With its huge “unbanked” population, Africa has seen some of the most rapid adoption of mobile payment systems in the world. While few people have a bank or credit card—or a formal bank account—most people have a mobile phone, and in places like Kenya, 70% of people with phones also use them as a “mobile wallet” for making payments via SMS. Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) has fewer than 30 million bank cards in circulation, but more than 150 million mobile wallets, worth an estimated $90 billion. There are mobile money services in nearly every market, but most are confined to domestic transactions, with almost no interoperability between networks or across borders.
To let customers send money to people outside their network or their country—and enable banks, mobile operators, merchants, utility providers, and employers to issue microloans, sell airtime, accept e-payments, and pay digital wages—all these systems need a way to talk to each other. That’s what Port Louis, Mauritius-based MFS Africa does. Through partnerships with major mobile network operators like Airtel, Econet, MTN, Orange, Tigo, and Vodafone, this startup has become the largest mobile money gateway on the continent, connecting 120 million mobile wallets across Sub-Saharan Africa through its API platform. Moving to monetize its position at the center of this vast and still largely untapped financial market, the company spent 2016 in strategic-expansion mode, forging a partnership with Wari, a popular Senegalese money transfer service, to build out its remittance and payments service popular with major employers in the region, and in July bought Sochitel, an international airtime “top-up” provider, to add airtime top-ups to its portfolio of services.