Has Africa lost its place at the head of the mobile payments innovation race?

From the moment M-Pesa launched in Kenya in 2007, Africa was heralded as the undisputed leader in the innovation and adoption of mobile payment services. Today, more than 17m Kenyans use M-Pesa, and in 2013 a full quarter of the country’s GDP passed through the service. But is Africa still leading the global mobile payments innovation race?

According to Howard Moodycliffe, Africa has lost some ground. “The economic powerhouses of the US and China have quickly caught up. US coffee chain Starbucks launched a mobile payments app in 2013 that saw more than US$1bn in transactions processed in a single year, while the total value of China’s mobile transactions came to a staggering $1.6tr. Despite M-Pesa processing $10bn in mobile transfers in 2013, and MTN Mobile Money showing strong growth, we haven’t seen mass adoption of other mobile transacting solutions. Africa is due some rapid and game-changing innovation in the mobile payments space, and I think we’re nearing this in South Africa as the large banks and retailers start investing time and money in mobile transacting.”

Moodycliffe is the head of marketing and international at wiGroup, developers of an interoperable platform that enables retailers to accept any type of mobile transaction at the point-of-sale, through a single integration.

He says that South Africa’s mobile payments usage is mostly centered around money transfer among the lower end of the market. “In the US, we’re seeing much more interest in value-added mobile payment and transaction services such as discount vouchers and coupons.”

In the latest MasterCard Mobile Payments Readiness Index, only one African country – Kenya at number 4 – ranks among the top 20 countries in terms of readiness for mobile payment adoption. South Africa is just behind Egypt and Vietnam on the overall list at number 26, while Nigeria comes in at number 22.

According to Moodycliffe, this ranking is slightly misleading. “South Africa may not be leading the pack but there is a swathe of hugely exciting mobile transacting applications and services being launched right now. While emerging markets in Asia, as well as developed markets in Europe and North America may be ahead for now, you are likely to see some changes in the ranking over the next few years.”

Moodycliffe says that, despite Africa losing some of its lead in terms of pure innovation, the continent is still untouchable for its ability to localise mobile payment services to suit its specific population. “North American and Scandinavian countries are constantly producing futuristic payment tech, such as the Nymi wristband which uses your heart rate as password, and Quixter which scans the veins in your hand. However, these technologies are impractical in the African milieu. We need solutions that take our population’s unique and disparate needs into account, and here we are streets ahead of the rest of the world.”

The success of M-Pesa recently led Google to launch its own mobile payment solution, called BebaPay, into Kenya. BebaPay is an NFC-enabled alternative payment service that commuters can use to pay for bus fares.

Asked whether the entry of the global giants into the mobile payments space poses a threat to smaller African companies, Moodycliffe is optimistic. “Google, Apple and Facebook’s forays into payments are complementary to what we do and affirm our strategic focus on the mobile payments and transactions space.”