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Why Sub-Saharan Africa Leads the World in Mobile Wallets

Why Sub-Saharan Africa Leads the World in Mobile Wallets

August 24, 2023 5 min read

The past two decades have seen explosive growth in the availability and use of mobile wallets all around the world. Mobile wallets – also sometimes referred to as “digital wallets” or “mobile money accounts” – are applications for mobile phones and other digital devices that allow users to receive funds, make payments, store a balance, and more without the need to handle cash or visit a physical bank.

There are 1.6 billion mobile wallet accounts registered around the world today, the equivalent of one for every five people on the planet. Mobile wallets have become an integral part of everyday life for hundreds of millions of people, shaping the way we track our spending, send and receive money, and plan for our financial futures.

Mobile wallets in Sub-Saharan Africa

This growth in mobile wallet use has been especially prevalent – and particularly impactful – in regions with developing economies, such as South Asia, East Asia, and, above all, in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has emerged as a global leader in mobile wallet adoption. Over 45% of all the registered mobile wallet accounts in the world, more than 760 million in total, are located south of the Sahara. Major mobile wallet providers like M-Pesa, Orange Money, and MTN MoMo each count their users in the region in the tens of millions.

It would be hard to overstate just how central mobile wallets have become to the economic lives of millions of people throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2022, more than 80% of adult men and 70% of adult women in Ghana and Senegal reported using a mobile wallet in the past 90 days. In Kenya, the same was true for nine out of every 10 adults. The region was the site of more than two thirds of all mobile wallet transactions worldwide in 2022, and those transactions had a total value of over $830 billion – the equivalent of nearly half of the region’s entire GDP.

Mobile internet access and use in Sub-Saharan Africa

Fueling this widespread adoption has been a rapid and ongoing expansion in mobile internet access. Though the region continues to lag significantly behind the rest of the world in internet access through mobile devices, the number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa with mobile internet connections has doubled in less than a decade, from just 11% in 2014 to 22% seven years later in 2021.

The region also has the world’s largest “usage gap”, which refers to the amount of people in an area that is covered by mobile internet service but are still not using a mobile device to access the internet. In 2021, a whopping 61% of the Sub-Saharan African population fell into this category.

This suggests that the infrastructure is already in place to bring mobile internet to many more people in the region. Connecting those that fall into the “usage gap” will mean finding ways to overcome other barriers to mobile connectivity, like the relatively high cost of smartphones in the region and the need to build understanding and trust in digital tools. Social pressure and the perceived need to have a mobile wallet account to participate in everyday life and trade could help get people interested in investing in a mobile device and learning how to make use of it.

The importance of mobile wallets for financial inclusion

The popularity of mobile wallets in the Sub-Saharan region, while remarkable, is no surprise. A variety of overlapping factors – historical, geographical, economic, social, and political – have limited the reach of traditional banks and financial services, leading many in the region to still rely on cash for most transactions.

With this in mind, it is easy to see why the region has embraced mobile wallets so enthusiastically. Compared to saving and spending cash, storing money digitally offers more convenience and greater security. 15% of all adults in Sub-Saharan Africa reported using their mobile wallet to save money in 2022, comparable to the number of people in the same region saving in a traditional bank account.

Transitioning from informal to formal (i.e. account-based) financial management – the first step in a process called “financial inclusion” – also opens the door for many individuals to access a greater array of modern financial services like credit, investment, and digital peer-to-peer payments. An account with a financial services provider, whether it be a traditional bank or a mobile wallet, is also an important form of “financial identity” that can make for easier access to wages and government aid through direct deposit.

Mobile wallets help families send and receive remittances

Mobile wallets are also becoming an increasingly important tool for sending and receiving remittances – we explored the impact of mobile wallets on remittances around the world in our 2023 report, “Remittances: Growth in the Face of Global Challenges.” In 2022, $22 billion in remittances were sent to mobile wallet accounts, a growth of 28% compared to the previous year. In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than half of all mobile wallet account owners reported receiving at least one remittance payment to their mobile wallet in the past year. For those that live in isolated areas far from pickup locations for cash remittances, receiving money from their loved ones in a mobile wallet account can be the accessible and convenient alternative they need.

Mobile wallets are bringing modern financial services to millions throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, giving users new opportunities to make payments, save money, and send remittances across the world. Explosive growth in the sector over the course of the past decade has made the region a world leader in mobile wallet users and transactions, and with many still in need of financial inclusion, it’s clear that mobile wallets will play an even bigger role throughout the region in the years to come.

Ria makes it easy to send money to many of the biggest mobile wallets in Africa, including M-Pesa, Orange Money, MTN MoMo, and more. Simply head to your nearest Ria location, download the Ria app for iOS or Android, or visit our website to start sending money today!

For more info: comms@riamoneytransfer.com

About the author

Brian Snell

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