Mobile money, is it not time for interoperability?

By Leroy Dzenga | 06 Dec 2019 at 16:44hrs
A few weeks ago, a mobile money service provider sought to do an upgrade. Ordinarily, upgrades result in more efficiency, but the one in question brought in more glitches instead.

The system carries most of mobile money transactions, its malfunctioning was almost guaranteed to cause widespread headaches. It sure did and there was chaos. Conversations on whether or not a single entity should hold that much power were again reignited.

Others thought the rest of the industry, which is principally made up of three players, are sleeping on the job. One of the players with a lesser market share is trying to capitalise on the glitches of the 'bigger brother' to eat into their market share.

They are offering free transactions on their platform, a move which has divided opinion. Some believe it is a masterstroke which can tilt the balance of power in the industry.

Others, are of the opinion the other behemoth wields more power to lose a significant percentage of their market share. All these conversations are anchored on one critical element which has been missing in African mobile operations and Zimbabwe is no exception. Mobile money interoperability is the harmonisation of mobile money platforms to ensure that money is sent across the board.

Zimbabwe, unlike other countries, finds itself in a peculiar situation where there is a cash crisis, this means there is a reliance on mobile money. As such, people should have the options to choose their preferred service provider without fearing being alienated from the rest of those they seek to transact with. Imagine an informal trader having a less prominent mobile money handler, that could negatively impact on their sales if others do not.

Government should rekindle the conversation on the subject which has seemed to fizzle down. In 2018, Government showed determination to see the interoperability happening, but the players appeared not to heed the call. Then Information Communication Technology and Cyber Security Minister Supa Mandiwanzira said there was a lack of will on the mobile operators part.

"Really, there is no reason (for them not to be interoperable). I think there was just no willingness to do so and we have appealed to them, to just please understand the inconvenience that the public is facing; that they cannot send money to different networks. "Therefore, we are encouraging them to do the right thing and assist the transacting public.

"We don't want to use force all the time. We expect that there should be appreciation that this is a very necessary service and that it must happen," said Minister Mandiwanzira.

Since the portfolio changed hands, there has been very little talk of interoperability, much to the detriment of the transacting public. Mobile money operators have promoted their services as a more convenient way of banking with less hassles and equal efficiency. Even when the Paynet salary system was down earlier this year around July, mobile money offered their services as viable alternatives.

It, however, appears they want to get benefits that come with mimicking banks, but do not want to walk the full distance. Banks can send money across, why should mobile money operators not do the same? Mobile money is essentially a public good in Zimbabwe, there is no need for service providers to operate in silos.

There has been recent abuse of some platforms by profiteers who have slapped premiums on transactions like cashing out. Is it not because the concentration of the said market is on one entity?

If there is easy transferability of money, would that not regulate the market and ensure people go where the platforms are more abuse-proof? It has become a trend in Zimbabwe that people hold multiple sim cards from different service providers, would it not be prudent for interoperability to come to allow them to move money across. In the same way a multiple bank account holder can move their money in between their banks.

One mobile money account can be used for savings and another for transacting. The main concerns which have been emerging on the arguments are related to the operationalisation of the interoperability.
Government can chip in and provide a platform where the mobile money operators can cross-pollinate. Maybe if the interoperability does not bring more costs to the players, they will be forthcoming.

Even the system adjustments costs can be handled by Government. In Kenya, their central bank funded the process and it has been live in the country for slightly over a year. Maybe we can draw lessons from them, as they have the flagship African mobile money transfer system - M-Pesa.

If Government controls the central interoperability system, it means it can regulate the mobile money environment which some have described as a national security concern. There is still need for more nuanced conversations, but something has to give.

Conversations on the matter are critical, less than 20 countries in the world have effected interoperability, but would it hurt to be among the early adopters?



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