Geographies in Depth

Here's why Africa is the world leader in digital and mobile banking

Close to half the world’s mobile banking accounts are based in Africa. Image: Unsplash/rupixen.com

Andrea Willige
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Africa is the world’s mobile banking leader, with the highest number of services, account holders and transactions.
  • The rise of mobile and digital banking has helped millions of Africans gain access to finance in areas where traditional banking networks don’t reach.
  • Boosting financial inclusion is one of the goals of the World Economic Forum’s EDISON Alliance, which aims to bring millions of people online and give them access to critical services.

Africa has often been held up as a pioneer for the future of banking.

Many areas have leapfrogged straight to mobile banking to give greater access to the unbanked, meaning that over the past two decades millions of Africans have gained access to banking services without ever visiting a typical bank branch, according to The Banker.

And Africa looks set to remain a trendsetter for digital banking as new services and players disrupt the market.

The rise of mobile banking in Africa

Mobile banking in Africa started as a facility for transferring airtime between mobile accounts. But with many countries lacking well-developed nationwide banking networks, this facility soon became an alternative money transfer system.

Mobile payment services such as Kenya’s M-Pesa – initially a vehicle for micro-loans – and OPay from Nigeria have since expanded across the continent, and eventually into other developing markets.

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During the pandemic, these services became even more of a lifeline. African governments also incentivized people to use mobile payments – for example by waiving mobile transaction fees – to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

Today, 48% of Africa’s population uses banking services, according to the African Digital Banking Transformation Report 2023.

While this still means that around half of the population is unbanked and cash remains the dominant form of payment, digital banking continues to expand at pace across the continent.

Charts showing the african population with access to banking.
Millions of people in Africa have gained access to banking in the last two decades without ever visiting a traditional bank branch. Image: Statista

Mobile banking put Sub-Saharan Africa in the lead

In Africa and many other developing markets, most digital banking takes the form of mobile banking. This is due to a lack of fixed communications infrastructure for wired Internet access. Around three-quarters of online traffic in Africa goes via mobile phones, according to African Business.

The GSM Association, which represents mobile network operators worldwide, ranks Sub-Saharan Africa as the world leader in mobile banking in terms of live services, subscribers and transactions.

Graphic illustrating the regional mobile banking growth.
Sub-Saharan Africa leads the world in mobile banking. Image: GSM Association

Including North Africa, the continent is home to just under half the world’s mobile banking services and around two-thirds of global transaction volumes and value.

Likewise, close to half the world’s mobile banking accounts are based in Africa – and the trend is upwards. Growth in registered accounts and transactions is above the global average – around one-fifth in 2022 – and markedly higher than in other world regions.

Graphic illustrating the growth in Africa in 2022.
Africa as a whole accounts for half of the world’s mobile banking. Image: GSM Association

‘Neobanking’ emerges

This trend is at least in part due to governments relaxing rules over the last decade, enabling mobile banking providers to compete directly with traditional financial services firms, according to The Banker.

Alongside this, “neobanks” have joined the fray and are quickly gaining ground across the continent. Like existing mobile banking providers, they are purely digital with no branch network. Neobanks provide another route to financial access for the underserved, but they are also highly attractive to customers beyond this segment, Finance Magnates reports.

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Neobanks can offer their services at a lower cost due to having fewer overheads. They also offer a wider range of services, including investment platforms, digital wallets and budgeting apps.

One of their biggest selling points, however, is customer service. In addition to real-time account updates on their apps, they are typically available 24 hours a day to help customers. By using data analytics, they are also able to tailor offers to individual customers and their specific needs and habits.

Traditional banks are feeling the disruption – and they are not alone

The African Digital Banking Transformation Report 2023 reports that 40% of banks surveyed consider fintechs and telcos as high threats.

Almost all African banks recognize the importance of digital technology, but many have not fully formulated their digital strategies, according to African Business. Fewer than a third of banks surveyed spend more than $3 million per year on their digital transformation. What’s more, the share of those allocating less than $300,000 per year has increased by six percentage points to 27% since 2021.

And banks are not alone in their battle against new market entrants: neobanks are also targeting mobile banking providers head-on with their broader range of services. Unlike the latter, neobanks can issue conventional credit and debit cards. This could become a trump card for them as mobile money – despite its success – is still not accepted everywhere, limiting its usefulness, according to Finance Magnate.

Ultimately, increased choice and wider access to banking should benefit Africa’s large number of unbanked people and aid their financial inclusion.

This is also one of the goals of the World Economic Forum’s EDISON Alliance, which prioritizes digital inclusion to bring millions of people online and give them access to critical services including finance, healthcare and education.

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Geographies in DepthFinancial and Monetary Systems
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