As stiff competition eats into voice revenue for Africa's mobile operators, Bharti Airtel has moved to provide banking services in a bid to increase revenue.
In order to facilitate the development of innovative mobile financial services focused on customers who do not have full access to banks, Airtel has partnered with Ecobank Transnational in 14 African countries in which both companies have a presence.
Airtel and Ecobank have agreed to launch a wide range of mobile financial services including person to person (P2P), Business to Business (B2B) under the brand names of "Ecobank Mobile" and "Airtel Money." So far not service provider is providing B2B mobile financial services targeted at small businesses and enterprises.
Airtel is however joining a market that is already heavily contested with service providers including MTN, Safaricom and Vodacom. The increase in mobile money services has been caused by increased accessibility of mobile phones both in urban and rural areas.
The partnering of Airtel and Ecobank in providing mobile financial services is expected to result in stiff competition that will significantly bring down the cost of mobile money services. Currently, Africa's mobile money is dominated by Safaricom and MTN. Safaricom uses the M-pesa mobile money service to remit and receive money across the East African region and South Africa.
Last year, MTN partnered with Western Union and introduced international remittance services in 21 countries in Africa and the Middle East where MTN has a presence. MTN subscribers registered for the service receives money through Western Union money transfer transactions in their mobile phones.
Most Africans are now using mobile financial services to buy goods, pay utility bills, buy mobile airtime as well as receive funds from abroad. According to the World Bank, Uganda receives nearly US$500 million in remittances every year, making up 3 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). Mobile banking has also considerably attracted low- income populations often residing in rural areas who may not be able to afford a traditional bank account.
By launching the mobile money service, Airtel hopes it will be able to wrestle some customers from service providers already providing the service and to persuade Ecobank's customers to use the mobile money service. But although Ecobank is well established in West Africa, in Southern Africa, the bank is relatively new with a presence only in Zambia and Zimbabwe, with a very small customer base.