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The State of Digital Financial Services in Zambia

By Guest Writer on September 6, 2017

I have had the privilege of working with UNCDF for almost two years as the Regional Technical Specialist for one of its seminal programmes, MM4P. In Zambia, UNCDF MM4P has launched a programme that is focused on accelerating the uptake and usage of digital financial services (DFS). The objective is to have 35% of the adult Zambian population actively using digital finance by the end of 2019.

We know, after decades of work in development – that when you are trying to make deep, lasting change – you can’t support one part of the ecosystem – you have to support the larger ecosystem. When it comes to DFS market development, MM4P uses an ecosystem approach that simultaneously addresses issues at the levels of Customers, Providers, Distribution, High Volume, Policy & Regulation and Infrastructure to improve market conditions and facilitate shifts. We call this “the honeycomb approach”.

When I first came to this market, the narrative I heard was that “Zambia is stuck in a sub-scale trap”. From that daunting start, I can proudly say that we are now more at a tipping point. In 2014, only 2% of the adult Zambian population were active registered users of DFS and there were a total of 1,656 active agents in the country. As of 2016, our data shows that 18% of the adult Zambian population are active registered DFS users and there are a total of 12,307 active agents.

Zambia – Small but mighty

When it comes to DFS, what many do not realize is that Zambia was the earliest adopter of DFS in Africa. Way before Safaricom launched M-Pesa in Kenya in 2006, Celpay had launched Zap in Zambia in 2002.

Fast forward to 14 years later and the Zambian DFS market is competitive and diverse. We have three mobile network operators – Airtel, MTN and Zamtel who are offering mobile money services. We have several banks/MFIs – Ecobank, FINCA, FNB, Investrust and Zanaco that offer agency banking and popular mobile applications.

We also have several third party operators – like 543 Konse Konse, Kazang and Zoona. For a market of 16 million people and approximately 9 million adults, we’ve got loads of innovation and competition.

Zambian may be small, but it is mighty when it comes to DFS. And what we are learning is that not only does Zambia have a lot to learn from its peers in Africa and elsewhere, but the world has a lot to learn from Zambia.

Pollyanna & Discovery

While we are driven by the optimism of our colleagues in this work, we don’t take a “Pollyanna” approach. We recognize the great challenges that the DFS Ecosystem faces – especially the low population density of 27 people per square kilometer. But for each challenge that the market faces, we have also made fascinating discoveries on how the market is testing ways to address these challenges.

  • While meaningful awareness remains one of the biggest challenges to the uptake of DFS… Providers and Ecosystem players are testing cheaper, more effective ways of customer education (e.g., IVR).
  • While low profitability and liquidity of agent networks continues to be a challenge… There will soon be new financial products to improve liquidity management for agents across Zambia.
  • While there is still a low level of demand to digitize bulk payments both in the one-to-many and many-to-one space… To our surprise, the Government Payments Diagnosis has spurred bulk payments to be prioritized in 2 top DFS providers in Zambia.
  • While there are regulatory gaps and uneven levels of knowledge regarding DFS by BoZ and other relevant regulators… Regulators are open to dialogue, and responsive to private sector needs, especially when voiced collectively.

Looking to the future: What are our big bets?

As we look to our past, what we are seeing across the globe and the successes and challenges in this market, we’ve identified four “big bets” that we think will be game changers.

Partnerships. The coolest products you are starting to see in the market are all because of partnerships – the Kazang partnership with Azuri Solar, MTN Kongola credit product, the Zoona Sunga Wallet, the upcoming FINCA agent liquidity product. The more the market can figure out how to leverage each other strengths and weaknesses, the better the products that will be coming out of the system that meet the needs of Zambians.

Taking a Silcon Valley, Human Centered Design approach to testing. We are seeing this transform Skeptics to Believers, and more importantly helping DFS providers like Airtel and Zoona meet KPIs in customer uptake and usage!

A Wallet for What? We want to help the DFS Ecosystem crack the nut on providing sustainable, affordable services to those underserved — especially women and those in rural areas. Through digital financial services, we want to see all Zambians have improved access to their basic needs, including power, water, education and quality agricultural inputs- all at an affordable cost.

DFS can drive Connectivity in rural areas. What we are finding from our colleagues in MM4P Uganda is that introducing digital financial services to underserved areas can spur increased usage of other mobile-enabled services, driving a completely different business case for Mobile Network Operators than ever considered. Putting up a cell phone tower in areas that previously were brushed off as “never never land” can change the game.

UNCDF MM4P’s vision for Zambia is to put the needs, wants and aspirations of Zambians at the center of DFS product design, agent liquidity and the policy and regulatory environment. What do you think our Zambians depicted below are thinking about? How can we help them achieve their aspirations?

Nandini Harihareswara is a Regional Technical Specialist, responsible for the implementation of the United Nations Capital Development Fund Mobile Money for the Poor (MM4P) Digital Finance country strategy in Zambia.


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