JOHANNESBURG -- If you want to follow the money in Africa, look no further than the continent's mobile phone sphere.
Agriculture employs roughly 65% of Africa's labor force, and almost all these workers have a mobile phone. Couple the device with powerful sectors such as financial services and farming, and you have tens of thousands of people changing the face of Africa's crucial industries.
Mobile money transfer services such as M-Pesa are taking full advantage of the booming mobile phone industry in Africa, and are providing basic financial services to those unable to otherwise access the formal banking sector.
M-Pesa is a mobile money transfer and micro-financing service that begun in 2007 with Safaricom, a Kenyan mobile network operator, and Vodacom. M-pesa allows mobile phone users to send, receive and withdraw money from mobile credit outlets and other retailers, who are known as M-Pesa agents. "Pesa" is the Swahili word for money, and "M" stands for mobile.
Payments can be made by first loading money on to one's M-Pesa account, which can be done by handing cash over to an M-Pesa agent, who then loads it on to one's M-Pesa account. The user can then pay bills or send money, and all transactions are free of charge.
According to McKinsey and Company, 80% of Africa's total adult population do not use formal or semi-formal financial services. On the one hand, this means that most of Africa's formal financial service providers are losing out.
This however creates an opportunity for mobile money services such as Kenya's M-Pesa to provide financial services anywhere and everywhere on the continent, in the palm of your hand.
"Mobile money services are becoming more and more secure as they mature, thanks to better regulation, stronger security mechanisms and enhanced business processes being implemented by the service providers. Consumers have adopted these services as the convenience and benefits offered by the services have far outweighed the perceived risks," said Rajiv Bhatia, head of mobile commerce sales for EMEA regions at Ericsson.
"In many countries outside East Africa, there is still a need for consumer education to build trust around these services, and this is something we expect service providers to continue to put focus on," says Bhatia.
In its 2013 sub-Saharan Africa Mobile Economy report, the GSM Association explained that by the middle of 2013, there had been 253 million unique mobile subscribers, as well as 502 million active SIM connections, in the region of roughly 911 million people. Ninety-five percent of those subscriptions were on prepaid tariffs.
The unique mobile subscriber base had also grown by 18 percent per annum in the last five years, making sub-Saharan Africa by some distance the fastest-growing region globally.
This is however a high percentage of people known as the "unbanked," because of their inability to afford or gain access to having a traditional bank account. One of the main challenges of being unbanked is the inability to access any form of credit because of a non-existent credit record.
Not having a formal bank account also means that information such as proof of income and expenses are not documented, which are essential for aspects such as car or house purchases.
With M-Pesa's lifeblood running in the form of the mobile phone, its first advantage is the ability to reach those not only in urban areas but also the thousands of the unbanked in rural and semi-urban areas, with markets including Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Fiji, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Romania.
Leonia Masmin, a young Tanzanian woman working at Tanzania Investment Bank Limited in Dar es Salaam, has been a part of M-Pesa ever since it launched in 2007.
"With a stable network, I can use M-Pesa once a day. Most times I buy credit for my phone, and I can send money maybe twice a month," Masmin says, and added that the money transfers are usually to her family.
"Every month I used to pay for electricity and DSTV (cable television in Africa) through M-Pesa. It's helped make payments easier because I don't have to go to TANESCO [Tanzania's electricity utility] to buy electricity, or to go to shops to buy mobile phone vouchers."
M-Pesa's winning streak could however see some competition, as banks and mobile network operators start forging partnerships to give the unbanked more than just mobile money transfer options.
Recently, French multinational bank BNP Paribas and French mobile network operator Orange partnered to provide their retail customers in Africa the option of not only money transfers and bill payments, but gain access to services such as a savings account and an international bank card.
Although the service is so far available in Côte d'Ivoire, it is providing services to both the banked and unbanked, and potentially allowing them to never to walk into a bank branch ever again.
M-Pesa was the first to introduce the mobile money concept, and more mobile money and banking services have since begun cropping up.
"Mobile Money services like M-Pesa are becoming commonplace in most parts of Africa and the trend is picking up other emerging markets as well," Bhatia explained.
"The East Africa countries like Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda have seen consumer adoption rates in line with those of the mobile money services in Kenya. Additionally, countries like Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal in the West of Africa have multiple mobile money services available for consumers to choose from today."
Also gaining full steam is M-Pawa, a banking service between Vodacom Tanzania and the Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA), a Tanzanian bank.
The service allows Vodacom customers to save money through one's mobile phone, access microloans from the CBA as well as transfer money between one's M-Pawa and M-Pesa account. Customers can also earn interest as they save.
M-Pawa, like M-Pesa, targets the those currently outside the formal banking sector, and since its launch in mid-May this year, has already raked in an excess of 1.2 billion Tanzanian shillings ($590,000).
Despite the slow growth in modern and industrial infrastructure, M-Pesa and similar mobile banking and money applications have nevertheless designed services for the layman as a means of keeping them on track with the continent's rapid telecommunications transformation.
"Africans see the mobile device as a means to improve their lives and access better opportunities. We believe that sub-Saharan Africa will see strong growth in the pick-up of mobile subscriptions, by 2019 sub-Saharan Africa will have around 476 million smartphone subscriptions as compared to 64 million in 2013," said Bhatia.