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NFC technology already supports huge amounts of mobile payments around the world.  Ovum forecasts that the number of consumers using it will hit 939 million by 2019 (in 2015 it was 11 million)  and the value of transactions is expected to reach $115 billion, from $0.7 billion for the same period.

No surprise then that in Africa (in many ways the cradle of mobile money) it’s also beginning to take hold.

Yet whilst many experts have touted NFC as the next big thing, its appeal as a payment technology in growth markets is subject to a different set of barriers and enablers. Here Srinivas Nidugondi, Head of Mobile Financial Solutions at Mahindra Comviva takes a detailed look at the NFC trajectory in Africa.

This article originally appeared in MEF’s most recent  Africa eBulletin which can be downloaded here for free.

Already considered the biggest success story of the global mobile payments space (critics notwithstanding, of course), Africa just added another feather to its cap. It has, like the rest of its peers on the global stage, made room for Near Field Communication (NFC) in its cluttered mobile payments market.

To understand how and why, let’s step back a bit. The fact that analysts are unanimous in their opinion that NFC is the technology of the future is an understatement. To be fair, the technology has certainly managed to garner a lot of attention, not to mention takers!

According to Ovum, globally, the number of customers using NFC-based proximity payments is slated to touch 939 million by 2019, up from a mere 11 million in 2015. That’s not all, the value of NFC-based transactions is expected to reach $115 billion, from $0.7 billion for the same period. No small numbers, these!

 NFC has beaten other contactless payment technologies (like QR Codes, Bluetooth Low Energy, et al) to the punch.

In fact, NFC has beaten other contactless payment technologies (like QR Codes, Bluetooth Low Energy, et all) to the punch. Moreover, the entire payment ecosystem has jumped onto the NFC bandwagon – from original equipment manufacturers like Apple, Samsung and Google to banks to operators like Vodafone and Orange.

In short, NFC is (currently, at least) in the payments spotlight. Now, the next obvious question – where is Africa positioned in this significant development?

Not too far behind actually. With numerous success stories pertaining to mobile payments, adding NFC to the mix was the next obvious step.

To set the context, let’s look at a few facts. As per the GSMA’s The Mobile Economy-Africa 2016 report, the continent accounts for 52 per cent of the 271 live mobile money services launched in 93 countries and 64 per cent of all active mobile money accounts. Mobile money is, needless to say, big.

Here’s the catch though. A majority of such transactions are executed via a USSD code, which isn’t a short process, to say the least. The lesson here is simple: for any payments technology to catch on in Africa, it ought to ideally leverage the popularity of mobile money, while offering the customer a convenient and easy payment option.

Enter NFC. While it is true that NFC hasn’t exactly taken the African payments space by storm, it wouldn’t be fair to merely dismiss it, either.

To this end, telecom operators in the region are currently customizing the technology to suit the African customer. Take, for instance, Airtel Money, Tanzania’s Tap Tap NFC Merchant Payment service. The service was launched in Tanzania in 2015 and was Africa’s first closed-loop payments service. It is, essentially, a one-stop shop that leverages NFC technology to simplify mobile money merchant payments.

 And now, the term “merchant” is further narrowed down to small-and-medium players (local grocery sellers), on-the-go entities (taxi services), roadside vendors and home-delivery specialists who previously didn’t accept digital payments.

Tap Tap equips merchants with an affordable and portable NFC point-of-sale (POS), a mini-calculator sized GSM device, which is linked to a merchant’s Airtel money account. It also provides consumers with an NFC card linked to their Airtel Money account. The merchant selects a payment option and enters the amount in the NFC POS. Meanwhile, the customer simply taps his NFC card on the POS to pay.

Interestingly, Tap Tap is one of the most economical NFC POS and card combinations globally. The affordable, portable and easy-to-use POS primarily ensures that Tap Tap is used by various businesses including large retailers (supermarkets), small and medium sized merchants (local grocery sellers), home delivery businesses (pizza delivery) and on-the-go merchants (taxi drivers). In doing so, Tap Tap digitises micro-payments and brings them into the formal economy.

It also resolves various challenges such as long, drawn-out transaction times (from a minute to a mere ten seconds), previously unaffordable payment methods and arguably the most important issue, small change, as it offers a convenient payment method.

An increasing number of African vendors are using the Tap Tap NFC Merchant Payment service.

Now, let’s move on to open loop NFC payments, which facilitate transactions at all merchants supporting POS’ verified by MasterCard/Visa. An interesting example of this is the EcoCash Express Debit Card or the Tap-and-Go card. It is a MasterCard companion card, which can be used by a whopping 30 million merchants, both within Zimbabwe and globally.

Customers are required to merely tap the card against the MasterCard licensed POS machine, after which the payment is recognised. For transactions valued under $5 and up to a daily limit of $100, a cardholder no longer has to enter a PIN number on a POS terminal. And speaking of transaction values, customers can purchase goods for as little as 10 cents using the card and the Tap and Pay service. Another instance of the convenience I mentioned earlier.

In fact, the Airtel Money Tap Tap and EcoCash Express Debit Card aren’t one-off instances. Other mobile money providers operating in the region have thrown their hats into the ring as well.

Last but certainly not the least, let’s talk about who stands to benefit from using such facilities. In a nutshell, it is a win-win proposition for two factions – mobile money users (to make payments) and merchants (who accept the payments). And now, the term “merchant” is further narrowed down to small-and-medium players (local grocery sellers), on-the-go entities (taxi services), roadside vendors and home-delivery specialists who previously didn’t accept digital payments.

 Now, at this juncture, it becomes prudent to mention that NFC payments aren’t meant to simplify the lives of merchants alone. These payment instruments can in fact be deployed in multiple ways – at vending machines, to pay for transport services and at various events and amusement parks, the list goes on and on.

An interesting use-case in this context is Orange, which intends to deploy NFC-enabled stickers and POS devices for cash-in and cash-out in multiple African countries.

There is little doubt that NFC payments have piqued the interest of the African consumer. Before we get too optimistic however, we need to remember that a convenient payment method can get you only so far. Sooner or later, operators will have to throw in frills such as loyalty programmes and offers to keep the customer hooked. For now, though, let’s wait and watch.

December 8, 2016 0 comment
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Over the past few years, the mobile payments industry has certainly made its presence felt on the global stage. As per data released by Statista, in 2011, the number of global mobile payment customers stood at 160.4 million. A mere four years later (in 2015), this number jumped to 384 million.

However, while this growth is impressive, it varies across regions. In 2015, a majority of these customers hailed from the Asia-Pacific region (141.4 million), as per the firm. Meanwhile, a stark contrast was the Middle East, which had 4.7 million to its credit.

Moving on, let’s zoom closer into the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Sample this-according to a report released by the Arab Financial Services Company, the financial landscape in the region is characterized by variations in financial inclusion. On one hand, over 65 per cent of adults in the GCC region (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) have an account at a financial institution. On the other, however, this figure stands at less than 20 per cent in countries like Egypt, Sudan, Iraq and Yemen. Naturally, as a result, the development and uptake of mobile payment solutions in the region has been patchy at best. In fact, there is a wide gap between the kinds of solutions the customers are demanding as well. In this context, the report states that in the less developed countries, particularly North Africa, mobile money solutions have been the main growth vehicle for financial inclusion. Needless to say, the GCC region has a different story to tell. Here, developing mobile payment solutions such as mobile banking, mobile wallet, etc, is the norm.

Now let’s put the GCC region under the microscope. First off, there is little doubt that the business case for mobile payments in this region is strong, to say the least. How? Well, for starters, the average mobile penetration is very high-190 per cent. No mean number, this!

Needless to say, operators and third party providers didn’t let the grass grow under their feet before jumping onto the mobile payments bandwagon. As a result, the space saw a flurry of activity. Several examples can be cited in this regards but, for the sake of remaining crisp and concise, let’s cite a few.

It all started in 2013. Boloro, in collaboration with Zain, launched the GCC region’s first ever mobile payments service on buses in Kuwait. Customers could securely and conveniently pay their fares by simply tapping their mobile phone when boarding the vehicle. In fact, all the bigwig operators in Kuwait and Qatar, Zain, Ooredoo and Viva currently offer this service.

On the other hand, there are entities which have been a bit slow on the uptake. I allude to banks, which have preferred to adopt a “wait-and-watch” stance with regard to mobile payments. In my opinion, banks ought to flex their muscles on this stage. And why not? These players can easily leverage their already-established relationships with merchants, not to mention the treasure trove of customer data they’re sitting on.

So, what’s stopping them? Well, the biggest barrier is the fact that these entities still consider the mobile handset and all applications concerned as a value added service. As a result, non-banking players have ventured far ahead of them in the mobile payments game. Allow me to add my two cents-it is time that these players straighten up and chalk out a strategy to at least finish neck-to-neck with the competition. The first step? Start considering the mobile channel as an integral part of the business!

Of course, these entities must have a war chest in place before meeting the competition head-on. Enter the prepaid wallet. Now, the advantages of the prepaid wallet have been discussed ad nauseam, which is why I won’t wax eloquent on the same. I would like to point out, though, that the most important reason (arguably) why banks ought to take prepaid wallets seriously is two-fold. First, their merchants are empowered and second, this service reduces the high “card not present” rate during a transaction. A prepaid wallet is typically built around a stored value account. Customers can transfer the money from their bank account or card to the prepaid wallet. Since payments are not made directly through cards, the high “card not present” charges do not apply. As a brief side-note, permit me to point out that the very enthusiastic uptake of smartphones in the region can play a crucial role in the uptake of this service. After all, 68 per cent of all handsets in the region belong to this category! So, why shouldn’t such applications flourish?

Now let’s turn our focus to another interesting trend that is rearing its head up in the region. Enabling seamless payments through contactless cards is the new kid on the block. In fact, a few banks have already launched their offerings in this regard. The revolution was sparked off in 2015 by Boubyan Bank, the first entity to launch Tap & Pay credit cards in Kuwait. Later that year, Riyad Bank and NCB (supported by AFS) followed to introduce Saudi Arabia’s first contactless credit card. Also, with mobile payments foraying into the game, expect the contactless card to be replaced by the mobile handset.

Let’s take a quick look at the secret sauce behind mobile-based contactless payments-namely, the technology. Several can be used for this service, for instance, Near Field Communications (NFC), QR Codes and sound-based technologies. Of these, NFC is emerging as the forerunner in this race. The reason is simple-Host Card Emulation (an NFC variant) lets banks launch contactless payments rapidly without changing the existing SIM card and involving a trusted service manager (TSM). Little wonder, then, that NFC is the technology of choice for banks and financial institutions alike.

Adding another dimension to this, banks may consider investing in developing their own HCE platform, as opposed to opting for OEM pays like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay. Here’s why – a bank-owned HCE platform works on any NFC-enabled device, unlike the Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, which function only on the Apple iPhone 6 and the Samsung S6 devices respectively. Moreover, with their own HCE platform, banks will have complete control over the tokenization platform as well as the token lifecycle. Banks will have the ability to monetize the token platform to enhance tokens for other use cases, like token based ATM cash out, P2P using tokens, etc.

Net, net, it is only a question of time before prepaid wallets and contactless payments are in the spotlight in the GCC region. The revolution is well and truly underway. What remains to be seen is the direction it takes, in terms of uptake, technologies and services. After all, the Middle East market is an inherently contradictory one. A customised stance is thus needed to succeed. Remember, there is no “one size fits all” approach to mobile payments!

June 29, 2016 0 comment
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