Video: Remittances in Africa – Market trends, regulation, challenges and opportunities March 9, 2021
2020 was far from a banner year for many industries. But it is a year in which the remittance sector revealed itself to be defiantly resilient. The world bank projected a 20% fall in global remittance at the very start of the pandemic but by October they’d revised that figure to just a 7% drop, to be followed by another 7% drop this year (2021). This initially predicted fall was, by all accounts, supposed to have a particularly significant impact in Africa where migrant workers send around £11 billion per year.
RemitONE Associate Sales Director Oussama Kseibati feels that these are figures we always needed to take with a pinch of salt, not only because Africa is a region that is often underestimated on an economical level but because many countries there still lack the capability to capture data accurately. He adds: “Africa is also still a region where physical transfers are more common and it is harder to track physical transfers. That’s why these figures should be seen less as empirically accurate projections and more as rogue guidelines to give us a feel for how the market might be moving.”
To delve deeper into the current climate in Africa, Oussama recently hosted a webinar attended by four esteemed panellists with expert knowledge of the regional remittance landscape. Muhammad M. Jagana, CEO of Kuringo, Sidharth Gautam, Head of Sales at AZA Finance, Leon Issacs, CEO of DMA Global and Linus Adaba, Head of Group Remittance Distribution at Ecobank lent us their thoughts and feelings on the trends, regulations, challenges and opportunities facing Africa in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Was 2020 as bad as expected?
If we’ve learned anything in the last 12 months, it’s that there’s always a risk in sticking your neck out for figures and projections. Nobody wants to die on that hill. In Africa, however, remittance continued to grow and thrive regardless of the pandemic and the World Bank’s scaremongering. Indeed, remittance was actually up by as much as 75% in the Gambia and 50% in Zimbabwe and even in developed countries such as Kenya, Morocco and Egypt, there were gains of around 12%.
Leon explains: “We’ve been hearing hundreds of positive stories of volumes from remittances across the region and we can only assume that’s because the migrants sending money home have a greater need to do so right now when we’re in the midst of a global crisis.”
Another key factor is the impact of the crisis on the informal market. Travel is particularly difficult right now and that means that many of the informal operators that were relying on physically moving cash just closed down after the pandemic forced travel to a standstill. The physical barriers put up between South Africa and Zimbabwe, for example, mean people were forced into using formal, regulated channels.
Leon adds: “Of course, there is also the major impact of digital to take into account, which makes it easier for people to transfer money and Africa has been dipping its toes into that particularly reservoir for a while now.”
How did Intra Africa remittances grow in 2020?
Linus feels that the remittance industry is a resilient one that tends to thrive in moments of crisis, so he’s not surprised it defied the World Bank projection. He explains: “Africans don’t forget home and they are very family-focused. That’s why I feel the African market grew so substantially in 2020. COVID provided a situation where, more than ever, people were willing to send money home.”
Where a partner has had a relationship with any other partner within the continent that allows transactions to happen between bank accounts or mobile wallets, that’s helped business for MTOs. More importantly, the government’s of most African countries saw remittances as COVID palliative. So they were quite willing to help facilitate these Intra African payments and even, in some cases, dedicated certain hours where people could queue and collect physical remittances while keeping safe and socially distanced.
Linus adds: “Some other countries like Kenya, for example, also increased the potential amount of each transaction per person. This not only meant less physical contact but it also meant that people were able to move more money more quickly between countries.” When you also factor in the various economic rules in place in various regions within Africa that allow for freedom of movement, it’s easy to see why Intra African remittances have been allowed to flourish.
As far as what needs to be done to boost the market, Leon adds: “To put it into context, the World Bank once estimated that for every $3 circulating within Africa, $2 originated within the continent. Most people look at Africa as one country rather than 55 and as somewhere that’s dependant on remittances from the rest of the world, but that’s not really the case.” He does believe, however, that there needs to be a regulatory shift in many countries to allow for easier transfer of money and this means allowing for different types of entities to operate alongside more traditional or formal channels.
How is technology going to help?
Currently, the cost of sending remittance to Africa is the highest rate in the world at around 9%. That’s around 5 times more costly than almost anywhere else and according to Oussama, the reason for this is simply because of the heavier reliance on cash payouts. Sidharth agrees, explaining: “For cash, you need so much more logistical support in terms of manpower, not to mention the actual physical locations. So technology is hopefully, in the long term, going to mean these costs reduce quite substantially, perhaps more in line with Southeast Asia where the rate is only around 2%.”
Leon believes that Africa is a hotbed for technology right now but that governments need to get involved on a deeper level to facilitate a safe space for transfers to happen between channels. This is something Mohammed also touches on, explaining that one of the problems is: “How many different currencies there are in Africa, which leads to issues with exchange rates.” He feels that a “single African currency” would be the most logical move. He adds: “We have 35 currencies in Africa and that’s always going to complicate remittances. The end user should not have to worry about exchange rates.”
This leads us quite neatly into the question of cryptocurrency. Sidharth has seen it being adopted in a big way through AZA’s separate crypto product, exploding from around $6,000 to $56,000 in just the last 2 quarters. He adds: “As regulations loosen up and mobile tech continues to build it will be more widely accepted as a means of payment, certainly within the next five years.”
Mohammed, meanwhile, feels adoption might be a little slower, mentioning that Nigeria recently stopped all crypto payments for B2B transactions. Leon, however, feels that it could become a big part of the solution in years to come but right now “people in Africa don’t have a good understanding of cryptocurrency yet.” That’s not to say they won’t in the future though and Oussama is hopeful that with time, that understanding will come. He believes that “a lot of end users right now are not using cryptocurrency as remittance but as more of an asset that will increase in value.” Education will undoubtedly play a major role in that regard.
How have the central bank measures promoting remittance impacted operations in Africa?
The regulation that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) issued in December last year was designed to boost US dollar supply into the economy and simplify remittances by ensuring the beneficiary always collects the money in dollars. Linus explains: “70% to 80% of remittances to Nigeria in the last two years have been to bank accounts because of the instant delivery the banks offer.” So, the central bank changing the currency from Nigerian Naira to Dollar makes a lot of sense but Linus stresses it’s not necessarily a Nigerian “dollarisation.” What the central bank is doing, he argues, is simply allowing the individual to negotiate rates themselves and trying to unify the exchange rate because they “can see how remittances can be used to help aid development.”
Sidharth agrees though he says that AZA is always going to be a firm that promotes local currencies. He feels the regulation is going to provide a major challenge for the Naira even though he thinks it will be good for remittance and things will improve in the long term. Leon, meanwhile, explains that DMA is currently “working with the British government to try and understand the impact on the UK to Nigeria remittance corridor and how it has impacted both the senders and receivers.”
Right now he says it’s been a bit of a mixed bag, with some saying the measures have led to an increase in remittance and others saying it’s led to a decline and some of that’s due to the fact there was no notice given to some of the operators.
Oussama adds that it’s all part of a broad approach by CBN to try and manage the different exchange rates and the parallel market that exists in Nigeria where the exchange rate could be as much as 20% different to the official rate because the Naira isn’t floating. Over time there will almost certainly be tweaks made to the policy that will fit into the much broader range of initiatives but in the short term, the CBN are at least now very much in a dialogue with the operators. If this continues then hopefully it won’t go the way of Zimbabwe a few years ago, where they had to essentially dollarise the whole economy because of rampant inflation and overvalued local currency.
Resilience of Remittance
Generally speaking, the future looks bright for the African remittance sector as long as local governments and banks are willing to invest in regulatory change and incentivise a shift towards digital payments. There are definitely a few significant challenges to overcome in terms of financial inclusion and KYC but advancement in technology is a perfect solution and Africa is by no means on the back foot as far as technology is concerned.
To read more on what our panellists have to say regarding the more specific challenges facing mobile adoption in the region, click here for our companion piece or check out the full webinar here. If you are a money service business interested in expanding into the region, meanwhile, RemitONE is an award-winning provider of MSB technology.
If you need support with all your operational needs please contact us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org to see how we can support you.
Q1. Can you provide an overview of the licensing regime in Africa? What licences do PSPs and Telcoms need to be able to conduct intra-Africa and international payments?
Muhammad: I believe this is one area that African governments can use to unleash huge opportunities to elevate disruptions in this domain which can help propel ‘The last Mile of the Financial Inclusion Journey’. The challenge in most African countries is that most GSM/Telcos are so flushed with cash (capital) compared to new FinTech companies that sometimes the offerings from these big operators are difficult to match.
Also, because of legacy infrastructures (Anglophone, Francophone, different currencies, FX regulations) it makes it impossible to effectively promote intra-African remittances, and scale to the potentials that are there. For example, Kuringo was in discussions with a potential partner in Ghana to explore the GM/GH corridor. We faced several bottlenecks, such as both our currencies (Dalasi/Cedi) are not convertible and we opted to use USD. Then our partners required waivers from the Central Bank of Ghana because in order to settle us in the US they have to fulfil FX control restrictions. In the end we abandoned the project because of complicated regulatory issues.
Q2. How do the panellists evaluate intra-Africa transactions vis-a-vis AcFTA which was launched in January 2021?
Linus: It is a good initiative that is more than overdue. It will facilitate big ticket payments of goods and services. Major countries in Africa have executed the treaty which shows political will to make it a success.
Muhammad: Huge potential if only there could be a single digital currency that could be used to settle intra-Africa trade, hence mitigating exchange losses. With over 35 currencies used across Africa, SME who are the backbones of most economies would be able to fully benefit from AcFTA.
Q3. With regards to AML/CFT and remittances, is Africa a significant corridor and has the pandemic accelerated this; what new typologies have emerged in this past year?
Linus: Regarding AML/CFT Africa is certainly a significant corridor. AML/CFT has always been a concern for regulators which each remittance scheme is expected to put in place before the advent of Covid-19.
Q4. Have you seen an increase in remittance/FinTech partnerships since 2020 and is Ecobank looking at new ways to partner international players to increase value added services into Africa?
Linus: Yes certainly.
Q5. Do you believe central banks are likely to open up in the ways others have regarding Cryptocurrency? E.g. CBDCs?
Leon: Over time they will, but it’s unlikely to be in the near future.
Sidharth: Medium to long term, Crypto will gain momentum in Africa due to the high cost of sending remittances and over-relying on cash in the continent. But this has its own challenges like central banks, regulations and onramp/offramp from local currencies.
Q6. Inoperability is a big issue with Telcos in Africa, to boost remittances even within the same country. Is it a regulatory, technology or lack of will issue?
Linus: Interoperability required a clearing house to succeed. Some aggregators can offer this service, but there is need for a clearing framework within the region or country by the regulator to make this effective. Telcos are beginning to find ways on how to cooperate in this respect, but candidly the services on an impartial arbiter are required.
Leon: Completely agree. Most Telcos don’t want to cooperate, similiar to how MTOs were 15 years ago. Regulators need to get involved to make it happen.
Sidharth: Except Nigeria, where there is some sort of interoperability/common rails due to Interswitch, this is still a distant task and much is needed to make this happen. CBs/regulators have to play a pivotal role in making this happen both for bringing down the cost and making remittances happen real-time across the continent.
Q7. What are your views on Telcos doing some banking functions, given that Telcos have huge subscribers etc? Are banks not concerned about this for the future, as they appear to be doing banking work and revenues may dwindle for banks?
Linus: Telcos are assisting to expand financial includion and deploring affordable technologies or infrastructures where the banks cannot venture becayse of a typical bank operating model. I see collaboration between Telcos and banks rather than competition. Each part has assets to offer in the financial inclusion narrative.
Leon: Exactly right. Telcos will be the distribution channel and banks the service provider – these will be white-label product providers.
Q8. Do you think the new regulations in Nigeria are against African money transfer companies who are sendig from Africa to Nigeria?
Leon: It is not against African MTOs, indeed, it should be helpful to them.
Q9. Regarding one of Leon’s explanations of regulatory frameworks being challenging for intra-African remittances, how does this work with Crypto where there is no regulatory framework in place?
Leon: Great question. Unfortunately, because there is no framework there is no approval to operate these services. The only way around this is to obtain a letter of consent or to use sandboxes. It will take time but is not high priority at the moment for most central banks.
Q10. Do you think that Cryptocurrencies can be a solution to solve settlement problems for intra-Africa cross-border remittances?
Leon: They can help will illiquid currencies or imperfect settlement processes. But they are not an answer for consumers right now unless there are ways for people to exchange Crypto for local currency.
Q11. Will the change to USD in Nigeria have much impact especially slowing the black market traders? And what is the impact of this Naira to USD change?
Linus: There will be impact. More awareness on the current changes in remittance payout in Nigeria may change this. The beneficiary of the remittance is involved in the Naira value for the Dollar received which is determined by market forces rather than policy fiat.
Q12. Why do African Money Transfer players not want to play outside of Africa and directly service the African diaspora?
Linus: RapidTransfer, for example, is in Europe serving African diaspora. The success of this new addition to the 33 countries where Ecobank is operating in Africa could spur future expansion to other countries where we have diaspora presence.
Q13. Nigeria was implementing two exchange rates concurrently. What are the benefits and challenges of this policy? How can Ethiopia learn from stringent rules and regulations like this?
Linus: Yes, before the switch to USD payout by policy of November 30th 2020, the second official exchange rate is a premium above the first for Naira payout for inbound remittances into Nigeria. It was to reward the Nigeria diaspora to channel their hard-earned money back into the country and to use approved schemes and instruments. Central banks do share experiences, I would advise that tour central bank gets in touch with the Nigerian central bank to compare notes.
Q14. When and where can we obtain Leon’s consumer research?
Leon: Not sure of the exact timing, but we expect this to be around the end of April or early May. We’ll be happy to circulate it.
Q15. Do you think that remittance in our region is at the point that you expected it would be 5 years ago?
Leon: I think it is progressing faster than I would have expected.
Muhammad: The evolution of affordable smart phones and mobiles in general, we have seen a huge growth in the remittances both in the formal an informal market. Today most informal operators (within countries) are using WhatsApp, text message and mobile phone calls to move money within border and across/intra-Africa.
Q16. Regarding the bound on Crypto in Nigeria and the fat that people have to collect USD in place of Naira, what is the advice for a startup?
Linus: Play to the rules and seek partners and banks that share your business vision.
Q17. What are your views on the introduction of individual CBDCs and its effect on intra-Africa remittances and global remittances; what harmonisation is needed to move past the current status quo in terms of exchange rates?
Leon: A good but complex question. They can only be effective if there is much more digitisation in everyday payments in Africa. Ideally an intraregional currency would bring more stability.
Q18. What can be done to help the end users use their money in digital ways, but also have access to cash with more ATM machines?
Muhammad: The Last Mile Solutions for Africa might not be ATMs, but rather small corner/community shops that are dotted all over villages, towns, cities across Africa. How can we onboard them to accept digital payments and give them access to smart POS that would work on mobiles that can be used as withdrawal points (ATM, Payment Centres).
Leon: There needs to be much more digitisation in general life in African countries. This has to happen way before we worry about international payments. Remittances are relevant for payouts but only ride on domestic rails for this.
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