Although I have worked and spoken to mobile money operators in many countries around the world, my last trip to Tanzania was the first time that I have heard one of these operators explicitly advocate for interoperability. In fact, he asked a room full of organizations to use their power as consumers to demand interoperability in mobile money in Tanzania.
In his argument, he implied that interoperability should happen at the mobile wallet level. In other words, that mobile money operators should agree to allow customers to send money from the mobile wallet account of one operator directly into the mobile wallet account of another operator, much as you can send a wire transfer directly from one bank account to another bank account. Currently in Tanzania, as is common in many countries dominated by the MNO-led model of mobile money, a customer can send money from their mobile wallet account to someone not registered with the same operator. However, this money is not sent to a mobile wallet, but it sent as a one-time use token, or a coupon, that can be redeemed in full at an agent location authorized by the sender’s mobile money operator. This is more analogous to a situation where I write you a check that you can only cash out at my bank, and that you cannot deposit directly into your own bank account.
The man mentioned previously was using the very broad term interoperability, as many people do in the mobile money industry, to describe this one specific type of interoperability, interconnecting at the mobile wallet level.
However, as the GSMA Mobile Money for the Unbanked Group has correctly pointed out, interoperability can happen at many different levels, and a more nuanced view of the term can help the industry in each country to find the optimal way to encourage interoperability to bring maximum benefit to both operators and customers. These levels include, but are not limited to:
- Individual Wallet – as described above
- Agent Network – the sharing of agents through non-exclusivity, as is the case in Tanzania (but not in other markets including Kenya)
- Value-Added Services (VAS) – allowing 3rd-party, independent companies to build products that link to multiple operators at once.
It is this last area that I think is most interesting and practical to discuss, especially at this point in time when mobile money operators are still, as the GSMA points out in the same report, young. I’ve argued for this before in Haiti, and I saw again in Tanzania how vital it is for services such as bulk payments. In order to pay people en masse for salaries, social welfare payments, bonuses, or any other type of payment, it is simply not practical to ask an organization to demand that all recipients use the same cell phone company to receive money. When they do, I’ve seen in countries from Afghanistan to Haiti that people simply replace their preferred SIM card with the SIM of the operator necessary to receive the transfer, at the specified time of transfer. When this is the [informal] solution, mobile money is no longer convenient to the consumer, and is not increasing the loyalty of that customer to the MNO (stickness), one of the main stated objectives of MNOs for promoting mobile money. It also increases the likeliness that the customer will not receive the transfer for multiple reasons: the SIM may have expired (if they haven’t used the voice functionality in a certain amount of time, as per the rules set by each MNO), they may not see the message if comes through at unpredictable time, or the token may expire before the person is able to redeem at an agent. These cause all sorts of operational issues for the sending organization, which could fill at least another blog post, so I will leave them to the reader’s imagination.
In Kenya, these problems have not presented as much of an issue because of the dominance of one MNO, Safaricom, in both the voice and mobile money markets. However, as other markets scale up mobile money services which have more competitive markets, MNOs are going to need to be much more open and creative about allowing 3rd parties to create VAS that link to all competitors, thereby promoting the entire ecosystem. Companies in Tanzania including Selcom and KopoKopo are already working with the MNOs to develop these types of services for bulk payments and merchant payments, respectively – which will require contractual and technical agreement. In fact, I would argue that this is the only way that these markets will successfully move beyond transfers and airtime purchases to more sophisticated products and services.