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Competition, new rules to spur West African electronic financial services

Olusegun Abolaji Ogundeji | Feb. 18, 2015
New regulations, competition and product diversity are likely to help boost digital financial services across the eight West African Economic and Monetary Union countries.

Use of the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) protocol, used by GSM mobile phones to communicate with service providers' computers, may provide an answer to this problem. USSD provides a continuous open channel between the user and the service provider.  When a USSD session is initiated, the user can communicate with the service provider in a "call and response" sequence, potentially providing a more user-friendly customer experience.

"USSD is potentially a more user-friendly and interactive tool to offer a pleasant mobile money customer journey compared," Lahaye said. "However, most mobile operators are refusing access to their USSD channel to independent providers and most of financial institutions, because it is perceived as a competitive advantage."

Though financial regulations, including e-money regulation, across the WAEMU countries are handled by BCEAO, each country has its own telecom regulatory authority. Telecom regulatory bodies and WAEMU governments should be more involved in addressing telco infrastructure issues, Lahaye said.

Nevertheless, regional regulations coordinating use of USSD might be difficult to attain. With this in mind, some players in the mobile money market have proposed an API (Application Programming Interface ) for SMS technology on which they can build new, more user-friendly services.

Up to now, mobile money distribution networks have concentrated mainly in urban areas. Deployments into rural areas have been slow, due to higher costs and less potential profit.

Studies conducted by CGAP on the need and usage of financial services in Cote d'Ivoire and Senegal show that service providers' continuous focus on traditional offerings are not customized enough to the needs of the low-income population. They provide person-to-person money transfer, airtime purchase, merchant and bill payment, but poor people need a broader range of financial products like credit, savings and insurance.

"A customer-centric approach is needed for better products and accelerate adoption," Lahaye said.


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