A different approach to mobile money in Africa

WITH her phone in one hand and a live chicken in the other, Brenda Deeomba comes for her money. Her husband is a builder in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, and sends his wages home through Zoona, a money-transfer company. She receives them at a roadside booth in Chongwe, a nearby town, using a PIN number sent to her phone. It is a safe way to get the money, says Ms Deeomba, above muffled squawks.

Money-transfer businesses are proliferating in Africa. But Zoona is unusual. Unlike M-PESA, the best-known, in Kenya, it is not run by a phone company. Nor is it owned by a bank. Instead, Zoona has built a business from scratch. It processed $200m in transactions last year and bubbles with ambition: Mike Quinn, its (Canadian) chief executive, talks of reaching 1bn customers.

Zoona was founded in Zambia in 2009 by two brothers, Brad and Brett Magrath. As a startup, they were at a disadvantage, having to recruit their own agents. Zoona did so by seeing them as its core customers, giving them credit and training to set up their own franchises. Some are impressively successful. In central Lusaka, Misozi Mkandawire presides over an empire of kiosks. She started with Zoona while at college. Her profits can now reach 50,000 kwacha ($5,200) a month. That is exceptional. Last year the average agent made $548 in monthly commission, before costs. Globally, nearly half of mobile-money agents have not processed a transaction for a month; 97% of Zoona agents do so every day.

The right location helps. Zoona puts its lime-green booths in canny places, like markets, bus stations and even a hospital. They are often flanked by booths for Airtel and MTN, two phone companies offering similar services. Zoona is not the cheapest—the sender pays about 10% on small transactions—but competes on coverage and reliability: for example, ensuring its agents have enough float to cash large amounts.

Last year Zoona raised $15m from investors. Its outlets now dot streets in Malawi and Mozambique, and it has plans for the Democratic Republic of Congo. Such “third-party” operators are also thriving elsewhere: Wari, in Senegal, is not just competing with phone companies, but buying one. In most places mobile giants and a few banks still dominate, but maybe not for ever.


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