By Nick Smith, The New Zealand Herald -
The word for mobile cash in Swahili is “M-Pesa,” says Chris Jones, the tech-entrepreneur with a chequered history who owns the country’s fourth-fastest growing company, Mobilis.
“M” stands for mobile phone and “pesa” is the Swahili word for money. Using phones as cash accounts was first developed as a means of disseminating funding from micro-finance banks, the financial institutions that lend to the world’s poorest.
M-Pesa is also the name of the mobile money product offered by Kenyan mobile phone company Safaricom and the system used by a taxi driver who took Jones’ fare in Nairobi recently.
“I asked him how often he used it and he said, ‘a couple of times a week, I transfer money to my mother’,” Jones remembers. “He gets money as a taxi driver, deposits it in his mobile cash account and disburses it to his family [by phone], who aren’t in the city and can’t get cash because there’s no bank. He used to carry it physically; now he does it electronically, it’s mobile Eftpos.”
But it is an account managed by a telco or network operator functioning as an unregulated retail commercial bank.
“Regulators in most [African] countries are now trying to determine how to license the mobile operators because they’re capturing a massive population base,” Jones says of the fluid Africa scene, where mobile money first started. “For the operators it’s great because it keeps the subscribers sticky to your mobile network.”
Safaricom may have been first out of the blocks but the race is now on for other providers, including Jones’ Mobilis, which has developed a system and is about to deploy in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Mobilis’ application duplicates a cash account number from a mobile phone number and users can make withdrawals, automatic payments and send money to third parties, just like a real bank account. Cash deposits and withdrawals are handled by authorised agents, who might be a corner store retailer in small towns outside the big urban centres, he says.
The global potential for this product is huge, Jones argues. He’s back doing what he does best: selling software applications to emerging markets, places where danger is sometimes a little too close for comfort.
“I’ve done an evacuation [from Lebanon] and a full e-vac out of Guinea-Conakry [formerly French Guinea] when the president died,” he says from his Auckland headquarters in Freemans Bay. “We’re very careful about the risk, more so the health side [than war, which is rare].”
Business is booming, like Israeli cannons in 2006 during the second invasion of Lebanon, necessitating quick logistics to get staff out of the Mobilis Beirut office.
“I pulled people out and got them across the border to Syria and then to Dubai,” he remembers. “I understand what some expats are going through in Egypt now.”
Jones founded Mobilis in 2006 after leaving Argent, which also sold software to emerging markets. In 2008, receivers divided Argent up and sold its billing platform to Jones, sparking bitter comments from former backers who blamed him for Argent’s demise.
The company had been founded by Jones two years after the collapse of his listed company Telemedia, once worth $680 million before its spectacular 2001 crash into receivership.
Jones, 90 per cent owner of Mobilis, pre-fers to concentrate on the positive signs of revenue growth, which are as stunning as the swift end to his former companies.
Mobilis was the fourth-fastest growing company in New Zealand in the three years to 2010, as measured by the Deloitte Fast 50, with 1079 per cent growth.
Nearly all that revenue is earned overseas, mainly in East and West Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Emerging markets don’t have the “legacy infrastructure” of developed economies making them quick adopters of new technology, Jones explains.
Middle Eastern money is accelerating the pace of change in the form of network owners, telcos, microfinance and air travel. Emirates and others have opened up Africa to the global economy and, he says, the nature of mobile phone technology means even the continent’s poor can be customers.
The bread-and-butter business is providing what Jones calls “the core functionality of communications networks”, such as billing information, point-of-sale platforms and a number management system, all developed in New Zealand.
But mobile money is a game-changer, he argues. Pre-pay mobile phones, developed in South Africa for its legion of dispossessed, were once considered only fit for ne’er-do-wells and are now a First World necessity. Mobile money is technology of a similar ilk, he says.