How M-Pesa disrupts entire economies

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Back in 2011, I was asked to give my thoughts on what I thought would trend in mobile within between then and 2020. One of my predictions was that: “Mobile money will shift economies on a large-scale and across borders.”

It came as an interesting discovery to learn therefore that according to recent Africa Development Bank (AfDB) research, increased uptake of M-Pesa, which is the literal mother of mobile money, is said to be contributing to inflation in Kenya. Inflation was a major problem in the Kenyan economy in 2011, having hit a high of 19.7% towards the end of the year.

It seems we have already got to that point where mobile money is becoming a matter of concern for national economies. According to an article in a Kenyan business paper:

Increased uptake of M-Pesa, Kenya’s dominant money transfer service, has fuelled inflation as the service grew large enough to influence implementation of monetary policy, an African Development Bank (AfDB) study claims.

Recently speculation broke out on Kenyan online business forum Wazua that Safaricom, Kenya’s top mobile and M-Pesa operator, would buy a bank. Whether such speculations are true or not, one thing is for sure, mobile money has come a long way in a relatively short-term and it’s affecting economies at the household level but also at a national level. This area of M-Finance, as it were, will become an area of increasing interest in future.

1. The household level
A couple of years ago William Jack of Georgetown University and Tavneet Suri of MIT Sloan carried out a survey in which they sought to investigate the “Economics of M-Pesa“. Apparently the survey had the blessing of the Central Bank of Kenya, Safaricom and Vodafone.

Perhaps the most interesting effects of mobile money on households relates to ease of movement of funds and saving capacity.

The survey found that M-Pesa encouraged people to feel safe about keeping funds in their M-Pesa account for fairly extended periods of time. On the other hand, mobile money also affords an easy and cost friendly means of moving money.

It is true that Safaricom is moving massive amounts per day via M-Pesa — estimates suggest about 2-billion shillings (US$24-million) a day. It’s interesting that this amount is actually a minor fraction of the total money moved within the country. According to the same report (based on fairly dated information):

…the volume of transactions effected between banks under the RTGS (Real Time Gross Settlement] method is nearly 700 times the daily value transacted through M‐Pesa. On the other hand, the average mobile transaction is about a hundred times smaller than the average check transaction (Automated Clearing House, or ACH), and even just half the size of the average Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) transaction. Thus M‐Pesa is not designed to replace all payment mechanisms, but has found and filled a niche in the market in which it provides significantly enhanced financial services.

2. The community level
Beyond households, mobile money is affecting local community economics.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded a project in 2010 that was designed to examine the impact of financial services on the lives of poor people across the developing world.

Part of their outcomes relating to the effects of M-Pesa were published in a paper.

The study found that M-Pesa had four overarching economic effects at the community level:

  1. Local economic expansion: In essence, the team found that M-Pesa facilitated increased money circulation which had an effect of increasing local consumption, which of course means more business for local store owners and the like. In addition, new business and employment opportunities arise — for example the establishment of M-Pesa agents. Existing store owners could also diversify their offering by including this service that is now in much demand.
  2. Security: Other than physical security (i.e. muggers realising that few people carry liquid cash) the study found that M-Pesa contributed to money security, that is by enabling people to safely store funds in their mobile money account.
  3. Capital accumulation: Being able to save money instead of spend it enables wage earners to accumulate financial resources on their phone safely, even without having to have a bank account or resort to a less secure mechanism such as keeping cash under the mattress.
  4. Business environment: Jack and Suri reckon that “M-Pesa reduces the overall transaction cost of moving capital along a network and increases the flow of capital. While the amount of money M-Pesa moves is relatively small among formal financial systems in Kenya, the number of transactions and volume of flow is increasing and covers larger segments of Kenya’s population in terms of income, age and depth and breadth of access”.

The national level: monetary policy
This is where things get really interesting. The effects at the household and even community level are fairly predictable. The national economic effects however have been more gradual and have become more pronounced with the increased adoption and use of mobile money services.

Impact of Mobile Money on GDP
Menekse Gencer of mPay Connect Consulting believes mobile money has triggered improvements in GDP. Genker believes that a 10% rise in mobile subscribers in emerging markets would lead to a 0.6% to 1.2% increase in GDP. Why would mobile money make contributions to a country’s GDP? According to Menekse, the answer lies in 5 forces inherent to mobile money:

  1. The ubiquity of data transmission that mobile provides means that financial services can be extended to reach people who were previously unreachable.
  2. Mobile money as a new industry that is precipitating new investments for new ventures, new jobs and new revenue streams for existing companies.
  3. Mobile money as an infrastructure supporting new businesses in other industries.
  4. Mobile money formalizes the informal financial sector , enabling savings, loans and investments in lieu of “cash under the mattress”.
  5. Mobile money enables efficiencies associated with digitization and reduces frictions associated with cash (such as theft or “shoe leather costs”).

Impact of mobile money on monetary policy

Mobile money would affect monetary policy in two ways: supply and velocity

Supply

  • Currency circulation: Mobile money creates a situation where people have more money in their pockets in the form of mobile money. What happens if these stores become vastly more than actual cash in supply?
  • Demand deposits: Traditionally demand deposits have been considered to include easily accessible funds stored in demand deposit accounts in a commercial bank. Well, how does storing money on your mobile phone fit into this? Furthermore, what if you could move the money offshore?

Velocity
The velocity of money is the average frequency with which a unit of money is spent in a specific period of time. Simply put, money held in M-Pesa accounts has much higher transactional velocity.

“Evidence shows that the transactions velocity of M-Pesa may be three to four times higher than the transactions velocity of other components of money. The increase in the velocity of money induced by these activities may have in turn propagated self-fulfilling inflation expectations and complicated monetary policy implementation,” said AfDB in a brief on inflation dynamics in selected East African Countries.

The fact of the matter is that mobile money is not only disruptive in terms of technology, but also as far as economics goes. And this trend will continue into the future, perhaps becoming even more interesting as the uptake of mobile money increases, mobile payments and mobile transactions become mainstream (and even cross-border) as well as integrated to other forms of money stores.

Image courtesy of Pritamkabe.

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