Despite a rise in mobile phone users and the introduction of mobile money offering across Africa more than four years ago, the use of mobile money services in West Africa is still relatively low, industry insiders say.
There are several factors -- mainly cultural -- slowing down growth of mobile money services in West Africa, according to Daniel Osei-Antwi, the managing director of Splash Money, the only m-money service provider in Sierra Leone.
"The switch from cash to mobile money is a huge leap for most people, especially in a country like Sierra Leone where enabling conditions like literacy and general tech savviness still lag behind," Osei-Antwi said.
"To gain widespread acceptance, we need a behavioral change that takes time to happen as people develop more trust in the whole cashless concept. Even in countries like Ghana and Nigeria where one might expect people to embrace mobile money more quickly, the uptake has been slow. People still love the feel of cash in their pockets!" Osei-Antwi said.
Lack of exposure to technology has slowed down the acceptance of mobile money even among young people, said Edmond Nonie, co-founder and CEO of Sierra Leone-based GoShop.sl.
"In terms of mobile money, the market is presented with a product that is a powerful tool but it requires change not only in behavior but deep-set psychology," Nonie said. "Sierra Leone's population, though young and within the ideal age bracket for technology assimilation, has a large majority with little to no exposure to technology," Nonie added.
Sierra Leone's recent war-torn history also has an impact on how quickly the local culture can embrace change, Nonie pointed out.
A survey conducted by the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) a World Bank Group organization specializing in microfinance, found that while Western Africa has 7.7 million registered mobile money user accounts, only 717,364 were active.
The absence of major telecom companies from the mobile money market is a major reason for lack of use of such services, according to Airtel Nigeria's director of Regulatory Affairs and Special Projects, Osondu Nwokoro. In a paper last year, "Low Mobile Money Uptake in Nigeria: Causes and Remedies," he said that almost three years after the approval of mobile money services in the country, only about 2.2 percent of adults with bank accounts have subscribed to such offerings.
There is a high cost associated with educating the market to achieve behavioral change, Osei-Antwi added.
"If you look at the most successful mobile money company, which is M-Pesa in Kenya, the sponsors had to invest more than $30 million in the first two years alone just to penetrate the Kenyan market," Osei-Antwi said. "More recently, there's been another strong performer in Zimbabwe called EcoCash, and they've reportedly invested more than $50 million in the past three years," he said.
"Sierra Leone is about half the size of Zimbabwe, so assuming the same cost per head, we could easily be looking at a $25 million spending spree just to blitz the market and build the distribution network to support our services," Osei-Antwi added.
Nonie believes sales promotions are needed, including long-term investments by mobile money companies for as much as $100,000 to $250,000 for subsidizing purchases made with mobile money.
Also, a new idea like mobile money needs an ecosystem of institutions championing it and encouraging people and organizations to give it a try, said Osei-Antwi. As with most new technologies, there will be early adopters, but most people will need some time to build trust in the mobile money services before giving them a try.
"I have no doubt that mobile money will change the face of Africa's financial services sector within the next 10 years," Osei-Antwi said. "As we've already seen, things will pick up faster in some countries than others. For Sierra Leone, I think the growing credibility from working with organizations like NPA, DSTV, government institutions, international NGOs and others will help us to really penetrate the market this year."