman and enables our customers to get better foreign exchange rates.

When you talk of omnichannel, what channels have you found to work best for different segments? Could you please share a couple of unique characteristics from the US-Africa corridors?

Each corridor has its unique characteristics, calling for differing channel mix. In the African continent, one unique characteristic we see however, is a strong interest in direct-to-bank transfers, which tracks along with the growth in the banked population in each country.

When you talk of direct-to-bank, which market segments can/ cannot participate, and how do you choose the countries you’ve expanded to?

We’re realists who understand that collaborating with the banks to build a better network is smarter than working against them. Our strategy works well with the culture in the communities that we are sending payments into, as national and community banks are often well regarded and have the trust of our customers in developing countries. This factor is critical to our strategy.

As such, we expect to expand into any country where our network can build on that trust level while offering speed and competitive pricing for those transferring funds. So far, we are in more than 120 countries — and growing every day.

Samish, thanks for sharing about your vision and I wish you the very best for your future growth.


Samish Kumar CEO TransfastSamish Kumar, CEO and Director of Transfast, is an expatriate from India who moved to the US with his family in 1982. After graduating from the University of Colorado-Boulder with a degree in Aerospace Engineering and obtaining an MBA from Columbia University, Samish went on to accumulate nearly 20 years of experience in financial markets at global banks.

In 2007, Samish led the acquisition of Transfast in partnership with GCP Capital Partners, a New York-based $1.9 billion private equity fund. Under his leadership, Transfast has become one of the fastest-growing companies in the world-wide remittance market. 

Trends in Mobile Money and Mobile Financial Services – Views from a veteran


The origins of Mahindra Comviva date back to 1999. Since then the company has enabled mobile operators and financial institutions around the world to address opportunities presented by money going digital. As part of Shift Thought’s assessment of the state of the market, it was a real pleasure to speak to Srinivas Nidugondi, to obtain his views on the latest trends and future directions. In this post I share highlights of our discussion on mobile money and mobile financial services.


Srinivas, thanks for your time today. Could you please give us a bit of background about your expertise and your role at Comviva?


imageI head the mobile financial solutions unit at Mahindra Comviva. For four years now, I head the entire commerce portfolio within Comviva. We have 3 verticals that include commerce, content and data, all with the underlying theme of mobility.

Within our horizontal of managed services, our fastest & largest pillar is commerce. I look at the overall opportunity, to grow our operations into a leadership position. I have a background in banking and payments, commerce and smartcards. My last position was at ICICI bank where I was Head of Internet Banking platform and Mobile Banking and worked on the launch of ICICI’s first mobile banking app 8 years ago; further I was involved in a collaborative offering with Vodafone to cater to the unbanked and under banked segments in India.


Could you please give us a brief background about Comviva?


imageWe’ve been around for 15 years, beginning with the Telecom Revolution in India and other emerging markets focussing on products that would help mobile operators, in our capacity as part of the Bharti group.

Our mobiquity® Money solution now has over 50 deployments in 40 countries, enabling over 35 million registered customers to transact approximately USD 13.5 billion transactions annually.

Over the last five years we have streamlined and also broad-based our focus. As a product company we complement Tech Mahindra’s IT services and also obtain access to new geographies, such as our recent forays into North America, Europe and Australia. Further, we have been able to penetrate into Latin America with several deployments on-going across the region.


Could you give us highlights of the kinds of products and services, and the kind of competition you face?


In our mobile financial services unit our philosophy is to leverage mobility, commerce & payment services. What this means is we do not just focus on providing payments solutions but are experts in the whole commerce process. Also we have refocused from mobile to mobility, to cover new devices that I expect will become an active part in the way people transact, for instance through wearables like Apple Watch or Google Glass.

We focus on payments behaviour within each segment that includes consumers, businesses and merchants. So we look at a diverse set of scenarios that range from under banked consumers to evolved consumers to large merchants. We are one of the largest providers for Mobile Money in the world, with services provided to pretty much every major mobile operator.

We are going up the value chain with services such as mobile wallets, mobile payments, and QR codes, BLE, HCE, NFC and Apple Pay and offering these solutions to banks, processors and retail industries apart from the traditional customer base of telecom operators. Our recent customers include banks in the North America and Asia pacific regions as well as a new age retail chain in South America. And further, we are working with a telecom operator in Europe for launching NFC based payments. Our competitors include for instance C-SAM, Toro, Airtag and Monetise.

On the business and merchant side we offer an integrated payment solution payPLUS that allows both large and medium merchants as well as SMEs to use their mobile phones as a POS, and we work with First Data and not just small & medium - there is a market for mobility based for insurance, e-commerce down to small and medium.

We are entering the US through one of the largest processors where competition is different. We don’t really see Square and iZettle as our competition as we don’t go direct to market but rather work with banks and processors. We also face localised competitions such as from Easytap in India.


What are some of the major implementations you’ve been involved in around the world?


We have over 50 mobile money implementations including a number of implementations with Airtel, Orange, Econet Wireless, Grameenphone, Banglalink, Tigo and others. In Bangladesh we are deploying with DBBL, one of the largest banks in the country.

We are working with First Data and other large processors and also with some of the largest banks for HCE, MasterPass. We are with the largest 4G operator in India for Mobile POS and Mobile Wallet. Some of our latest wins include a retailer in Chile, and US work with a processor for mobile POS, and a wallet for a bank in Canada.


In 2014, mobile money service became interoperable in 3 new markets. Could you tell us a bit about how this works and how effective this strategy has proved?


I don’t think every market could be a success. This is a function of multiple factors. In Kenya Safaricom became successful with a position of leader in the mobile business. Now Tanzania is becoming an overall leader in mobile money, but there no one operator has a monopolistic position.

Mobile money has taken off where there is low banking penetration and high mobile penetration. Agents must find it viable. Also the services need to go beyond just P2P or Cash-in/Cash-out. People must not just withdraw cash but make payments through their mobile money account. That is when profitability goes up.

It is also really important to be able to offer remittances. There is a service called Terra that is getting all the operators together for this to make the money flows easier in corridors such as Mozambique to Malawi, Zimbabwe to Malawi and South Africa to Zimbabwe.

If each operator has say a maximum of 40% market share, this means that 60% of the market is excluded, so interoperability is not a luxury but is critical for operators to explore in each market.


What are some of the other trends you observed in mobile money in 2014?


Mobile Money is used in a developmental context, where third party provides bring financial services to people who don’t have access to them.

I observed three key trends in mobile money over 2014.

Firstly, the evolution to cover more services has been recognised to be of huge importance. From cash-in/ cash-out, it is now about enabling every transaction that people have to make. So this is interoperability in the context of payments.

Secondly, there is a focus on interoperability in the context of remittances. We saw a spurt in transactions with Tigo and Airtel making their transactions interoperable in Tanzania.

Thirdly, it’s about how to build a path to offer a full suite of services, not just mobile money. We’ve had to solve for enabling payments, micro-loans, investments and insurance, so as to build a “One-Stop Shop” for all these services.


Did regulations have to change in order to enable these trends and new services added over 2014?


No I think the regulations did allow it, but it was a matter of the maturity level having grown over the last 3 years. As this grows further we’re seeing more such examples in Tanzania, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.


What is the outlook for mobile money going into 2015?


I see an evolution of the services to straddle multiple areas. From over-the-counter and one time transactions it’s now all about the mobile wallet. This needs a better understanding of the end-to-end customer journey and experience.


Srinivas, thanks very much for your time today. It has been a great pleasure speaking to you. I wish you the very best for your success in 2015 and beyond.



Srinivas Nidugondi is Senior Vice President at Mahindra Comviva, based in Bengaluru, India and has led the Mobile Financial Solutions area in Comviva since 2011.

Srinivas brings a keen interest in financial inclusion, especially as enabled by mobile phone and digital channels and has a wealth of experience in banking, payments, Internet and e-commerce. He set up & led the business for online banking and mobile payments in a large multinational bank and has led product management & business development in start-ups and IT product companies.


Charmaine Oak

Author of The Digital Money Game, co-author Virtual Currencies – From Secrecy to Safety

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The impact of new technologies on global remittance costs and flows

A new report from the World Bank shows that alternatives to cash are helping to drive down the cost of remittances around the world. The global average cost of sending $200 declined from 8% in Q4 2014 to 7.7% of the amount transferred in Q1 2015. But is this progress enough?

As development efforts have intensely focussed on driving down the cost of remittances (5% less over 5 years) it raises questions on why more has not been achieved.

Separately a report from World Bank that measures financial inclusion around the world, out this month, indicates that between 2011 and 2014, 700 million adults became account holders, with the number of unbanked dropping by 20% to 2 billion. While 2 billion adults without access to financial services is still hugely concerning, it seems that the 130 live mobile money services have achieved great things within domestic areas. People are increasingly gaining access to basic banking facilities thanks to the use of alternatives to bank branches, such as mobile-based accounts, agent networks, kiosks and other advances.

Domestic remittances (people sending money to other people within a nation) have thus benefited from the use of new technologies, in particular the services that leverage access to mobile phones. While the ownership of fixed line phones remains poor in certain African countries, large numbers of population now have access to mobile phones.

In my interviews with experts who are launching innovative services around the world I understand a lot more needs to be done to make sure that it's not just every household that has access to mobile phones. The key individual who can ensure household money is spent as it should, often the woman of the house, needs control of a mobile phone. This is likely to happen as government benefits and subsidies are routed directly to these individuals, often while providing free SIMs as is happening in Indonesia. This has the important side-effect of bringing down the cost of person-to-person money transfer.

Additional value-added services are being launched, to hopefully stop people from immediately withdrawing the money, and reducing the amount of cash in circulation. The new mobile money and branchless banking services have helped to bring down the cost of domestic remittances – for instance by 20% in Cameroon.

Yet the average cost of remittances still exceeds 8% in East Asia, the Pacific and MENA. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the home of mobile money, costs of sending money across borders remains the highest. Sending money from South Africa to Zambia, Malawi, Botswana and Mozambique are the highest in the region. With the global average cost for sending money standing at 8% in Q4 2014, it is substantially higher at an estimated 12% in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).


In the Figure above, courtesy of the World Bank Migration and Development Brief for April, we see just how much higher SSA costs are, and the lift in MENA costs. What strikes me is the sharp decline in cost of SSA transfers over 2009 was arrested in Q2 2010, and sharply rose then. We do not see a similar decline in spite of many new entrants and launches of services by global technology companies, card networks, mobile operators, handset manufacturers, retailers and others – indeed the list of industries alone is endless, leave alone individual providers.

Although there are more international migrants than ever before, with an expected 250 million in 2015, flows to developing countries are expected to slow down to 0.9% growth in 2015, increasing only from $436b in 2014 to $440b in 2015. Global remittance estimated at $583b in 2014 could rise to $586b in 2015, with recovery expected over 2016 to bring the figure to $636b in 2017.

Factors that are affecting these flows include uneven recovery in developed countries, lower oil prices and the Russian problem, tighter immigration controls and conflicts that are driving forced migration.

With an expected slowdown in the remittances market in 2015, it is vitally important that causal factors that stand in the way of better cross-border remittance services be better addressed. These include a number of factors that are well-understood (compliance, regulatory, exclusivity, interoperability) but others that are not yet under discussion, and may prove more critical. 

What is your view on this? What has helped in the progress towards cheaper and more accessible cross-border remittances, and what has hindered? With technologies now well-understood, what needs to happen to put people more in control, not just for sending money home, but also for gaining other forms of livelihood in the vibrant, rapidly evolving global digital economy?

WorldRemit share the secret to their success and rapid scale-up over 2014


WorldRemit has enjoyed a rapid trajectory with a number of launches recently. Ismail Ahmed started up this company with the vision of providing a low-fee digital service, moving the agent model of money transfer to an online one in the $580 billion remittances market.

Curious to understand how WorldRemit grew so rapidly into digital channels, I caught up with Jeffrey Alan Pietras, Vice President, International Product Development at WorldRemit. As the year draws to a close Jeffrey reflects on the progress made this year and their ambitious plans for 2015.


imageJeffrey, please could you give us a brief background about yourself and an introduction to WorldRemit?

WorldRemit was founded in 2010 by Ismail Ahmed with an idea of changing the money transfer industry, having experienced a degree of expense and inconvenience first hand. WorldRemit began as an online service that enabled people to send money to friends and family in other countries.  Customers can today use WorldRemit anywhere, anytime on their computer, smartphone or tablet. For those receiving money, WorldRemit offers a range of options including bank deposit, cash collection, Mobile Money, and mobile airtime top-up.

This year WorldRemit has seen significant expansion, with new products, channels and partnerships in important corridors around the world.

I joined WorldRemit this year, and bring to my role a combination of experience from working with global players and growing start-up companies. I have worked within the converging financial services, payments, mobile & digital commerce industries at global players including J.P. Morgan, Western Union, Nokia and Yahoo!. This is complemented by my transactional experience with growing start-up companies.

WorldRemit has been expanding rapidly recently. Could you please give us a background, and a summary of your current footprint?

imageYes, WorldRemit’s international reach has grown significantly in the past year. Our service is now available to senders in 50 countries, up from 35 earlier in the year. Last month WorldRemit launched in the United States, which is expected to become one of the company’s largest markets, once fully online in 2015.

The number of countries to which people can send money with WorldRemit’s platform has also increased significantly over 2014, growing from 100 to 117. Among the new additions were 15 countries in the emerging Central & Latin America region.

Those are significant achievements indeed. What has driven your recent growth?

A critical enabler has been the $40M investment by Accel Partners (an early backer of Facebook, Dropbox and Spotify) in March this year. We have since been steadily growing our staff as well as our market presence. We now have over 110 employees and plan to open a new US office in Denver, Colorado shortly.

From a product perspective, we recently launched a successful version of our mobile App for iOS as well as Android. We continue to be one of the most flexible remittance platforms in terms of service interoperability, providing more choice for the way in which senders and receivers can conduct their transactions.

We have a growing number of mobile partnerships to enable instant mobile wallet transfers which have seen great traction in 2014. We currently enable mobile wallet transfers to EcoNet Wireless subscribers, as also to Safaricom, Globe, Smart, MTN, and Vodafone to name just a few.

Jeffrey, what has been the secret to your success?

imageIn my opinion there are two things that set us apart in our industry:

1) the interoperability of our digital money transfer platform and

2) our customer satisfaction rates

As I mentioned before, the WorldRemit platform is one of the most flexible in terms of the interoperability which we offer – this allows us to stay relevant to senders as well as receivers in facilitating the means by which they would like to conduct their transaction.

For instance, aside from cash pickup and bank account transfers, the WorldRemit platform easily integrates with mobile operators to tap into quickly evolving payment ecosystems whereby we can enable mobile wallet transfers. Our platform provides us the flexibility to offer new send and receive options in alignment with partners to truly service the evolving needs of the international remittance market globally, as “one size fits all” does not work in this changing industry.

And on a related note, our flexible money transfer platform & business model equates into a high level of customer satisfaction. Without an agent intermediary (like in the traditional money transfer business), WorldRemit can be truly customer-centric and tailor a money transfer service that delivers speed, convenience, and low-cost to the sender and receiver.

In an era of declining brand attributes for the traditional money transfer business, WorldRemit continues to garner great positive feedback on our service and a high level of customer retention.

What are some of the main challenges for the remittances industry?

The evolution of the international remittance market is fragmented and multi-dimensional – a real challenge in creating a consistent norm for a global scale business which is disrupting the traditional MTOs. In some markets the remittance ecosystem is dominated by financial institutions. In other markets, the ecosystem is driven more by retailers and mobile operators as traditional financial players have not touched the majority of consumers with their services. This fragmentation has led to a number of externalities which influence the evolving ecosystem country by country (e.g. regulatory bodies, mobile operating systems, retail point of sale infrastructure, etc.).

Another challenge in the evolution of the business are new regulations. Especially of interest at the moment are APMs (alternative payment methods) like BitCoin and the influence this will have on the industry.

Digitization is another huge challenge in this industry. How do the traditional MTOs modernize their agent-based model when digital money transfer platforms are cannibalizing the trade (especially with multi-channel offers)? And, what roles will digital consumer services (e.g. social & messaging) play in the consumer to consumer money transfer space?

What are some of the key changes you have observed in the money transfer industry over 2014?

In line with increased regulation in the industry, particularly around the KYC (know your customer) and KYA (know your agent) element of the business, many traditional firms have incurred high compliance costs to try to modernize antiquated offline procedures.

With the added costs of doing business in the offline world, margin compression remains a constant concern for some players. With more consumer choice in money transfer providers (both online and offline), customer acquisition and retention costs are a big marketing concern as brand alone might not be enough these days. I expect to see these concerns continue to play out into 2015.

What are some of the trends you expect to see over 2015 and beyond?

The most exciting trend I anticipate in 2015 (hopefully or in the years to come) is some “reverse innovation” in the payments and remittance space.

The media seems to have bias on the way that consumers would embrace a Western mobile payments ecosystem (e.g. ApplePay) as a global standard. However, with a head-start, many emerging or developing markets in Asia and Africa have robust mobile payment ecosystems already.

While there are some inherent development reasons behind these, I am excited to see what influence these ecosystems in Africa or Asia might have on the evolving consumer mobile payments space in the US and Europe.

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Jeffrey Alan Pietras - Vice President, International Product Development at WorldRemit

Responsible for all business development, partnerships, and new market opportunities for WorldRemit. Jeff has extensive knowledge of strategic product & partnership development with a particular focus on consumer mobile & online services within the emerging markets.

Jeff holds an MBA from London Business School and a BS in Finance from the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia. He has lived in several European countries, North America, and Middle East and speaks several languages including French and Spanish.


Charmaine Oak is Author of The Digital Money Game, co-author Virtual Currencies – From Secrecy to Safety

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Join us on Twitter @ShiftThoughtDM and The Digital Money Group on LinkedIn

Mobile Money in Zimbabwe– freely transfer money, in minutes not weeks!


As mobile penetration reached 106% , and effectively 60% of people in Zimbabwe now have access to mobile services, mobile operators have gone a step further. They now offer people safe and convenient ways to transfer money, pay for electricity and basic services and last but not least, add much needed top-up to their own mobile phones, or those of friends and family. Having helped people communicate, they’re now helping them transact and receive money from abroad, helping the country recover from the hyper inflation of 2008 and the loss of their currency.




When the Zimbabwe dollar failed to recover in spite of multiple rebirths: ZWD in 1980, ZWN in 2006, ZWR in 2008, and it’s fourth incarnation of ZWL in 2009, foreign currency finally got legalised in January 2009 and the Zimbabwean dollar was abandoned by April 2009. It is difficult to imagine how a country of 14 million people quietly went about with “business as usual”, as less than 2 million had access to any kind of formal banking services.

In a country where every individual is an entrepreneur there was a gap for how they pay and get paid locally, regionally and internationally. Now new services are starting to fill the needs, but success for all the entrants can by no means be taken for granted.


Mobile money brings new hope

Now though, a transformation is under way as over 5 million people have found new ways to carry out daily transactions through a 10,000+ agent and merchant network of small stores that function as points for people to open accounts, deposit and withdraw cash and pay bills.


ecocashThe largest operator in the country, Econet Wireless, now has 3.5 million of their subscriber base using their EcoCash Mobile Money service, since it launched in September 2011. At the time, the other two operators had already launched similar services that failed to capture the market, so it was not clear whether they would succeed. Today though, they already handle over $4.5 billion worth of transactions, and a vibrant ecosystem of merchants and services has built up in a remarkably short time.


telecashThe second largest operator, Telecel (Orascom) had entered the market in December 2011 without much success, but just as Telecel closed down their service Skwama, Econet made a break through with their Ecocash service. So while it may have seemed like Telecel had an option, the reality is that mobile money is now a part of the core package subscribers expect in Zimbabwe. Early this year Telecel launched Telecash, and four months ago they launched a mobile money Android app for Telecash. This time with a promise of free transfers, free cash in and cash out have had the desired effect, with 600,000 users taking up the service and reported transaction levels of $17 million.


imageThe third operator Netone is also seeing better traction with their mobile money service One Wallet now supported through a 1,100 strong network, though active subscribers are still nearer to 200,000 than to their 750,000 target.



nettcashMobile operators are not the only active players. In May 2014 a service call NettCash launched with a unique contactless technology called Near Sound Data Transfer (NSDT), an additional API and promise of online payment. As of today it claims to have over 200,000 customers supported by 1052+ agents and merchants. Our Shift Thought knowledge base registers over 18 services from a variety of players, as the market grows to meet the needs of the people.


The banks awaken

Now that the people have voted with their feet and regularly visit conveniently located agents, banks are anxious to get a slice of the newly established market. Econet owned Steward Bank supports Telecash, but a few days back launched their own new AllSave Bank Account that is supported at some of the Telecash agents. This low cost account is expected to help to deepen the customer relationship, with loans and other services. As seen in Pakistan, I expect this could result in the other mobile operators looking around for a suitable bank to acquire, to match the business models that Econet can now aspire to.


Agent networks: To share or not to share?

The new battleground is the agent network. As the pressure mounts to enrol customers, there has been a reluctance to share agents. This recently resulted in a directive from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe to discourage exclusivity of agents. However an interoperable agent network may raise as many questions as it solves and I see a need for new processes and compliance structures that are likely to gain focus in 2015.


Remittances made easy

Now that domestic money transfer has been conquered, the providers are turning their attention to the $1.9 billion formal remittances (equal amount of informal?) that are sent into the country. There has been concern as this declined markedly by 15% from $2.1 billion in 2012 to $1.8 billion in 2013. The main send countries include South Africa, UK, Canada, Australia and the United States.

If these transfers can be used to fund mobile money wallets and use digital money for daily transactions, that would help the fledgling services to thrive and grow. UK-based WorldRemit  offers an internet-based money transfer service from UK, from where an estimated 600,000 diaspora send money home to Zimbabwe. Telecel has partnered with UK based for remittances from South Africa, from where an estimated 2 million migrants send money home. And certainly, Econet is well placed to address the opportunity for regional remittances, thanks to their presence across neighbouring countries in Africa.


Online payments – at last!

The vibrant mobile money market is injecting life into other parts of the economy.  In June 2014 card based transactions increased in value by a whopping 21% over the previous month, to reach $361 million. MasterCard recently announced a partnership with EcoNet to offer debit cards for EcoCash Accounts. Mobile and Internet transactions together have risen to $388 million, with electronic payments bringing in a new era of accountability and hope for the country.


The future of mobile money in Zimbabwe – will it mature into digital money in 2015?

What happens next depends on whether the Zimbabwe ecosystem is able to make that difficult transition to non-cash payments, merchant payments and retail payments. As the agent network grows, the small stores must fully embrace the services and find their businesses succeeding due to this. The country must go a long way to strengthen the building blocks and weaken the real enemy, cash and this means that all will need to pull in the same direction.

But underlying all this progress is one building block that must not be forgotten. Zimswitch provides the rails that allow for instant funds transfer and also supports mobile and online payment services. These underlying enablers need to be strengthened and connected into the vast developing digital economy – regional and global.

Though this is hard at first, Shift Thought research in markets around the world show that if everyone in the ecosystem starts to believe from their hearts that the success of one money service does not mean the failure of another, more people start to embrace the services and the whole market grows. I believe we have much to look forward to with the march of digital money in Zimbabwe, not just for Zimbabweans or even Africans, but for the future of payments around the world.


Charmaine Oak

Practice Lead, Digital Money

Email   :


Author of The Digital Money Game, co-author Virtual Currencies – From Secrecy to Safety

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Join me on Twitter @ShiftThoughtDM and The Digital Money Group on LinkedIn


Nurturing Mobile Money ecosystems to scale

For a service to reach scale one needs to create a healthy ecosystem in which all the key stakeholders can thrive. While it is vitally important that consumers get services at the right price, we should not lose sight of the requirements across the entire ecosystem.

While mobile money ecosystems have grown and reached scale in many African countries, the model has proved hard to replicate outside of Africa. Indeed, for a while it was hard to get the model to work beyond M-Pesa in  Kenya. This month I took stock on the services we monitor on the Shift Thought knowledge base, and I depict below some of the key services now available in Africa.


As of today the GSMA registers over 242 deployments, with over 13 deployments having more than a million active accounts.


In “Can Mobile Money be 'Free'?” the last of an excellent series of posts of business models for mobile money, CGAP authors Kabir Kumar and Toru Mino discuss whether and how mobile money can be “free”. They argue that “free” could lead to greater profits as offering everyday transactions could drive adoption. Indirect benefits of mobile money – cost savings on airtime or retained ARPU from churn reduction — become significant drivers of profitability only at greater levels of adoption.

Unfortunately as every mobile operator in a country offers their own service, the argument regarding churn (customers changing operator) tends to lose it’s charm. We get a different perspective from GSMA in their “Insights into mobile money agent networks” . That report quotes a manager of a successful mobile money service :

“If I could have done just one thing differently,

I would have gone to market with higher tariffs”


As substantial amounts move through mobile money platforms, another key stakeholder, the government, starts to be concerned about what providers charge. In Uganda with an estimated 5 million active mobile money users, people opting for bank accounts continues to drop. The Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) continues it’s campaign to get more mobile money agents to register and pay tax (See: Mobile money agents set to enter tax net).

As more of the money flows through the new systems, the expectation of taxes from these systems begins to move higher on the agenda. Indeed there have been cases in the recent past where governments have intervened as price wars reached a crescendo, in one case actually forbidding a provider from pricing that involved scrapping certain fees.

In my view it is critical that such timely interventions do take place to help to maintain the balance in these ecosystems. This week a survey by MicroSave and The Helix Institute of Digital Finance reports that Kenyan agents are finding it hard to survive, with 17% not profitable, and close to half anticipating to exit the business, in this, the largest mobile money market in the world today.

If prices are to remain low enough to keep the services accessible, yet high enough to sustain agents and keep the systems secure and scalable, we at Shift Thought see only one real way forward. That is to introduce shared processes, services and infrastructure, certainly within the countries but also across countries. We see other such models developing in markets we’ve recently studied, and visualise rich possibilities from interoperability. We therefore welcome the GSMA Interoperability initiative in which over 9 high profile telecoms companies already participate. The signing of the first interoperability agreement between Tigo, Airtel and Zantel in Tanzania this month opens the possibility of further co-operation, that we hope will help to create equations that add up for every major stakeholder, as only then can these systems thrive and grow.

Come join us on the new Digital Money Group on Linked In where we regularly share the latest Shift Thought research. We welcome all our readers to post interesting discussions, to make payments “come alive” for all of us.