Mobile Money Moves to Africa has expanded its reach to focus on the payments landscape in Africa as a continuation of the Payments Around the World Briefing Room. caught up with Kaustuv Ghosh, head of m-commerce for a leading telecommunications firm in Southeast Asia, for his take on [mobile] payments in Africa.

How would you describe the state of m-commerce in Africa and why: just getting started, really taking off or truly exploding?

Firstly, let us not focus on Africa alone. Africa is part of a larger region the Indian Ocean region. But it is true that it has truly led the world in mobile commerce. A unique set of factors- challenges to the banking structure, societies emerging from conflict, a new breed of entrepreneurs and a generation of very talented Africans -has led to this. African nations are setting new standards in governance, too, and all this is leading to the creation of networks and hubs that can take mobile money to the next level. Mcommerce in Africa is not just about Africa-it is about the Meditteranean and Indian Ocean regions as well. Pliny the Elder once said “There is always something new out of Africa.” Well, there you are.

Who are the key major players to watch right now? How has that changed over the last 3 years? 

I want to see what happens in Francophone Africa. We talk about Zain, Safaricom and MTN, but I want to see how French and European investments in mcommerce change that part of Africa. I also want to see how Asian entrepreneurs straddle the Indian Ocean region and work with their counterparts in Africa to build greater value. This is not a new phenomenon but does need a new look. We have seen some of it in places like Kenya already.

What are the 3 most significant benefits to  m-commerce in Africa and how would you quantify them? 

I would not like to put numbers to these but alternative networks have evolved to allow the common people access to funds, access to benefits from relatives overseas  and new ways of doing business. Transactional networks are as old as time and Africa had some of the most innovative ones across history. I suppose we are seeing a tradition continue. Think of gold, cocoa, and so forth. The difference is that today Africa is increasingly robust, confident and articulate. Money is coming in, in the form of remittances. People are making conscious choices about how to circulate money. We need to recognize that.

What are some of the challenges unique to launching a mobile payments start-up in Africa and how does one overcome them?

The challenges are not unique to a region. In any market, regulations, investment, market acceptability and competition are the key factors to look out for. I think African business leaders need to look at the larger Indian Ocean region as a whole on one side and a ecosystem linking North Africa to Europe on the other. I want to read more about African brands and business leaders. I hate saying this but many publications are not even looking. Look at the amount of airtime Africa gets on business channels. Africa is part of the Indian Ocean region and I like to think it is in its destiny to be part of a new powerhouse.

How have merchants in Africa responded to the concept of mobile payments?

Mpesa’s acceptability is indicative of the potential. Acquiring merchants is critical and difficult. African merchants seem to have responded very positively to mcommerce and that speaks volumes about the entreprenurial DNA of the continent. I like to think of the Hudson Bay Company and its role in the development of Canada. You need a merchant ecosystem anchored by some of these kind of folks. Maybe Unilever should play a role here. But the fact is you need investment in merchant networks.

To what extent is m-commerce in Africa influenced by the markets in Southeast Asia?

It should work the other way! Africa has much to show to large emerging markets, especially Indonesia and Vietnam. Mcommerce needed what I call a tearaway, to use a  cricketing analogy. And there has been more than one in Africa.  As I keep saying, I want to see an Afro-Asia hub emerge of mobile commerce and banking. It is time for the Indian Ocean region to reclaim its place as the preeminent zone of commerce. Its been a while since that was the case, you know.

What is the business model for the most successful players and how is that different from other parts of the world, if at all?

Every player has its own model. Basic models do not differ but what differs is the attitude one brings to negotiations and the reaction to macroenvironment factors. The two key factors that you need to keep in  mind are the political economy and human geography. Between them, Zain, Mpesa and MTN pack a lot of learnings for business leaders elsewhere.

What is the one lesson learned from your work in Africa that you think others can apply to deploying m commerce – in both developed and developing countries?

Think networks. Scott McNealys famous quote can be reworded as “The Network is the Wallet.” But the network is also human.It is about communications, about populating and using space. That’s the genesis of transactions. You cannot think of business in isolation from these and you cannot get away from building networks. This is not a business for those who want to hit their numbers in a quarter and take a mortgage on a beachhouse  off their bonuses. It’s for the long-distance runners.

What projects are you currently working on?

Networks, Funds and Human Interfaces are the three broad themes I always focus on and this has not changed for the last fourteen years. I am delighted by urban geography- the shop in the corner, the neighborhood taxi guy, the bakery chain and the soft drink vending machine- think of how all of these come together in a single urban day. Money is constantly changing hands and we need to keep building more and different kinds of networks to help this process become more efficient and human oriented.