A little under a decade ago, in 2010, Ghanaians were thrilled when a well-scripted commercial in which an elderly rural dwelling woman excitedly exclaiming “mensa aka oo, mensa aka!”; Twi words that translate to “I’ve received it o, I’ve received it!” was aired on television.
That commercial for most of us was how we first heard about MTN Mobile Money; the new way to make instant money transfers to your loved ones via their phone numbers. It sounded wonderful and somehow unbelievable. What a lot of us didn’t imagine was how MTN was about to transform Ghana’s fintech industry with that timely piece of innovation.
Prior to MTN’s entrance into the business of money transfers in Ghana, the Ghana Post enjoyed monopoly with its Instant Money Transfer service. Although it was okay and secure, you had to (sometimes) travel quite a distance to the nearest post office before you can send or receive funds — an inconvenience to many who didn’t have a Ghana Post office close by.
That inconvenience left some others with a less secure option to explore; using STC or GPRTU’s parcel service to send money to loved ones who then had to call and confirm their identity before they could take receipt of the package.
This also presented a security risk to the transport companies, as anyone — including highway robbers, knew that they were guaranteed some cash aboard any marked vehicle. It was therefore a relief when MTN Mobile Money came into being — presenting users with a much secure alternative to what was available.
By 2009, mobile phones were no longer a luxury item that only the well to do could afford. The availability of cheap feature phones on the market meant that with just a hundred cedis or even less, one could own a mobile handset to make and receive calls with. It was around this time that MTN — a mobile telecommunications service provider took a step toward providing financial services to its subscribers.
Realising that a large number of its subscriber base was in the unbanked pool, MTN devised an innovative and inclusive system that would allow financial transactions to be conducted on the network. That system became known as MTN Mobile Money (MoMo).
With the advent of MoMo, it became a lot easier to transfer money to friends and relatives as well as make payments for goods and services. Suddenly, people didn’t have to trek considerable distances to the post office before receiving funds sent them. One only had to locate one of the many MoMo agents dotted around the community in order to be served.
Since MTN introduced Mobile Money, the other networks namely Airtel, Tigo, and Vodafone have come up with their versions of the service (Airtel has since merged with Tigo to form Airtel-Tigo). As at the end of December 2016, the service provided employment to a total of 107,415 mobile money agents across the nation. MTN alone accounted for 54% of that with 58,000+ agents.
Over this 10-year period, MTN has increased its MoMo subscribers to 14 million — a massive figure considering that it had less than 100,000 subscribers 6 months after the service launched in 2009.
The massive impact on the economy cannot be left out either. In the recent Payment Systems Statistics report published by the Ghana Interbank Payment and Settlement Systems (GHIPSS), it was revealed that wallet to wallet transactions worth GH¢85.73million were conducted via the Mobile Money Interoperability system during the first quarter of 2019.
It’s now easier to do online shopping with many of such vendors accepting MoMo as a mode of payment. Paying utility bills, digital TV subscriptions, and even tuition for some educational institutions can be done through that platform. Also, you can make your National Health Insurance renewal payments via MoMo, as well as accessing soft loans (QwikLoan) through your account. In short, what started a decade ago, has opened the floodgates for many possibilities — which in turn changed the way financial payments are done in Ghana.
The success of MTN Mobile Money didn’t come without challenges. Being a pioneer meant the telecom giant had to bear the cost of infrastructural development as well as being responsible for marketing or expansion drives to bring awareness to the service.
A problem that crops up occasionally has to do with network downtime. It can be a frustrating inconvenience for a subscriber when (s)he is unable to perform transactions because the system is down. In that regard, a lot still needs to be done in order to ensure that emergency maintenance breaks do not extend for hours.
Another issue that’s of great concern to MTN Mobile Money subscribers, is the fraud that’s becoming prevalent within the system. While there’s much is expected from subscribers in regard to personal responsibility, a lot needs to be done by the service provider in order to be able to trace perpetrators for prosecution. In lots of cases, fake IDs were used in registering MoMo accounts — making it difficult for the police to apprehend the culprits in such instances. For this reason, stakeholders need to figure out a way to get on top of this as it impacts verification processes concerning transactions in other sectors.
There’s also the issue of security for both MTN Mobile Money Merchants as well as customers. In recent times, there have been many reports of merchants being attacked and their coffers looted, or customers being trailed and later robbed by criminals after they’d made a withdrawal.
Again, while a lot can be delegated to personal responsibility in individuals being aware of irregular activities and behaviors around themselves, it would be great if the telcos would provide their merchants with logistics and mechanisms that can protect them in them in the case of such emergency situations.
A suggestion I’ll put on the table is that branded safes (as safe as ATMs) be provided for merchants to keep their sales in so they won’t have to carry cash on their persons. That may seem a small step, but it can do a lot for these merchants.
While there’s still a lot more to be done toward achieving a cash-lite economy, it is quite remarkable how far we’ve gone with the financial inclusion agenda spearheaded by MTN MoMo and the other telcos’ platforms. Building a system where people can make payments on international platforms without the need for bank credit cards such as Visa, etc., is one of the next steps that stakeholders within the fintech sector should be considering. Maybe that’s a long way from being achieved, maybe not. But if past events are anything to stand by then, trust MTN to be at the forefront of the innovative future.