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This will be the first in our new series, “Mobile Market Look”, where we look at mobile markets in Africa and other emerging countries around the World. Kenya is one of the hotbeds in terms of mobile innovation and sophistication and we hope you enjoy this article and please feel free to leave any comments you may have.

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Africa has been growing at an unprecedented rate and Kenya is one of the fastest growing tech and mobile markets in the World. Known as “Savannah Silicon Valley”, Kenya is home to over 500 startups in the mobile and digital industries. Kenyans are extremely tech savvy and 70% of the population owns a mobile phone, with 16 million Kenyans accessing the internet through their phones. Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, is home to the ihubs, incubator space for the tech community that includes 10,000 members an over 150 incubator start-up companies. Companies such as Google, Intel, and Samsung have a presence in Nairobi and IBM set up its first African Innovation Lab in Kenya. If you are in the mobile or tech industry, whether as a company or an investor, Kenya is a country you should get to know and want to do business in.

Kenya is the most developed economy in East Africa with a good education system and a strong business environment. Kenya is a young country with 70% of the population of 44 million people under the age of 35. Kenya also has its issues as 50% of the population lives in poverty and unemployment, although officially listed as 10.5%, can be as high as 40%. There are obstacles, but there are also opportunities. And no opportunity is bigger in Kenya at this time than the mobile money and mobile payment market.

Kenya’s Mobile Market Landscape

Kenya phones Kenya has the most sophisticated mobile money ecosystem in Africa, and maybe the World. Infrastructure improvements, and lack of rigid regulations by the Central Bank of Kenya and the government, have led to market growth and an increase in digital services. M-Pesa, established by Safaricom in 2007, started the current mobile payment revolution and now transacts over $5 billion annually which accounts for 17% of Kenya’s GDP. Over 2 million mobile money transactions take place every day and according to MEF studies mobile money and mobile payments still present the greatest opportunity for growth in Kenya. It is estimated that 85% of the population has used mobile money at some point and most Kenyans prefer mobile money to cash because of the ease of use and the safety. Most African nations are cash-based and people still carry large sums of cash on them, especially when they are sending money to relatives in remote parts of the country, so mobile money offers a safer and easier alternative. Kenya’s financial institutions have picked up on this and are jumping on the bandwagon and creating their own mobile money products. Equity Bank has its own M-Kesho mobile money product and I&M Bank has its own prepaid Safari Card available on the M-Pesa platform.

Even with growth and prosperity Kenya faces security issues and economic problems. There have recently been terrorist attacks on the Kenyan coast by Al-Shabaab, a Somali terrorist group associated with Al-Qaeda, and no one should forget the terrorist attacks that took place at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi over a year ago. The country has a high poverty rate and weak infrastructure and on the business side there is a lack of capital and belief and faith by investors towards the Kenyan market, and also the Sub-Saharan African market as a whole. Even the mobile market is experiencing its own issues. There is a current price war which has benefited the consumers by leading to decreased prices and more mobile subscriptions, but has created lean profit margins and less profitability for the mobile operators. There is also the concern of the dominance of Safaricom and M-Pesa who currently has the dominant mobile marketshare of 70%. Other mobile operators such as Airtel, Yu, and Orange have a presence but pale in comparison to Safaricom.ihub Kenya

Obstacles do exist, but even with these problems and many others the mobile industry in Kenya is experiencing good times. Mobile phone penetration is 78% in Kenya and Africa had an annual mobile growth rate of 82% between 2000 and 2013, highest in the World. There are currently 500 million mobile subscriptions in Africa and there is expected growth in subscriptions of 50% over the next 5 years. Kenyans have also taken to smart phone technology and 67% of all phones sold in Kenya are smartphones. Kenyans like to listen to music, play games, look for sports updates, and watch TV and video on their phones. They also like social media and Kenya has the second most Twitter users in Africa behind South Africa and the second most Facebook users in Africa behind Nigeria. So the promise and potential is bright and the opportunities for business and investment is maybe the best it has ever been. Kenya is definitely a place you should want to be!

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Many western companies are aware of the growing mobile money market in Africa and are watching with great interest, some actively participating in this growing industry, to the success and failures of different business models in different regions and countries.  They are also paying close attention to the different players; governments, financial institutions, and telecommunication providers, in regards to regulation or lack of regulation within the mobile money industry.  MMIT operates in the mobile money space out of Nigeria and West Africa so we feel that we are in a position of knowledge and expertise to talk on this matter in a concrete way, and also in a way that can hopefully add value and substance to the mobile money industry as it grows and matures.

Nigeria is home to 170 million individuals living in a country the size of Texas.  70% of that 170 million are unbanked, which means they either do not have access to formal banking institutions and services or are not taking part of the formal banking institutions and services. Nigeria has been labeled the financial hub of the African continent and many are watching this market to see if Nigeria is able to mimic and evolve the mobile money space in West Africa and eventually all of Sub-Saharan Africa.  The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) is pushing for a cashless society in Nigeria which will limit the amount of cash being carried around the country. CBN is also currently licensing out mobile money licenses that will allow financial institutions and non-financial institutions (telecommunication providers and mobile money providers) to capture the unbanked populace in Nigeria.  This regulation of the mobile money sphere by CBN is seen as a blessing and also a curse.  For the people of Nigeria mobile money allows them to bank with ease and make transactional payments without restrictions regardless of their location to a banking outlet, the time factor of when the bank opens and closes, and they can perform transactions at any time of the day. The negative for the populace is the lack of agent networks (small kiosks in rural and heavily populated areas) to cater to the areas that banks are not located in. The consumer needs to be able to cash-in his or her physical money to virtual money and if there aren’t enough agent networks it defeats the whole purpose of mobile money and a cashless society.

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To counter this concern CBN has been pressing the financial institutions to increase their agent network to meet the needs and demands of the unbanked population and to decrease the use of cash as a payment option.  CBN also has been playing more of a role in the creation of the structure for the laws and regulations of the mobile money sphere to make sure it has some control over the industry.  The Central Bank fears that if it does not get involved it will not have an influence on the financial structure in Nigeria.  This has been a key issue in Kenya where the telecom company Safaricom has been able to build the M-Pesa platform and develop a monopoly on the mobile money industry and the financial banking industry of that country. CBN wants to avoid this and also apply a structure that will help the consumer but at the same time reduce cash that is circulating in the country.  Progress has been slow and to the naked eye it might seem as though CBN isn’t doing much.  You have to keep in mind that the mobile money industry is still in its infancy and government regulation is a new development for an industry that has seen little to no regulation since its birth.  MMIT believes that before the year is over you will see a significant change in the regulation and penetration of the mobile money industry led by CBN.

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Anthony Bushu is a Business Strategy, Marketing and Communication Consultant for MMIT a mobile software developer in Lagos, Nigeria.  Anthony has diverse experience in the mobile and telecommunications industries and has worked for telecommunication companies in the US, UK, and Africa.  Anthony can be reached on Twitter@anthonybushu or by email at Anthony.b@mmitonline.com.