SmartPesa could bring the Underbanked into the credit economy

SmartPesa hails from Singapore, the next stop for the Fintech City Tour.

From the name, I assumed SmartPesa was something to do with M-Pesa, but it seems to be just a clever way to say SmartMoney (pesa means money in Swahili). Thorsten Neumann of SmartPesa pointed out that Swahili is a language spoken by +-100mil people in East Africa.
Africa is a big market. According to BCG (Boston Consulting Group) there will be 400 million mobile phone owners in the region with an income of at least $500 a year by 2019.
Although SmartPesa is based in Singapore, Thorsten spent 3 years in Rwanda/Democratic Republic of Congo, so he knows the market in Africa where M-Pesa is the game-changer. Thorsten pointed out that their opportunity was in all the emerging markets including SE Asia and Central America, not just Africa.
SmartPesa is like Square for the rest of the world.
There is a physical SmartPesa device that plugs into the phone, just like Square. However, the differences with Square illustrate three interesting trends in Fintech:
  • SmartPesa is compliant with EMV L2 chip cards. This is rather than the antiquated mag strip technology that is now only used in America and which even America will start phasing out from October 2015 onwards. Square is obviously gearing up to offer this as well. This is one market where America is playing catchup.
  • SmartPesa works through Banks. The Banks do the merchant acquiring. Square does its own merchant acquiring. Startups without access to large pools of VC money are likely to take a cooperative approach with Banks rather than trying to replace them entirely.
  • Mobile disruption. The countries that leapfrog to mobile are more likely to invent the game-changing innovation because necessity is the mother of invention. In America, it was niche markets (such as Farmers Markets) that needed Square; most retailers already had fixed line POS.
The key to M-Pesa is those 40,000 agents (in Kenya alone) who operate the small roadside shops where you can cash out your M-Pesa digital currency. These roadside shops are ubiquitous in emerging markets. These Micro Businesses are key to economic growth in these countries. They are like a decentralized Walmart. They do everything via mobile phones and via cash (or mobile money cash equivalents like M-Pesa). That is why a venture like SmartPesa that aims to bring these roadside stands into the credit economy is significant.

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