A note from the World Economic Forum on Africa in Durban

May 24, 2017

Witney Schneidman recounts the 2017 World Economic Forum on Africa and its emphasis on “Achieving Inclusive Growth through Responsive and Responsible Leadership.”

Earlier this month, more than 1,000 leaders from business, government, and civil society participated in the World Economic Forum on Africa in Durban with the theme, “Achieving Inclusive Growth through Responsive and Responsible Leadership.”

This note highlights several conversations relevant to the forum’s theme.

The leadership challenge

The challenge of responsible leadership was on display from the beginning of the forum: At one of the first plenaries, Zimbabwe’s nonagenarian leader, Robert Mugabe, rambled incoherently about youth, agriculture, and job creation.

In stark contrast, he was followed by Winnie Byanyima, the Ugandan-born executive director of Oxfam International, who said, essentially, that the problem of leadership in Africa is leaders who are too old and stayed in office too long.

Also on the panel was Lindiwe Mazibuko, the former parliamentary leader of the Democratic Alliance in South Africa, who made an impressive appeal to government and the private sector to embrace the continent’s youth and provide jobs and training. According to the WEF Africa Competitiveness Report 2017, 450 million individuals on the continent will be added to the labor market over the next two decades, and only 100 million jobs are expected to be created during this period.

These two women represent the growing number of individuals on the continent working to identify and implement solutions to these key problems, while Mugabe is an ongoing reminder of Africa’s leadership challenge.

Inclusive growth

Government regulation is a significant factor related to inclusive growth. This was evident in an exchange between Stephen van Coller, a senior executive at MTN, Africa’s largest cell phone provider, and Sim Tshabalala, co-CEO of Standard Bank, the region’s largest banking network.

Van Coller commented that 50 million of MTN’s 240 million customers across Africa and the Middle East have MTN Mobile Money, of which 16 million are active on a monthly basis. This makes MTN, in addition to the largest cell phone provider on the continent, potentially one of the largest financial services providers too.

Indeed, Sim Tshabalala recognized the challenge that mobile banking represents to traditional banking services—mobile banking is poised to leap frog retail banking in Africa, much like cell phones bypassed landlines. In response, Tshabalala said that “fintech,” which includes an array of mobile-based financial services, can work well with products from traditional banks given the latter’s balance sheet and range of products.

The advantage of mobile products is that they can go “down market,” or reach lower-income individuals faster and more cheaply than traditional banks. In doing so, they have the added advantage of breaking down the barriers between the informal and formal sectors to create more financial inclusivity in a way that traditional banks are struggling with.

Kenya is a case in point. Currently only 2 percent of government bonds in Kenya are purchased by individual investors. However, in March, Kenya became the first country in the world to sell government bonds to citizens over their cell phones. The bond program, known as M-Akiba, was a pilot for raising resources domestically for infrastructure and other projects by selling bond shares for as little as $30 a unit. The cell phone user who purchased the M-Akiba bond did not need to have a bank account. The initial three-year bond offering of $1.5 million will pay an estimated tax-free interest of 10 percent every six months. All shares of debut mobile-based M-Akiba bond were purchased within six days, much faster than the allotted 13 days, and the experience is expected to lead to a second, larger bond offering.

The WEF dialogue on the future of banking in Africa reflected the challenge facing inclusive growth across the continent. While countries such as Tanzania and Kenya, where the mobile banking penetration rates are 84 percent and 68 percent, respectively, are making impressive gains on financial inclusion, progress is not uniform across the continent. In Nigeria, for example, there is an 80 percent mobile phone penetration rate but less than 3 percent of cell phone users have mobile money accounts.

The reason for this difference is that in Kenya and Tanzania there is close cooperation between the cell phone operators and government regulators. The same is not the case in Nigeria and other African countries. Clearly mobile banking can play an important role in expanding financial inclusion. Governments, however, have to create a conducive regulatory environment for the cellular operators to provide the necessary services and to stimulate inclusive growth.