This blog post was co-written by Jenny Frydrych and Aryan Jain.
While East Africa has long been the darling of mobile money innovation, West Africa has also witnessed impressive growth over the past five years. We recently published the decade edition of the State of the Industry Report on Mobile Money and this blog post specifically deep dives into the West African mobile money market.
- 13 out of 15 markets in West Africa have an enabling regulatory environment
- There are now three times as many registered mobile money accounts (92 million) as Facebook subscribers in the region
- Rapid growth in account activity shows that mobile money is becoming more relevant to user’s daily lives
- Agent networks have been growing quickly, however, agent activity remains a challenge
- West Africa processes the highest number of mobile money based international remittances transactions in the world, because of low prices and strong cross-border collaboration amongst mobile money providers
- Ecosystem transactions like merchant, bill and bulk payments are yet to flourish in most markets
Increased service availability and adoption
Over the last few years, West Africa has experienced noteworthy growth in both the availability and adoption of mobile money services. The number of live mobile money services in the region has more than doubled, from 25 in 2011 to 57 in 2016.This has helped the region to clock more than 90 million registered accounts by the end of 2016, which is three times as many as Facebook subscribers in the region and almost equal to the number of mobile broadband connections in West Africa. In fact, 10 out of 15 markets in the region today have more registered mobile money accounts than broadband connections.
While the number of registered accounts is a good indicator for the growing ubiquity of mobile money, the number of active accounts is the more meaningful metric to measure the speed at which customers are adopting mobile money services. Over the past five years, the number of 90-day active accounts in West Africa increased faster than registered mobile money accounts, from 9.2 million registered and 1.5 million active accounts in December 2011 to 91.6 million registered and 28.6 million active accounts in 2016, suggesting that mobile money is becoming more relevant to people’s daily lives. In fact, seven deployments in the region had more than a million active accounts in December 2016.
Furthermore, today West Africa is home to a third of all active accounts in Sub-Saharan Africa, compared to less than 10% five years ago. The rapid increase in account activity shows that providers in the region are getting smarter on what it takes to encourage regular and continued usage of the services, for example by launching new products such as bill payments, international remittances and school fee payments. Of course none of these are possible, if providers don’t sustain investment levels. According to the 2016 Global Adoption Survey, 54% of respondents from West Africa maintained or increased their investment in mobile money during 2016.
West African customers adopting more sophisticated products
Customers in West Africa are still avid users of traditional use cases, such as P2P transfers and airtime top-ups but in recent years, customers are gradually adopting more sophisticated products such as bill payments and international remittances. Although the volumes of ‘ecosystem transactions’ (payments involving third parties) tripled between 2013 and 2016, a big opportunity still exists for mobile money providers as these transactions accounted for just 3% of the total volume of transactions as of December 2016.
Providers should focus on shifting customer behaviour towards using more sophisticated products by working with partners to digitise everyday payments – payment for goods and services at merchants, utility bill payments, payments for government services and even bulk disbursements.
It is crucial for providers to find the right products that make sense in the overall market context. For instance, in Côte d’Ivoire, mobile money providers partnered with the government to digitise school registration fees and customer uptake was rapid. Another successful initiative was the collaboration between mobile money providers across borders in West Africa. Orange Money launched international money transfers between Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Senegal in July 2013. Adoption was rapid, with transaction volumes and values roughly doubling every six months, reaching an impressive 24.7% of the total value of remittances between these three markets eighteen months after launch.
Today, West Africa processes the highest share of mobile money-based international remittances globally. At the end of 2016, there were 23 live international remittances corridors across 10 countries in the region where mobile money was both the sending and receiving channel. This past year, GSMA research showed that the cost of sending international remittances using mobile money is much cheaper than traditional Money Transfer Operators (MTOs). In fact, sending international remittance using mobile money in West Africa is, on average, 60% cheaper than using global MTOs.
Agent networks growing quickly, yet activity requires attention
Mobile money agent networks have also grown quickly across West Africa. However, while agent activity rates have risen dramatically from 38% in 2011 to 50% in 2016, agent activity still requires attention to ensure sufficient accessibility for customers. As of December 2016, half of the 470,000 registered agents in West Africa were active. Compared to East Africa, this figure is quite low—68% of 861,000 agents in East Africa were active during the same period. A higher agent activity rate signifies improved efficiency in agent management and in turn leads to better margins for the service provider in the long run.
West Africa has come a long way in the past few years, but there are still strides to be made. Mobile money agents remain the backbone for the industry, mainly for digitising and disbursing cash. However, agent activity remains a challenge for most providers in the region due to a range of reasons, such as lack of investment or complex market contexts. Furthermore, changing customers behaviour and enabling them to make more sophisticated payments is a not an easy task. Understanding the market context and offering the right products that can be the hook for evolving usage beyond domestic payments is the key.
However, we anticipate the region to reach new heights in the coming years built on the existing enabling regulatory environment, increased partnerships, robust and sustained investments and in turn establishing mobile money as a payment platform.
 See Mobile Money: Enabling regulatory solutions. Simone di Castri, February 2013. http://www.gsma.com/publicpolicy/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/GSMA2013_Report_Mobile-Money-EnablingRegulatorySolutions.pdf
 on a 90-day basis