Thursday, December 12, 2002

MSI Cellular Service Puts Africa on Wireless Map

Ron Onrust stuurde mij onderstaand artikel van 2 december 2002 uit de Wall Street Journal:

Celpay Allows Clients to Pay Bills Using Nothing but Their Cellphone

Africa isn't exactly known as a hotbed for new wireless services, but this week the continent finds itself at the forefront of the telecommunications industry. That is because wireless company MSI Cellular Holdings has launched a mobile payment system in Africa -- well ahead of most wireless rivals in Europe or the U.S., many of which have high hopes to turn mobile phones into payment devices.


The Amsterdam-based group, which controls Celtel mobile operators in 14 African countries with a total of roughly one million customers, has set up a mobile-phone service that allows merchants, corporations and mobile-phone users to make and receive payments using a wireless handset. Called Celpay, the service is offered in partnership with African Banking Corp. for retail customers and with Citigroup Inc.'s Citibank unit for corporate clients. So far, 11 merchants in Zambia have signed up for the new system, including a pay-television channel and BP PLC. Coca-Cola Co. is participating in a pilot program.

To be sure, new wireless services haven't really taken off even in markets like Finland, where most of the population has mobile phones. In Africa, where just 23.5 million people have mobile phones on a continent of nearly 800 million, new mobile-data services aren't likely to deliver significant revenue in the near future. "Africa is a voice market first and foremost," says Vaughan Henkel, telecom analyst with J.P. Morgan in Johannesburg, South Africa. "Data is an interesting thing, but Africa is still an underserved market when it comes to voice, and that's where the revenues will come from."

Even so, MSI's new service demonstrates that today's mobile phones can be used for services other than voice -- and without huge investments in new technology. Celpay works by allowing customers to issue payment instructions using menu options on their phone display. Pressing the buttons of their mobile phone, users need to enter numbers including the account number of the recipient, an individual PIN code and the amount to be sent.

Once initiated, the service is carried through a local GSM, or global system for mobile communications, network to the financial institutions involved. The banks will then make the transaction. At the end of the transaction, confirmation is sent via the GSM network to both the sender and recipient and appears on the user's phone as an instant text message. The service will come in handy in Africa -- where many transactions still take place in cash, raising the likelihood of robberies and often requiring people to carry huge bags of money because denominations are small.

Moreover, unlike in Europe or the U.S., there aren't many alternative payment methods available in Africa. Mobile phones are often more widespread than credit cards, according to MSI. "People carry a lot of cash here," says Gelson Maluma, the general manager

for BP retail in Zambia. "That introduces risks. Mobile-phone payments remove this huge amount of cash. It opens up a whole new world of payments here." The company is offering the service in Zambia, where a pilot program was started three months ago and more than 500 customers are using it. Other African countries will follow this month and next year.

In Zambia, Celpay customers can either use their own mobile phones to make a payment or use a BP gasoline station to make a Celpay payment. So far, BP has three gasoline stations that function as a point of payment for Celpay, but the company is planning to turn all of its 60 stations in the country into Celpay payment stations. MSI takes 1.5% of each transaction in commission. At pay-TV company MultiChoice Inc. in Zambia, some 600 people are using Celpay to pay their monthly bills -- 100 are using their own handsets, while as many as 500 are using BP gasoline stations as a point of payment. MultiChoice, which offers 40 audio channels and 38 video channels including BBC World, has 15,000 customers in Zambia, 90% of whom have mobile phones, according to the company.

"Cash collection is problematic," says Matthew Higgins, managing director for the company's Zambian branch. "People don't have addresses here. Postal delivery doesn't work properly. Using cellphones for payments is a quantum leap."