Authors: François de Soyres, Mohamed Abdel Jelil, Caroline Cerruti and Leah Kiwara
Embracing the new technologies that are rapidly transforming the world would be a way for the countries of the Middle East and North Africa to unleash the potential of their large and tech-savvy youth populations. For this to happen, the region will need to create the key ‘digital public goods,’ with mobile money one of the most important.
In the modern digital age, broadband internet and online payment systems are the bridges and roads of the traditional, physical economy. They connect businesses with customers and create markets. For this digital market to function, it is vital that businesses and their customers have a means for transferring money electronically.
For a successful model, the Arab World can look to Kenya’s development of mobile money or “M-Pesa”. In many ways, the elements that lead to M-Pesa’s success in Kenya are already present in the Arab World. Young people in MENA are digitally savvy, are active on social media and are some of the heaviest users of mobile phones in the world.
The successful adoption of M-Pesa in Kenya reverberated across the African startup scene. It acted as a catalyzer and a signal for young entrepreneurs in Kenya and Africa as a whole: revolutionary ideas could be successfully implemented in Africa and generate both business opportunities and a development path for local communities.
If this was true in Africa, can it also be true for the Middle East?
What is M-Pesa?
In March 2007, Safaricom, Kenya’s leading mobile operator, revolutionized the way Kenyans manage money by introducing M-Pesa.
Money transfer via SMS texting was the first service offered. Using a basic mobile phone, users could electronically send and withdraw funds. The actual exchange of money–the deposit and withdrawal–occurs through a network of agents that essentially act as ATMs. M-Pesa agents include small shops, gas stations, post offices, and even traditional bank branches. Today, there are more than 110,000 M-Pesa agents, 40 times the number of bank ATMS in Kenya.
The service is priced in a way to attract as many network agents as possible. A cash deposit is free, but a sliding commission is charged either when e-money is sent or withdrawn as cash. Agents earn a fraction of the value of transaction volume they generate (both cash deposits and withdrawals). Everyone can use M-Pesa, however, non-registered users pay a substantially higher fee than those registered with accounts. This is to encourage more people to register in the platform.
Since 2007, M-Pesa’s services have continued to expand. At first, it was limited to buying airtime for mobile calls or paying utility bills and schools fees. In 2012, M-Pesa launched a service enabling users to open interest-paying saving accounts and to obtain short-term loans. In 2017, Safaricom launched a platform that enabled small-holder farmers to use mobile phones to connect with suppliers (for such things as fertilizers, seeds, animal feeds), agronomists, information services and even outlets to sell their harvest.
On its tenth anniversary, M-Pesa was serving 30 million customers across 10 countries. Today, 96% of households outside the Kenyan capital of Nairobi have at least one M-Pesa account.
Studies have found that households using M-Pesa are better able to withstand sudden declines in income because they can more easily receive remittances and are saving more money. Moreover, M-Pesa lead to financial empowerment of women and helped them gain control over their income. This translated into some women graduating from agriculture into more productive jobs.
The adoption of M-Pesa has had a tremendous effect on Nairobi’s startup scene. Over the past few years, the startup ecosystem in Nairobi grew very actively with business models building on M-PESA’s foundations. Kenyan startups raised a total of US$32.8 million in 2017, according to the most recent African Tech Startups Funding Report, the third largest amount raised by any one country on the continent. There are now 38 fintech start-ups active in Kenya.
Why M-Pesa grew
The growth of M-Pesa is the result of many factors, including the ease of setting up an account (which is free and only requires an official ID), its simplicity of use, its affordability, the high literacy rate of the population, and the high penetration of mobile phones.
Another key element to M-Pesa’s growth worth emphasizing is the regulatory stance adopted by the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK). It decided not to oppose the entry of the telecom operator into the financial sector as long as it offered sufficient guarantees. CBK adopted an “above the fray” position as a regulator and allowed for experimentation in order to foster innovation.
The leading position of Safaricom allowed for significant investment in agents and the mobile network. Due to push back from its competitors, in 2016, the Competition Authority of Kenya ordered Safaricom to open its network of M-Pesa agents to the other telecom companies offering mobile money services. A year later, telecom operators reached an agreement that allows users to exchange money regardless of whether both parties to the transaction have the same provider.
A MENA perspective
MENA could easily follow in Kenya’s footsteps, and reap immense benefits. The adoption of mobile payment systems makes transactions cheaper, easier and safer. By simplifying how clients can pay for goods and services, it helps firms reach out to new customers and foster private sector development across the economy. Moreover, as is often the case with innovations, it has the potential to be built upon and used by other new technologies and to create a positive momentum in fintech as a whole.
Governments in the Middle East and North Africa should enable digital innovation with conducive regulations and the development of a regulatory ‘sandbox’, which guarantees the security of transactions but allows for experimentation, that would stimulate the development and adoption of disruptive innovations.
Today, economic connectivity is achieved by the development and harmonization of optic fibers, IT equipment, online payment systems, information transmission and data protection policies. If the MENA region puts sufficient efforts in this direction, it could propose a new path to its citizens, in particular the youth, and bring about a new development strategy adapted to the modern age.
Finding Fulcrum to Move the World Economics
Where hidden is the fulcrum to bring about new global-age thinking and escape current mysterious economic models that primarily support super elitism, super-richness, super tax-free heavens and super crypto nirvanas; global populace only drifts today as disconnected wanderers at the bottom carrying flags of ‘hate-media’ only creating tribal herds slowly pushed towards populism. Suppose, if we accept the current indices already labeled as success as the best of show of hands, the game is already lost where winners already left the table. Finding a new fulcrum to move the world economies on a better trajectory where human productivity measured for grassroots prosperity is a critically important but a deeply silent global challenge. Here are some bold suggestions
ONE- Global Measurement: World connectivity is invisible, grossly misunderstood, miscalculated and underestimated of its hidden powers; spreading silently like an invisible net, a “new math” becomes the possible fulcrum for the new business world economy; behold the ocean of emerging global talents from new economies, mobilizing new levels of productivity, performance and forcing global shifts of economic powers. Observe the future of borderless skills, boundary less commerce and trans-global public opinion, triangulation of such will simply crush old thinking.
Archimedes yelled, “…give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world…”
After all, half of the world during the last decade, missed the entrepreneurial mindset, understoodonly as underdog players of the economy, the founders, job-creators and risk-taker entrepreneurs of small medium businesses of the world, pushed aside while kneeling to big business staged as institutionalized ritual. Although big businesses are always very big, nevertheless, small businesses and now globally accepted, as many times larger. Study deeply, why suddenly now the small medium business economy, during the last budgetary cycles across the world, has now become the lone solution to save dwindling economies. Big business as usual will take care of itself, but national economies already on brink left alone now need small business bases and hard-core raw entrepreneurialism as post-pandemic recovery agendas.
TWO – Ground Realities: National leadership is now economic leadership, understanding, creating and managing, super-hyper-digital-platform-economies a new political art and mobilization of small midsize business a new science: The prerequisites to understand the “new math” is the study of “population-rich-nations and knowledge rich nations” on Google and figure out how and why can a national economy apply such new math.
Today a USD $1000 investment in technology buys digital solutions, which were million dollars, a decade ago.Today,a $1000 investment buys on global-age upskilling on export expansion that were million dollars a decade ago. Today, a $1000 investment on virtual-events buys what took a year and cost a million dollars a decade ago. Today, any micro-small-medium-enterprise capable of remote working models can save 80% of office and bureaucratic costs and suddenly operate like a mini-multi-national with little or no additional costs.
Apply this math to population rich nations and their current creation of some 500 million new entrepreneurial businesses across Asia will bring chills across the world to the thousands of government departments, chambers of commerce and trade associations as they compare their own progress. Now relate this to the economic positioning of ‘knowledge rich nations’ and explore how they not only crushed their own SME bases, destroyed the middle class but also their expensive business education system only produced armies of resumes promoting job-seekers but not the mighty job-creators. Study why entrepreneurialism is neither academic-born nor academic centric, it is after all most successful legendary founders that created earth shattering organizations were only dropouts. Now shaking all these ingredients well in the economic test tube wait and let all this ferment to see what really happens.
Now picking up any nation, selecting any region and any high potential vertical market; searching any meaningful economic development agenda and status of special skills required to serve such challenges, paint new challenges. Interconnect the dots on skills, limits on national/global exposure and required expertise on vertical sectors, digitization and global-age market reach. Measuring the time and cost to bring them at par, measuring the opportunity loss over decades for any neglect. Combining all to squeeze out a positive transformative dialogue and assemble all vested parties under one umbrella.
Not to be confused with academic courses on fixing Paper-Mache economies and broken paper work trails, chambers primarily focused on conflict resolutions, compliance regulations, and trade groups on policy matters. Mobilization of small medium business economy is a tactical battlefield of advancements of an enterprise, as meritocracy is the nightmarish challenges for over 100 plus nations where majority high potential sectors are at standstill on such affairs. Surprisingly, such advancements are mostly not new funding hungry but mobilization starved. Economic leadership teams of today, unless skilled on intertwining super-hyper-digital-platform-economic agendas with local midsize businesses and creating innovative excellence to stand up to global competitiveness becomes only a burden to growth.
The magnifying glass of mind will find the fulcrum: High potential vertical sectors and special regions are primarily wide-open lands full of resources and full of talented peoples; mobilization of such combinations offering extraordinary power play, now catapulted due to technologies. However, to enter such arenas calls for regimented exploring of the limits of digitization, as Digital-Divides are Mental Divides, only deeper understanding and skills on how to boost entrepreneurialism and attract hidden talents of local citizenry will add power. Of course, knowing in advance, what has already failed so many times before will only avoid using a rubber hose as a lever, again.
The new world economic order: There is no such thing as big and small as it is only strong and weak, there is no such thing as rich and poor it is only smart and stupid. There is no such thing as past and future is only what is in front now and what is there to act but if and or when. How do you translate this in a post pandemic recovery mode? Observe how strong, smart moving now are advancing and leaving weak, stupid dreaming of if and when in the dust behind.
The conclusion: At the risk of never getting a Nobel Prize on Economics, here is this stark claim; any economy not driven solely based on measuring “real value creation” but primarily based on “real value manipulation” is nothing but a public fraud. This mathematically proven, possibly a new Fulcrum to move the world economy, in need of truth
The rest is easy
Evergrande Crisis and the Global Economy
China’s crackdown on the tech giants was not much of a surprise. Sure, the communist regime allowed the colossus entities like Alibaba Group to innovate and prosper for years. Yet, the government control over the markets was never concealed. In fact, China’s active intervention in the forex market to deliberately devalue Yuan was frequently contested around the world. Ironically, now the world awaits government intervention as a global liquidity crisis seems impending. The Evergrande Group, China’s largest property developer, is on the brink of collapse. Mounding debt, unfinished properties, and subsequent public pressure eventually pushed the group to openly admit its financial turmoil last week. Subsequently, Evergrande’s shares plunged as much as 19% to more than 11-year lows. While many anticipate a thorough financial restructuring in the forthcoming months, the global debt markets face a broader financial contagion – as long as China deliberates on its plan of action.
The financial trouble of the conglomerate became apparent when President Xi Jinping stressed upon controlled corporate debt levels in his ongoing drive to reign China’s corporate behemoths. It is estimated that the Evergrande Group currently owes $305 billion in outstanding debt; payments on its offshore bonds due this week. With new channels of debt ceased throughout the Mainland, repayment seems doubtful despite reassurances from the company officials. The broader cause of worry, however, is the impact of a default; which seems highly likely under current circumstances.
The residential property market and the real estate market control roughly 20% and 30% of China’s nominal GDP respectively. A default could destabilize the already slowing Chinese economy. Yet that’s half the truth. In reality, the failure of a ‘too big to fail’ company could bleed into other sectors as well. And while China could let the company fail to set a precedent, the spillover could devastate the financial stability hard-earned after a strenuous battle against the pandemic. Recent data shows that with the outbreak of the delta variant, the demand pressure in China has significantly cooled down while the energy prices are through the roof. Coupled with the regulatory crackdown rapidly pervading uncertainty, a debt crisis could further push the economy into a recession: a detrimental end to China’s aspirations to attract global investors.
The real question, therefore, is not about China’s willingness to bail out the company. Too much is at stake. The primal question is regarding the modus operandi which could be adopted by China to upend instability.
Naturally, the influence of China’s woes parallels its effect on the global economy. A possible liquidity crisis and the opaque measures of the government combined are already affecting the global markets: particularly the United States. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) posted a dismal end to Monday’s trading session: declining by more than 600 points. The 10-year Treasury yields slipped down 6.4 basis points to 1.297% as investors sought safety amid uncertainty. The concern is regarding China’s route to solve the issue and the timeline it would adopt. While the markets across Europe and Asia are optimistic about a partial settlement of debt payments, a take over from state-owned enterprises could further drive uncertainty; majorly regarding the pay schedule of western bondholders amid political hostility.
Economists believe that, while a financial crisis doesn’t seem like a plausible threat, a delayed response or a clumsy reaction could permeate volatility in the capital markets globally. Furthermore, a default or a takeover would almost certainly pull down China’s economy. While the US has already turned stringent over Chinese IPOs recently, a debt default could puncture the economic viability of a wide array of Chinese companies around the world. And thus, while the global banking system is not at an immediate threat of a Lehman catastrophe, Evergrande’s bankruptcy would, nonetheless, erode both the domestic and the global housing market. Moreover, it would further dent Chinese imports (and seriously damage regional exchequers), and would ultimately put a damper on global economic recovery from the pandemic.
Economy Contradicts Democracy: Russian Markets Boom Amid Political Sabotage
The political game plan laid by the Russian premier Vladimir Putin has proven effective for the past two decades. Apart from the systemic opposition, the core critics of the Kremlin are absent from the ballot. And while a competitive pretense is skilfully maintained, frontrunners like Alexei Navalny have either been incarcerated, exiled, or pushed against the metaphorical wall. All in all, United Russia is ahead in the parliamentary polls and almost certain to gain a veto-proof majority in State Duma – the Russian parliament. Surprisingly, however, the Russian economy seems unperturbed by the active political manipulation of the Kremlin. On the contrary, the Russian markets have already established their dominance in the developing world as Putin is all set to hold his reign indefinitely.
The Russian economy is forecasted to grow by 3.9% in 2021. The pandemic seems like a pained tale of history as the markets have strongly rebounded from the slump of 2020. The rising commodity prices – despite worrisome – have edged the productivity of the Russian raw material giants. The gains in ruble have gradually inched higher since January, while the current account surplus has grown by 3.9%. Clearly, the manufacturing mechanism of Moscow has turned more robust. Primarily because the industrial sector has felt little to no jitters of both domestic and international defiance. The aftermath of the arrest of Alexei Navalny wrapped up dramatically while the international community couldn’t muster any resistance beyond a handful of sanctions. The Putin regime managed to harness criticism and allegations while deftly sketching a blueprint to extend its dominance.
The ideal ‘No Uncertainty’ situation has worked wonders for the Russian Bourse and the bond market. The benchmark MOEX index (Moscow Exchange) has rallied by 23% in 2021 – the strongest performance in the emerging markets. Moreover, the fixed income premiums have dropped to record lows; Russian treasury bonds offering the best price-to-earning ratio in the emerging markets. The main reason behind such a bustling market response could be narrowed down to one factor: growing investor confidence.
According to Bloomberg’s data, the Russian Foreign Exchange reserves are at their record high of $621 billion. And while the government bonds’ returns hover at a mere 1.48%, the foreign ownership of treasury bonds has inflated above 20% for the second time this year. The investors are confident that a significant political shuffle is not on cards as Putin maintains a tight hold over Kremlin. Furthermore, investors do not perceive the United States as an active deterrent to Russia – at least in the near term. The notion was further exacerbated when the Biden administration unilaterally dropped sanctions from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. And while Europe and the US remain sympathetic with the Kremlin critics, large economies like Germany have clarified their economic position by striking lucrative deals amid political pressure. It is apparent that while Europe is conflicted after Brexit, even the US faces much more pressing issues in the guise of China and Afghanistan. Thus, no active international defiance has all but bolstered the Kremlin in its drive to gain foreign investments.
Another factor at work is the overly hawkish Russian Central Bank (RCB). To tame inflation – currency raging at an annual rate of 6.7% – the RCB hiked its policy rate to 6.75% from the all-time low of 4.25%. The RCB has raised its policy rate by a cumulative 250 basis points in four consecutive hikes since January which has all but attracted the investors to jump on the bandwagon. However, inflation is proving to be sturdy in the face of intermittent rate hikes. And while Russian productivity is enjoying a smooth run, failure of monetary policy tools could just as easily backfire.
While political dissent or international sanctions remain futile, inflation is the prime enemy which could detract the Russian economy. For years Russia has faced a sharp decline in living standards, and despite commendable fiscal management of the Kremlin, such a steep rise in prices is an omen of a financial crisis. Moreover, the unemployment rates have dropped to record low levels. However, the labor shortage is emerging as another facet that could plausibly ignite the wage-price spiral. Further exacerbating the threat of inflation are the $9.6 billion pre-election giveaways orchestrated by President Putin to garner more support for his United Russia party. Such a tremendous demand pressure could presumably neutralize the aggressive tightening of the monetary policy by the RCB. Thus, while President Putin sure is on a definitive path of immortality on the throne of the Kremlin, surging inflation could mark a return of uncertainty, chip away investors’ confidence: eventually putting a brake on the economic streak.
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