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 A cash deposit is free, but a sliding commission is charged either when e-money is sent or withdrawn as cash.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.
Afreximbank Meets Ahead of Russia-Africa Summit
The African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) plans to hold its 26th annual meeting in Moscow on 18-22 June. A series of closed sessions will be held as part of the event including the meeting of Board of Directors of Afreximbank and a meeting of Shareholders of Afreximbank, as well as the open Russia-Africa Economic Conference.
The African Export-Import Bank, the Roscongress Foundation, the Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation, and the Russian Export Centre are the key organizers of this event. The Afreximbank Annual Meetings is a high-level event, bringing together political and business leaders from across Africa to discuss the issues of trade, industrialization, export, and financial stability and efficacy.
Key themes planned for the economic conference are: State of Russia-Africa Relations: An Overview; Mining Industry: An Integrated Approach to the Fields Development; Prospects for Multilateralism in an Era of Protectionism; Railways Infrastructure as the Key Element for Development in Africa; South-South Trade: Path for Africa Integration into the Global Economy.
The other topics are Emerging Trends in Sovereign Reserves Management; Reflections on the Transformative Power of South-South Trade; Launch Afreximbank ETC Strategy; Cyber Solutions and Cyber Security for Solving Governmental and Municipals Tasks; Financing South-South Trade in Difficult Global Financing Conditions; The Future of South-South Trade and Infrastructure Financing.
Over 1,500 delegates are expected to attend the economic conference, including shareholders and bank partners, government representatives, members of the business community and media representatives. The conference will be a crucial stage in preparation for the full-scale Russia-Africa political summit and the accompanying economic forum, scheduled for October 2019 in Sochi.
“Russian and African countries are basically on the track of bilateral strategic partnership and alliance based on openness and trust. The fact that the Afreximbank Annual Meeting is to be held in our country gives a positive momentum for the mutually beneficial cooperation of the parties ahead of the full-scale Russia-Africa Political Summit that will take place in Sochi in October, and will add to the inclusive nature of the events,” emphasized Anton Kobyakov, Advisor to the President of Russian Federation.
Following the setup of the Organizing Committee for the Russia – Africa summit and other Russia–Africa events in Russia in 2019, Russian officials have described that this year truly as a year of Africa for Russia.
“We witness the clear growing interests from the both sides to establish the new level of relationships, which means a perfect timing to boost the economic agenda. All economic events planned for this year will become a platform to vocalize these ideas and draw a strong roadmap for the future,” Russian Export Center’s CEO, Andrei Slepnev, argued in an emailed interview with Buziness Africa.
In December 2017, Russian Export Center became a shareholder of Afreximbank. Russian Export Center is a specialized state development institution, created to provide any assistance, both financial and non-financial, for Russian exporters looking for widening their business abroad.
On March 19, the Organizing Committee on Russia-Africa held its first meeting in Moscow. President Vladimir Putin put forward the Russia-Africa initiative at the BRICS summit (Russia, Brazil, India, China, and South Africa) in Johannesburg in July 2018.
The silent revolution
Jamaica is well known for its beautiful beaches, Bob Marley, and reggae music. But what is less known is that the Caribbean island started a silent revolution after being one of the most indebted developing countries in the world. Jamaica has shown a macroeconomic turnaround that is quite extraordinary.
As Bob Marley said, “It takes a revolution to make a solution”. After decades of high debt and low growth Jamaica has changed its growth trajectory, with positive economic growth for 16 consecutive quarters and growth getting closer to two per cent.
During that period, the Jamaica Stock Exchange went up more than 380 per cent.The credit agency Fitch upgraded the island’s debt to B+ rating with a stable fiscal outlook, and unemployment hit eight per cent in January, the lowest in decades.
The Government had a wake-up call when its debt overhang peaked at almost 150 per cent of GDP in 2013. With the support of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, the country embarked on an ambitious reform programme. These efforts have paid off. Jamaica is now one of the few countries that has successfully cut public debt by the equivalent of half its gross domestic product in a short time frame.
The fiscal turnaround and economic transformation were possible because of the strong commitment across political parties over two competing administrations and electoral cycles. The country also critically benefited from a sustained social consensus for change and the strong backing of the private sector.
The country has generated primary fiscal surpluses of at least seven per cent of GDP for the last six years, and remains steadfast in its commitment to fiscal discipline. These fiscal results make Jamaica a top performer internationally.
For this silent revolution to continue and bring greater prosperity to all its people, Jamaica will need to further boost the investment climate, strengthen economic and climate resilience and invest more in its people to build human capital. These are necessary complements to the maintenance of a strong macroeconomic framework and would help boost economic growth and job creation. There are encouraging signs that Jamaica is taking action in these areas.
With regard to the business climate, the National Competitiveness Council has adopted a road map to fast-track reforms to improve the business environment. Jamaica features in the top 20 countries in the world for its comprehensive credit reporting systems and ranks among the best globally in the area of starting a business, according to the World Bank’s 2019 Doing Business report. It only takes two procedures and three days for an entrepreneur to start and formally operate a business.
There have been advancements on public-private partnership investments. For instance, the Norman Manley International Airport public-private partnership was recently completed with advisory support from the International Finance Corporation — the private sector arm of the World Bank Group.
Jamaica is also a front-runner among Caribbean countries in promoting climate and financial resilience in the face of natural disasters. The economic cost of these disasters for the Caribbean is substantial, exceeding US$22 billion between 1950 and 2016, compared with US$58 billion for similar disasters globally. One serious storm or natural disaster could set back the country’s growth prospects and development achievements of recent years. To tackle this, the Government has adopted a Public Financial Management Policy Framework for Natural Disaster Risk Financing to facilitate the availability of dedicated resources for recovery in the face of disaster risks.
In order to further support Jamaica in its efforts to strengthen the economy, build resilience, and support human capital development, the World Bank will expand its financing by US$140 million. This financing package will be for a series of two operations to help Jamaica be better prepared to mitigate the financial impact of natural disasters and build stronger infrastructure, and an additional project to strengthen social protection.
Despite unemployment at a new low, still too many young people are struggling to find a job. For Jamaica to continue to grow and prosper, it also needs to develop the skills for the workforce of tomorrow, especially in the areas of technology and digitalisation. This requires a sharp focus on creating the conditions for youths to strive and succeed in the modern business world and close cooperation with the private sector in this respect.
Today, more than ever before, young Jamaicans can dream of a brighter future where “every little thing is gonna be alright”. This is the generation that must aim higher and can write a new chapter for its country.
As we celebrate the 55th anniversary of the World Bank-Jamaica partnership, we look forward to working together to build on the success of the past few years and promote growth, jobs and resilience for Jamaica.
With or without sanctions, Iran needs to say goodbye to oil money
Except Norway, almost all oil producing countries have made themselves more or less reliant on oil money.
Only oil producing countries with a small population, such as Kuwait and Qatar which is also a great gas exporter, have so been safe from fluctuations in the oil market. But, countries with large population, such as Iran, are prone to volatility in the oil market, let alone the mad sanctions introduced against the country.
There is no doubt that oil money has affected politics, economy, management system, culture, spending and consumption habits and many other issues in oil rich countries.
For example, Iran now has one of the cheapest energy prices in the world. This has led to an extravagant use of energy, especially an excessive use of private car, in the country.
Let’s make an example to clarify that oil money is not the road to progress and a vibrant economy. In the 1970s, Iran was more developed than South Korea, but now South Korea is much more successful than Iran in terms of economy and technology. South Korea does not have oil, but it has provided an opportunity for a competitive economy and capitalized on its talents.
It is true that the war imposed on Iran in the 1980s hindered Iran’s progress and inflicted about 1 trillion dollar in damages on the country, yet officials failed to take serious steps toward creating a competitive economic atmosphere with a focus on research and technology. The oil money has been the main blame for such an economic approach.
According to the successive five-year development plans which end on 2021, Iran had to reduce dependence on oil to a great extent, however, successive administrations, with varying degrees, did not fully act based on the development plan.
Iran is now subject to the toughest ever illegal sanctions by the Trump administration. Just on April 22, the United States ended sanctions waivers on Iran’s exports and announced it wants to zero out Iran’s oil exports by May 1.
Whether the Trump administration succeeds or not to implement its oil threats is an issue that we should wait and see, but it is necessary that Iran take a departure from oil export how much painful it will be.
Sorena Sattari, a graduate of Sharif University of Technology who serves as vice president for scientific affairs, told a meeting in Hamedan on Tuesday that sanctions have provided an opportunity that knowledge-based companies to intensify their efforts. Sattari also said plans have been drawn up to manufacture equipment and machinery that are subject to sanctions.
Also, whether we like it or not, fossil fuels, especially crude oil, are losing their importance as renewable energy resources are gradually taking the center stage.
Saying goodbye to easily-gained oil revenues is a bitter pill that Iran should swallow. To do so, though very difficult under tough sanctions, officials need to find other sources of income.
They can invest on tourism as Iran is among the top countries in hosting touristic sites, establish an environment for a transparent competitive economy, close loopholes of corruption, involve competent persons in managerial posts, introduce a sound and workable tax system, end unnecessary subsidies, and more importantly prioritize research and development (R&D).
First published in our partner Tehran Times
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