The fight to attract users to money-transfer services has come right to the doorsteps of banks in a marketing battle that is expected to spur a rush for customers and bring down high service charges by financial institutions in the region.
Nigeria and Kenya, Africa's big telecom markets, have moved to introduce mobile services that will get people out of bank queues to make transactions using phones. The services allow people to save money, get bank loans and even earn interest using mobile phones.
In Southern Africa, the Zambian government has directed the Bank of Zambia to give a license to the National Savings and Credit Bank (Natsave) that will allow the government-run commercial bank to provide mobile transactions to customers through mobile service providers.
Zambia's deputy minister of finance and national planning, Miles Sampa, said traditional banking services must be provided alongside mobile services to improve efficiency.
"I have directed the Bank of Zambia to quickly give a license to Natsave so that the bank can improve its payment system because in this era of innovations, we can't still be talking about delayed payments," Sampa said this week during the bank's 40th anniversary.
It is expected that Zambians, especially those in rural areas, will have unlimited access to financial services including applications for loans and other bank services, and civil servants will no longer be traveling long distances to get their salaries.
In East Africa, Kenya's Safaricom, the country's largest mobile operator, has launched the M-Shwari service, designed to allow people using mobile phones to get loans from the bank. Safaricom launched the service jointly with the Commercial Bank of Africa.
For Kenyans, to qualify for a loan through M-Shwari, users need to be an M-pesa subscriber for at least six months, deposit some savings in their M-Shwari account and be a regular user of other Safaricom services such as voice and data.
M-pesa, which has over 15 million users in Kenya alone, is a mobile phone money transfer and micro-financing service for Safaricom and Vodacom.
The service means that there are no more ledger fees, no limits on the frequency of withdrawals, no minimum operating balance and no charges on deposits for M-pesa to M-Shwari accounts.
Under the M-Shwari arrangement, account holders can deposit less than a US$1 in savings and can borrow over $1,000, payable with a one-off interest rate of 7.5 percent. Commercial banks in most African countries normally charge more than 20 percent interest rates on loans.
Commercial Bank of Africa Chief Executive Jeremy Ngunze reported last week that more than 70,000 M-Shwari accounts were opened on the first day of operation.
In West Africa, MTN Nigeria said it is in full support of the mobile money service introduced by the Central Bank of Nigeria.
MTN's corporate services executive Akinwale Goodluck said the Central Bank of Nigeria's bank-led model has many merits and that its full implementation would achieve the Central Bank's stated objective to extend money transfer services to millions of Nigerians who are underserved by financial institutions
The Central Bank of Nigeria has licensed several banks to implement mobile money services in partnership with mobile operators . The services are expected, among other things, to alleviate the problems associated with a lack of brick-and-mortar banks in rural areas and the cumbersome traditional process of applying for a loan.
"The wind of change and financial inclusion is finally blowing in Africa. We are likely to see so many of the unbanked people now being embraced by banks. The whole arrangement has just changed the face of banking and borrowing in Africa," said Edith Mwale, telecom analyst at African Center for ICT Development.
Most people in Africa do not have bank accounts and do not have access to mainstream financial services. But at the same time, the majority of Africans both in rural and urban areas now own mobile phones. This is what has compelled most African governments to move to ensure that several mobile money services and products are offered through mobile phones in partnership with commercial banks.