Digital currencies and platforms, most of them mobile rather than PC-based, are exploding across the emerging world, benefiting billions with little or no access to the formal banking system. But which are the leaders and which the laggards? Elliot Wilson assesses the field and picks a few standout winners
FROM AFRICA TO KABUL
M-Pesa sits at the world’s crossroads, a bridge between rural and urban, old and new, developed and developing. Invented in Cambridge and championed in Kenya by an African telecoms firm, Safaricom, M-Pesa (the name’s a mash-up of “mobile” and the Swahili word for “money”) brought world-class mobile banking to Sub-Saharan Africa while boosting and standardising trade across a region long considered ungovernable. As much as a quarter of all Kenyan trade now flows though the platform, which even spans the digital and the “real” worlds: a loaf of bread can be paid for in Kenyan shillings or in M-Pesa “minutes”. Africa has since fallen under its sway and M-Pesa, still the standard-bearer for simple, first-generation mobile banking, has since been rolled out in Tanzania, Egypt and even Afghanistan, where it’s used to pay the local police force.
STILL REALLY JUICY FRUIT
BlackBerry may be a sometimes forgotten fruit across the developed world, but in Indonesia and other parts of South-East Asia it still has a tasty following. Its BBM Money service, built in collaboration with technology provider Monitise and Indonesia’s PermataBank, has been adopted by 60,000 BlackBerry owners in just three months. As with all the most effective new consumer technologies, it’s deeply simple: you sign up to BBM Money on your handset and use the phone’s in-built Messenger system to send money to friends, a merchant, buy from a multiplicity of Indonesian BBM marketplaces (the local equivalent of eBay), or just top up your mobile credit. The key here is its social aspect; Indonesians know and trust BlackBerry and chat all day long on Messenger. As Richard Johnson, strategy director at Monitise, notes: “BBM Money adds a scalable payments layer on top.”
ORIENT VERSUS THE OCCIDENT
John Peel was once asked if Bruce Springsteen was the future of rock. The venerable (and sadly deceased) DJ listened to The Boss’s first album and retorted: “He sounds more like the past to me.” Much the same could be said of UnionPay, China’s very public attempt to muscle in on the global Visa-MasterCard double-act. UnionPay is either the face of things to come, wedding an electronic payment system with Beijing’s obsessive desire to see its “People’s currency”, the renminbi, replace the US dollar as the world’s bank note; or it’s a clunky old electronic payment system, a poor cousin to Visa and MasterCard, both busy rolling out electronic wallets and Alipay, a payment system run by privately run Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. UnionPay is used in hundreds of countries and Beijing is desperate to turn it into a global giant. But is desire enough in itself? Only time will tell.
WHERE’S THE STICKING POWER?
Octopus should have been a star. Rolled out in Hong Kong more than a decade ago, this was a contactless travel card that held digital money, a concept way ahead of its time. You could use it to travel on the city’s gleaming underground, then swipe it at a 7-Eleven to buy a Coke and a paper. Many followed in its suctioned footsteps, including London’s Oyster card system. Yet that was as good as it got. Octopus never caught on elsewhere in the city (there are no card-readers in taxis or restaurants) and even Oyster may now be slowly becoming redundant, replaced by contactless debit cards which already allow you to pay for fast-food meals and, ultimately, tube journeys by tapping a card linked directly to your bank account. Municipal payment cards do exist in cities, such as Helsinki and Bruges, but they increasingly feel like the past, not the future.
‘MO MONEY, YO MONEY’
India’s a barrel of contradictions, but never more than in the tech space where it’s either a giant or a minnow. But again – contradictory India – there’s always a bright spot amid the gloom. In this case the good news is Movida, a Visa-championed programme that allows anyone including lower-income workers to buy airtime, tickets and pay bills via their mobile phones. This is no small thing. Indian workers tend to rush to ATMs when they get paid, drain their account and pay for everything in cash. Movida can be accessed from basic phones – few Indians own smartphones – and bills are paid using simple drop-down menus without any need for a data connection. And there’s a kicker as the Indian authorities and major Indian banks, including HDFC, an early adopter, love Movida because it encourages money to remain in the formal banking system. Win-win.
BANKING ON DISRUPTION
Skrill may be a fishy-sounding name – it’s just been rebranded from Moneybookers – but the London-based firm has forgotten more about digital payments than most of us will ever know. If you have a Skrill e-wallet – and 35 million people in 228 countries do, a third of them in emerging markets – you can buy online, top up your Skype account or send money to mates around the world within seconds, without the tedious hassle of logging on to your online bank account. Want to gamble without your bank knowing? “Skrill” the payment. Worried about the fidelity of a niche website you rarely use? Ditto. The firm’s head of payments Stuart Butler reckons you can open a Skrill e-wallet in under a minute. In many ways Skrill is Britain’s Google: a successful tech firm disrupting a clunky old system, in this case the arguably inefficient global remittance industry dominated by Western Union.
Continue the discussion at live events…
Exploring the macro trends in payments and financial services innovation, such as the mobile internet, open platforms and consumer empowerment, Money2020 brings together the broader worldwide community of innovators. These include leaders from retail, mobile, advertising and technology, who are profoundly changing how consumers and businesses manage, spend and borrow money. More than 3,000 people, including 200-plus chief executives from more than 1,200 companies in 50 countries, are expected to attend.
TOTAL PAYMENTS 2013
The meeting place for new entrants and disrupters to showcase payment innovation to the traditional stakeholders of Europe’s payments market, Total Payments 2013 is the event where the European payments community meets to make sense of the emerging payments market. Total Payments is a part of Europe’s Customer Festival that explores the overlapping issues of payments, loyalty, omni-channel and big data. Europe’s Customer Festival is an opportunity to attend the focus sessions and is a one-stop shop for building a customer-centric business.
THE FUTURE OF CARDS & PAYMENTS
Bringing together key players from the banking, card-processing and telecoms industries, as well as innovative new market players, the conference discusses strategies for a profitable future, ways to avoid disintermediation, and how to improve customer loyalty and engagement. Now in its sixth year, The Future of Cards & Payments aims to be at the cutting edge of innovations in the payments sector, providing take-home insights from key industry figures alongside strategic debates. July 3-4, Jumeirah Carlton Tower, London.