Innovations target S Africa?s unbanked

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

In the higgledy-piggledy streets of Bethelsdorp, a sprawling South African township once designated for people of mixed race, what at first glance appears to be a colourful new youth movement is gathering strength. Adherents sport blue T-shirts and baseball caps and lug brimming satchels. They roam the streets, knocking on the doors of the township’s shacks and simple bungalow homes.

In the anarchic days of the apartheid era such youths might have been “comrades” rallying local morale against the police. More recently they might have been members of a nattily dressed new gang. But they are not. They are salespeople for a mobile-telephone-based community-banking scheme.

“We are telling people how easy it is to have a bank account,” says Antonio Loots, the community banker for Standard Bank, South Africa’s largest bank, who cruises around the township in his ancient BMW overseeing the salespeople. “Places like Bethelsdorp are very remote from traditional banking structures. For an initiative like this to work it must have local input.”

Economists have long argued that formal statistics underestimate activity in the informal sector.

Under white rule, townships were ignored by banks partly because they were deemed commercially unviable, partly because of the lawlessness, and partly because it did not occur to most bankers to expand services out of their “comfort zone”, says one executive drily.

Now, however, there is a dual impulse for banks to reassess their old ways: there is growing awareness of the size of the informal economy and the rewards from tapping it; and they also need to fulfil their obligations to the banking charter, which requires banks to make amends for the past, when they catered mainly to whites, by expanding services.

Mark Napier, the CEO of FinMark Trust, a consultancy largely funded by DFID, Britain’s overseas development arm, to “make markets work for the poor”, notes that the number of “banked” has risen from 51 per cent of the adult population to 60 per cent in the past year. The increase is from black people in informal urban areas and people earning between R500 and R1,000 ($132, ?83, ?66) a month.

But, he adds, this is just the beginning. He notes the holders of almost half of the new low-cost accounts that all four main retail banks, Absa, First National Bank, Nedbank and Standard Bank, launched in a collaborative venture four years ago, do not use them beyond taking their cash out as soon it arrives.

These accounts, known as Mzansi (“south”), are transactional and savings accounts, targeted at low-income earners. There are about 4m account holders, but the product is commercially unviable, for both banks and clients.

“The concern is that people open them via their employers [who require them to have an account for their salaries] rather than making the decision themselves, and then have to pay bank charges,” says Mr Napier.

In recent years banks have spent millions on building ATMs and portable branches in townships and rural areas. Now they are trying to be more innovative, in particular via cell phone technology, to address what bankers concur are the three keys to banking the unbanked: affordability, accessibility and dignity.

Coenraad Jonker, Standard Bank’s director of community banking, believes the secret is to forget traditional banking. Bethelsdorp, on the fringes of the industrial town of Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Cape, has one of two pilot projects for his Community Banking project which is an extension of a joint venture with MTN, the telecommunications giant.

The salespeople give new account holders a debit card and a sim card for their mobile phones on their doorstep. Both can be used for transactions that take place via the MTN network.

For the bank, the scheme removes the costs of setting up branches, and of distributing cash. In South Africa, with its high rates of violent crime, securing cash in and from ATMs, which are a frequent target of gangs, is particularly expensive. For clients the scheme is a less intimidating way of entering the financial sector than by signing up in the more formal surroundings of a bank. The bank has also initiated a community investment fund that gives loans to small businesspeople, liberating them from the township loan sharks who charge prohibitive rates of interest. Caroline Moses, 58, borrowed R10,000, which she pays off at R750 a month for her fruit and vegetable stall. “It’s uplifted my spirit and my image as a human being,” she says. “My dream is to get bigger and to buy a fridge and a container.” A nearby township lender was offering interest rates of 30 per cent a month.

Mrs Moses’ story presents a possible silver lining to the clouds hovering over the economy – it grew at 2.1 per cent in the first quarter, the lowest rate in over six years.

“If we don’t get it right at the level of informal communities, no effort in buying and selling shares is going to transform this economy,” says Mr Jonker. “We can’[t wait for the government to do it. Banks and mobile phone companies have to be the keys.”

Source: Financial Times (link opens in a new window)