Financial inclusivity is not what Sierra Leone has been known for. Until now, only 16% of the country had access to a bank account leaving over three quarters excluded from a formal financial system. But the recent Ebola crisis which wracked the region last year provided a catalyst for change writes Alexander Atkins
The response by the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) to the epidemic was swift, hoping to tackle the disease before it swept out of control. To do this, they recruited well over 24,000 Ebola response workers, operating under the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, to help in aiding the fight against Ebola.
This monumental force was key in stopping the spread of this lethal disease, yet one of the major challenges for these staff came when payday arrived. With so many health workers spread through such a large area, and all receiving different levels of payment through different means, there was sure to be a problem. The result was numerous strikes by staff all over the country that left not only Ebola patients unattended but also normal medical cases such as pregnancies. The effect was crippling.
The government of Sierra Leone needed a solution. They had to devise a way to pay the army of staff that worked throughout the country the right amount at the right time, no easy task when one realises that until then, it was very much a cash in hand situation. The UNDP put themselves to the task, looking to find a common factor that could connect the scattered legion of workers. That common factor was mobile usage. Whilst a tiny amount of the population had access to a bank account, the majority had access to a mobile network, as there is 82% coverage across Sierra Leone.
Mobile money schemes are certainly not new to Africa. The success of MPESA in Kenya, the mobile money transfer idea started there by Vodafone through Safaricom, is testament to that fact. But the idea was to go further than MPESA had gone, and connect the mobile with a bank account. "We needed to devise a way to pay front line workers on time, pay them the right amount and pay the right frontline workers" says Tenzin Keyzom Ngodup, a programme manager and technical specialist with the UNDP in Sierra Leone. "Paying the workers on time was the most critical element to avoiding strikes. The idea of paying through mobile wallets helped us to achieve this."
The UNDP devised a mechanism that would allow digital hazard payments to be made to the Ebola response workers. Tenzin explains that the benefits became apparent almost immediately: "After we successfully instituted the mobile wallet, we realised there were so many other improvements. Payments were more transparent, the recipients’ experience was vastly improved and the whole idea lowered the costs for the government and development partners for paying these workers."
But as the Ebola crisis was slowly brought under control, the idea gained momentum and interest, especially from an administration governing over a country where the mass majority are not included in any formal financial system. As Tenzin says "The financial disclusion is huge, the products offered by banks are not designed for the masses so digital financial inclusion has a big role to play in West African banking."
Fast forward to this November, and the mobile money system has moved one step further. The Bank of Sierra Leone and The Central Bank has partnered with UNDP and the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) to launch the country’s first mobile money regulations. The Central Bank believes that these regulations will be crucial to accelerating the delivery of mobile finance to the majority of people in Sierra Leone. When asked what effect these regulations would have, Tenzin believed they are a major step: "These guidelines bring mobile money under the purview of the Central Bank, increasing scope for Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and licenced financial institutions to collaborate. This is also the first step to protecting consumers during digital payments."
The bank governor, Momodu Kargbo, was adamant that these measures would create total financial inclusion across the country. "This is not only for the convenience but as an avenue to ensure that as many Sierra Leoneans as possible are included in the formal financial system of our country" Kargbo stated. "This is the first step towards encouraging people to adopt electronic channels of payments ad move away from the traditional use of cash as means of payments and settlements of financial obligations."
However, the new system does not cut the banks out; their role is instead transitioning towards a partnership with the mobile network providers. As Tenzin explained, "Banks will be the account underwriters, while MNOs offer the network. However different kinds of revenue sharing and risk sharing models are possible."
To further the drive to move from a cash based system to a digitised financial economy, the Sierra Leone government has joined an international partnership known as the Better Than Cash Alliance (BTCA). The organisation includes sixteen governments as well as partners such as Visa, MasterCard, USAID, and The Ford Foundation among others. The Alliance aims to move the global economy to a cashless system and is working with government the world over to achieve digitalisation.
In joining, Tenzin explains, Sierra Leone becomes part of a group of governments and organisations who are looking to a digital future. "Its membership highlights its commitment to continue the nation’s digitisation of payments to realise additional benefits for its people" Tenzin says. "Through BTCA, Sierra Leone joins the league of other countries and engages in peer-to-peer learning."
With the new regulations, the mobile money system looks set to grow and Sierra Leone will be hoping for it to be one of the financial success stories of the future. From its early beginnings during the Ebola Crisis to the announcement of the new regulations, it looks set to provide financial inclusivity to the majority of the population, bringing many under the digital wing. Although there is still a long way to go, it is certainly an example of Africa looking to a digital future.