The Economist: Airtime is Money – pre-paid mobile phone minutes as currency

In a recent article, The Economist takes a brief look at the continued, and growing, use of mobile air time as money in many African countries.  It would seem that banks everywhere, Africa included, just can’t give people what they want. Mobile air time holds its value and can be transferred in small amounts quickly and anonymously.

“Services such as M-Pesa in Kenya, allows account-holders to transfer legal tender electronically to fellow account-holders by entering commands on a mobile phone. Popular though such services are, they have not stopped an older form of mobile money flourishing. This sort uses pre-paid mobile-airtime minutes as a de facto currency that can be transferred between phones, exchanged for cash with dealers who rent out phones, or bartered for goods and services.”

“Pre-paid minutes can be swapped for cash or spent in shops most easily in Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ghana and Uganda, says Chris Chan of Tranglo, a Malaysian firm that facilitates ‘airtime remittances’ to mobile phones. Airtime is commonly used as money in Nigeria, too. Hannes Van Rensburg, Visa’s boss for sub-Saharan Africa, says this is partly because regulators there have made it difficult for banks to offer the newer form of mobile money.”

“But even in places like Kenya, airtime minutes are still being used as currency. Unlike mobile money, airtime’s value does not rely directly on a government’s stability or ability to hold down inflation by, say, showing restraint printing money. Opening a mobile-money account typically requires waiting for days after showing your ID. In contrast, airtime can often be purchased and sent immediately and anonymously. Because many telecoms firms in Africa and elsewhere transfer minutes nationwide free of charge, airtime is especially useful for settling small debts.”

In Zimbabwe, for example, American banknotes have largely replaced the hyperinflation-ravaged Zimbabwean dollar. American coins are scarce, however, so pretty much everybody in Zimbabwe transfers airtime in their place at least occasionally, says Oswell Binha, president of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce in Harare.”

Yo! Time, a Harare-based start-up that simplifies these retailer-to-shopper airtime payouts, processes more than 9,000 payouts a day for clients; six months ago the figure was 2,000.

“Some authorities are concerned about airtime’s use as money. As one industry executive puts it, network operators are, in effect, ‘issuing their own currency’ and setting its exchange rate; central banks tend to dislike such things.”

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