Beyond Mobility: What Businesses Can Learn From Ugandan Banking

Drive through any city, town or village in Uganda and you’ll see a multitude of buildings painted bright yellow. That yellow is the color identity of MTN, a self-described “mobile communications and network access company” that sells phones, SIM cards and phone accessories. At first glance, they’re a fairly standard regional phone and Internet provider.

What isn’t ho-hum, however, is their MTN MobileMoney service. This service allows you to walk into any MTN retail (I use that term very loosely for many of the outlets) and put money in an online account. This money can then be sent to any recipient via text, for a fee. The recipient need only take the text to another MTN outlet to redeem tangible currency.

This may seem fairly benign to those of us used to mobile banking via the Internet. But, then again, we live in a cashless society. In contrast to much of the West, Uganda is a cash society. Except for marked establishment in Kampala and Entebbe, where most westerners – and increasingly, the Chinese – are concentrated, you’d be hard pressed to spot a place that will accept your Visa or an ATM. Banks themselves can be few and far between. Phone stores? Everywhere. MobileMoney has become a surrogate ATM. What money you have, you put into your mobile money account, so you can pull cash out at leisure from practically any community.

The other way this mobile banking has come into play is with remittances. Like much of the developing world, transient or migrant fathers and sons keep many families afloat by sending part of their earnings back home. For the last 50 years, this transaction has been done only when the employed return home or by entrusting money in an envelope with a bus driver, who doubles as “courier.” Now, money can be transmitted safely and instantaneously.

So what does this say about mobile technology and different needs in different societies? And what can banking in the developed world take from it?  Quite a bit.  Innovation doesn’t stem from examining the obvious and we can learn a great deal about our own practices and beliefs by learning how others think about mobile technology, money, banking stability, technology as an expression of power, etc.  It can break down preconceived notions we have about ourselves and people around the globe.  And above all else, it can define new opportunities that your competitors have never even considered.

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