Thursday, February 26, 2009

Absa reach a million accounts

I am frequently asked if mobile banking is being used and can I give examples. There are of course many examples of major success stories. One of thse is the penetration, usage and positive business case of mobile banking in South Africa.

Absa announced during this week that they have signed up more than a million mobile banking account holders. To put this in perspective (and I don't have the exact numbers, so Christo (head of mobile banking at Absa) will have to excuse me if I get some statistics wrong):
  • This is more than 25% of their customer base
  • It is two times more than customers accessing their banking from the Internet. This means that mobile banking is the only electronic channel for a few hundred thousand Absa customers
  • The growth to this number took just more than three years, whereas the banking industry in South Africa took eight years to sign up a million Internet banking customers
The fact that this amazing story has not been widely picked up by news networks, just shows how mobile banking has become part of business in South Africa. Well done to Christo and his team.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Who will own interoperable switches?

I received a very interesting e-mail from a friend of this blogspot, recently. He made the point that we are seeing many mobile payment solutions now being deployed successfully in the same countries. Some of the initiatives are owned by mobile operators, others banks and sometimes independent third parties. It stands to reason that these entities would ultimately evolve to support interoperable payments between each other.

The question that he posed is that if we are going to see these interoperable (switches) entities, who will own them? We could probably identify a few different scenarios:
  • Individual banks and/or mobile operators
  • Consortia of players
  • Existing interoperable payment switches
I am of the opinion that it will not be any of these - at least not initially. As a matter of fact, I believe that trying to identify the "owner" of interoperable switches is old world thinking and a red herring. The key now is to switch-on end user connections. After that, we will see peer to peer connections (one mobile wallet operator connecting to another mobile wallet operator). Only after this has been done and we have visible traction regarding peer-to-peer interoperable transactions, will it be viable to start thinking about an industry switche.

All the talk about a money remittance HUB (and all the investment that is being made) is absolutely premature.

Banking the unbanked

I suppose, one of the biggest announcements in Barcelona was the grant of the Gates Foundation to banking the unbanked. (Many articles, but read one here). This is great news and an acknowledgment of the importance (to everybody) to provide as much as possible people the means to have access to their money electronically. Basically the fight is against cash, because of all the negative effects of cash.

By providing electronic access to money, it is possible to ultimately defeat poverty, because of the following reasons.
  • It is much more effectively to teach people to save in this way.
  • It will make access to banking and advanced payment transactions possible and cost effective
  • It is much safer and provides for mechanisms to defend against fraud
  • It is a mechanism to help educate people how to manage money. It is very difficult to manage money according to a budget without the tools of electronic banking.
Mobile phones created miracles by allowing people to talk to each other. By using it as a tool to get access to money, we will cross the barrier to a better world.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Monitize to the rescue

Monitize announced that they have been awarded a $ 1.5 million dollar grant by the African Enterprise Challenge Fund (read here). I know that I have written about this before (see here), but I really have difficulty in understanding how this mildly succesful UK company can make a difference in Africa. Not only is it unlikely that they will be able to re-use the UK functionality in Uganda (Java phones, ATM switches, etc.), but they are also late. Many Ugandan-based companies have already (or are in the process of) lanching their mobile banking services. (For instance MTN (read here), Map International (read here), Zain (read here), Uganda Telecom (read here) and Barclays (read here), to name a few).

What really bugs me, is that the donor community fund a European company to bring unsuitable technology to Africa. Yet, it is totally impossible that an African company (with much more advanced technology) could be funded by the donor community to bring suitable solutions to Europe. Something is totally wrong somewhere.

Technology is more difficult than you think

This is the sentence that scares me more than anything in mobile banking: "It is not about technology!". I have found that these words are usually used by some-one that have never deployed a mobile banking system! It is also used by people with no (or very little) mobile banking experience, hoping to sell you a system that they will quickly put together.

As a matter of fact, delivering working, reliable mobile banking solutions is ALL about technology. People often make the mistake of equating mobile banking to a cute little program on a handset connecting to existing banking systems in the back. This may be fine for a few subscribers and limited number of transactions, but as soon as these applications are used in earnest, the bottlenecks, the conflicts and the challenges move to the back-office. Core banking systems were never designed to deal with so many transactions.

The complexity and challenges with mobile banking systems are huge. This is probably the most complex banking systems that can be found, and specifically because of the following reasons.
  • Almost everything must happen in real-time with response times of less than ten seconds.
  • The transaction volumes of mobile banking systems are higher (by factors) than what can be expected from existing banking systems. Well-designed mobile banking systems must scale to higher transaction volumes than what can be dealt with in the back-office. At the same time it should have intelligent throttling mechanisms when the back-office cannot respond fast enough.
  • The security paradigm of mobile banking is totally different. Be careful of vendors that merely offer Internet security on the phone.
  • Consumer behavior is totally different on mobile phones than on the Internet. Transactions must be much more intuitive with less guidance and error checks, yet still be reliable and functional.
  • Mobile banking systems must be able to recover themselves from error conditions. I have seen situations where a component fails and in a very short span of time, the system have half a million transactions in pending state. No ways that this can be resolved by hand.
  • The integration points are many more than for most systems, and the type and characteristics of integrations are very different to most banking systems
  • The ability to optimise systems are different
It is clear that these systems are extremely difficult to build and deploy and should not be attempted by amateurs - after all these systems manage money.

Emerging markets have more to say

The problem with the developed world (regarding banking) is that they have an extremely complex and inter-twined eco-system. The banking and payment system evolved though decades to a situation where many, very powerful stakeholders exist in a (relatively unstable) balance. Large banks, payment processors, card associations, regulatory bodies and other stakeholders understand the game well and is so dependant on this game not changing. It is much safer not to inject change into the system than allowing radical things to influence the system (like mobile operators and new types of payments).

In this case, emerging markets are different. The eco-system is still young and often not well-developed. (Although the basics and the foundations are in place). These markets are faced with real needs and real by business cases for investments can be found. Solutions can look different and problems can be solved in different, better ways - without having to worry about integration to legacy systems. It makes a lot of sense to get on with the job in these markets.

The problem that I have with what I see, is that the first world immediately goes into a teaching mode...whereas maybe they should start learning and listening more.

Is Regulatory really the biggest barrier?

During this week, so many people spoke about regulatory reasons being the biggest barrier to mobile banking (and specifically banking the unbanked). I must be honest, this was really surpising to me, as I do not see it as a barrier. It is hard work, and will take a lot of effort, but it is not a barrier.

I must confess some of recent announcements (the Reserve Bank of India and the stories about ZAP and mPesa in Kenya), probably triggered some of these thoughts. In both of these cases, however, the central bank had to react after the fact. It is important, I believe, to get things sorted before the fact. Money regulators have important jobs. If they do not do their jobs then we see financial systems collapse and we get situations like the economic meltdown of last year.

If we act irresponsible, then we should expect the regulator to stop us. That is why it is so important to take the time (in the beginning) to make sure that what you intend deploying conforms to the law (both in the letter and the spirit). I have found that in more than twenty countries that we have done business that the laws can be implemented with mobile banking. It is not necessary to change the laws, but it is important to study them, think about them and then to conform to them.

It is possible to to this, and we in the mobile banking industry have the responsibility to do this. We (at Fundamo) have a lot of collateral and experience with all the issues, I am looking at ways that we can share this with the industry, without compromising our intellectual property.

Monday, February 16, 2009

mBanking, mPayments and mRemittances

It is interesting how the industry is being segmented at the moment. I am frequently asked if we at Fundamo provide mBanking, mPayments and/or mRemittances services. I have severe difficulties in making this destinction. I have been offered explanations by a number of people, but would be interested in finding one's that make sense.

The way that I see the world, all three of these are sides of the same coin. It is clear that mRemittances are just mPayments with the added complexity of currency management, unless the Remittances are domestic transfers in which case they are the same. Providing you can recognise that mPayments should not be limited to retail payments, but should include person to person payments, of course. As a matter of fact person to person payments could (and often are) just retail payments, when the recipient person is a trader.

Banking is banking, but mBanking is all about transacting. The biggest advantage that mobile brings is that one can now perform high volume banking transactions. (Like paying bills, and crediting and debiting bank accounts). This is pretty much my understanding of payments (at least electronic payments - crediting and debiting accounts with the same transactions).

What is that? Oh, you are asking what about balance enquiries and statements - surely those are mbanking functionality. Have you ever tried to implement mpayment solutions without a balance enquiry and access to statement requests?

Crone Consulting

Having been in this business for the past ten years, I have seen a lot and I have experienced a lot. I think I can say that I know much of this industry. I have also met and have worked with most of the leaders and pioneers in the industry.

This is why I feel qualified to acknowledge a real expert that I met recently. Richard Crone (Crone Consulting) has an amazing gift to talk about and highlight the implications and components of mobile banking. I met him recently in California and was emmensely impressed with his insight and presentation backed up by excellent research.

He is also not scared to speak his mind, which I think is a needed quality at this stage in the mobile banking industry.

SMS Alerts

SMS alerts are probably the most important entry point to mobile banking. It is an ideal mechanism to provide immediate benefits to bank customers by making use of a mobile phone. The direct benefits are obvious and it is relatively easy to build a supporting business case. By ensuring faster feedback on card (and other payment products), it is much more difficult for fraudsters to steal.

Other (indirect) benefits also exist, like selling term repayments directly to the customer through the mobile, by sending a SMS with the following intent: "This purchase you made just now, you could repay us over six months at $X per month - just reply to this message and we will execute it in such a way".

What is however much more important, I believe, is to implement SMS alerts in a strategic way as this is actually the start of mobile banking. It is critical to plan this well, to store the right data, to enroll customers rigidly and to map out a plan with milestones that would ultimately lead to full-blown mobile banking.

The mobile value store account debate

We tend to forget that when credit card systems were launched during the eighties, these systems were stand-alone systems. Cards was not issued on-top of existing accounts. It was only after a significant period and with a lot of experience that the banking industry had enough confidence to issue cards associated with existing bank accounts. It was also much easier for consumers to think of their cheque account and their credit card. These two type of accounts were (and still often is) two seperate value stores. Sure, it is possible to move money from the one account to the credit card.

So why are banks so determined to have mobile banking/payments integrate to their core banking systems and/or credit card systems? There are so many reasons why it make sense to run mobile off a seperate (new?) value store that is not hosted on the core banking system:
  • A seperate account would enable us to deliver the service much more cheaper by eliminating expensive (unneeded) services (like monthly statements, teller/branch support etc.)
  • It would keep high-volume (potentially unreliable) transactions away from the heart of the bank
  • It would allow banks to offer services to people without bank accounts.
  • It would enable much faster times to market by making use of dedicated, turnkey solutions (like Fundamo Enterprise Edition).
  • It would give the industry the opportunity to learn before attempting difficult and complex integrations.
I am sure that there are other reasons. The only reason why we should not do it, is because it... Sorry, slipped my mind.

Remote payments are the pre-cursor to NFC payments

The ultimate, wide deployment of NFC payments will bring a lot of convenience to shoppers and retailers in future. In the meantime, many hurdles must still be crossed in order to make this technology widely available. Not least of these is the availability of the handsets and a business case that is understood by all stakeholders.

The question is what participants should do in the meantime to prepare themselves for the ultimate reality of NFC payments. What can mobile operators do to be better prepared for NFC payments? They should, of course, experiment and pilot the technology, they should work with standard bodies to develop the standards and with banks and credit card organisations to roll out the acquiring infrastructure. All of these things are important, but does not really make major inroads in mobile banking today. Also, it is difficult to build the business cases for the investment required.

One way for mobile operators to prepare for NFC payments, is to actively roll-out remote payments to as large a part of their subscriber base as is possible. The key is to do this in such a way that the subscriber base can be converted to NFC payments quickly and at low cost. This can easily be done with today's technology and the business case is much more robust. Subscribers with mobile wallets and the right operator logic on the phone can be converted for NFC payments when handsets arrive.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Appstores and Mobile banking

The appstore is a place where applications for the iPhone can be browsed, puchased and downloaded to the iPhone. The use and feel for the appstore is making it very popular as a source for mobile applications. A number of mobile applications for banking and financial services are already available and can be downloaded from the appstore. The question now arrises if this is a way to go for mobile banking. (also read this blog).

While it is an easy way to distribute mobile banking applications, the appstore approach creates a number fundamental problems:
  • It is essential that applications and how they are distributed should cater for many different platforms and phones. While the appstore works very while for iPhones, similar mechanisms does not exist for other phones - though they may become available for other makes in future. It would be extremely difficult to keep all appstores relavant.
  • It is ideal (especially form a security perspective), to keep track of who downloaded what and to also have the ability to sign each application individually and earmark such a signed application for a specific customer. This is very difficult with an appstore.
  • Because the appstore is available to all, it is difficult to ensure confidentiality and to protect competitive advantages.
All of the above is valid, yet can be overcome. The biggest question in my mind is if banking applications should be pulled by the customer to the phone or pushed by the bank to the phone. My sense is that the latter is preferable and impossible to do with the appstore.