Tuesday, July 13, 2010

THERE IS STILL HOPE FOR US

In his previous life former president Jimmy Carter was a peanut (groundnut) farmer. “There are two types of people,” he once said. “Those who buy my peanuts and those who don’t”.

After three years of this column’s existence I too have managed a rough classification of my own.

Of those who read the column and respond to it, there are the ones who have written me off as a cynic (thank God they keep reading anyway), that I am too critical of this country, its government and people and that if I just stopped to look I would see that this country’s future is blindingly bright.

The second type can’t get past the fact that I write for a paper whose majority shareholder is the government and see an ulterior motive in everything I write.

I have made my own judgment on my readers. The former being people most probably benefiting disproportionately from the status quo, so they do not want any rocking of their boat and the latter are not benefiting like the previous group and resent anyone who will give this country, its government or people the benefit of doubt.

Like the proverbial elephant and the seven blind men, who depending on what part of the elephant they came into contact with thought it was a wall, snake, ship or tree, Shillings & Cents is often criticized, sometimes misunderstood and rarely praised – and that maybe is as it should be.

I do not apologise for the often pessimistic tone of this column but once in while when all hope seems lost, something happens and you know there is hope yet for this country.

Earlier this week I was in the picturesque South African town of Grahamstone (I will admit I did not visit its township). Rhodes University was hosting the annual Highway Africa Conference – the biggest annual assembly of media professionals on the continent.

During the conference MTN had a presentation on its mobile money product in Uganda.

Richard Mwami, MTN Uganda’s head of public access and mobile money ticked off some impressive numbers: more than sh600b transacted in the 15 months since its inception, nearly a million accounts, average transaction sums about sh50,000 with 60% of these representing flows from the urban to the rural areas.

MTN Uganda is pioneering the service in the MTN group.

On the sidelines of the event I asked Mwami what the future holds for the service, he said it was hard to tell with much certainity as the service has bested all projections envisaged and continues to do so.

Contrary to how history is told, a revolution can be happening around you and you
wouldn’t know it. In case you missed it, the use of money via mobile phones promises to be one such revolution.

Two things are happening as we watch, the speed of the communication has increased dramatically in the last 15 years increasing efficiency and significantly lowering the cost of doing business.

Now this speed of communication has been transferred to the speed of money transfer. There was a time you would send someone on a bus with money for relatives upcountry and wait hours or even days before you got confirmation from the intended recipient.

Secondly, an unintended consequence of the money service is that people are saving money in the formal financial sector. Mwami revealed that people keeping money on their mobile accounts for more than 15 days are in the thousands and increasing steadily.

Those two developments alone will prove more beneficial than anything else we have going in the fight against poverty.

As it stands now less than half of the money in circulation is in the formal financial sector. The downside of this statistic is that there is more money floating around – most probably aiding consumption, than there is in the banks, hampering their ability to lend and by extension keeping lending rates high.

Watch this mobile money transfer trend very keenly especially as Mwami revealed that MTN will soon be branching into bill payment, micro-lending and insurance, foreign remittances and bulk payments.

It just goes to show that despite the difficulties we face in bettering our lives, the human spirit will always find a way. There is hope after all.


Published July 2010, New Vision

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