Regional Remittance Service (Project Serena)

Bharti Airtel International BV is a well-established Netherlands company with strong infrastructure that aims to facilitate cross-border remittances, leveraging their 45,000 plus agent locations in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda to facilitate money transfers through the region. Airtel currently offers the cheapest, fastest and most wide-reaching cross-border regional remittance service in the East Africa Community (EAC). In August 2013, Bharti Airtel International BV (in particular Airtel Africa), in partnership with the Bank of Africa Kenya (BOAK) was awarded a grant by TradeMark East Africa Challenge Fund (TRAC) to implement their project named ‘Project Serena’ that will provide a secure and efficient operational platform that will support and enhance cross-border mobile money and remittance transfer transactions in the EAC.

This service will make cross-border trade transfers formal, affordable and convenient. Airtel Africa will also help to promote financial connectivity throughout the EAC through its Airtel Money distribution network and customer service infrastructure. Their partner bank, BOAK, will provide a secure and efficient operational core-banking platform that will facilitate the exchange and settlement of transactions in real time, which will be undertaken in accordance with the expected regulatory and best banking practices. The service will provide access to credit facilities through the use of mobile services, with financial institutions having the ability to profile clients in terms of credit or end user information such as forex rates to be used in transactions while also managing the risks associated with forex rate fluctuations.

The project will help promote customer adoption of connections between the mobile wallet (Airtel Money) and financial services through the development of cross-border partnerships and linkages between financial service providers while also promoting more productive rural investments of migrants’ capital in their countries of origin. The project will bring together social organizations, NGO’s and mobile software firms in the identification, design, pilot testing or replication of innovative applications relevant to the target markets in East Africa; e.g. agri-based mobile applications. The project will also help to address the challenges faced by women that include among other things, the complexities of cross-border trade regulations, an absence of market information, weak access to currency exchange facilities. Women comprise the majority of cross-border traders due to their position as majority formal or informal small-scale business owners working in the informal cross-border trade sector.

The project implementation is structured into 4 milestones as indicated below:

  1. pilot application, including Airtel Money and bank interface is developed and piloted with customers

  2. 1,000 cross-border transactions per month

  3. 6,000 unique users regularly use the service

  4. enhance cross-border money transfer in the East Africa Community by at least US$ 1.1 million through a formal mobile transfer service

Project Objectives

  • Facilitate wider banking service usage amongst those sections of society currently not maintaining bank accounts; bringing the use of banking services within reach of small-scale or informal business operators, such as traders, businesses, earning members and students/parents by linking the mobile wallet in their active SIM card (the only requirement for using mobile money) to financial services and products like savings and credit facilities. Reputedly more than half of all households living below the poverty line own a SIM card , yet the absence of access to formal banking services like a cheque or current account, should be no barrier to access to wider financial services, through the use of mobile banking, the latter having the technology to not only profile clients in terms of credit or end-user information but provide customers with access to appropriate financial services.
  • Develop institutional partnerships through the development of cross-border relationships and linkages between various financial service providers.
  • Promote adoption of financial services by partnering with social organizations, NGO’s and mobile software firms in the identification, design, pilot-testing or replication of innovative applications relevant to the subscriber e.g. agri-based mobile applications.
  • Promote productive rural investment of migrant’s capital in their countries of origin.
  • To train all Airtel Money agents and retailers (42,000) in the operation and use of the remittance service in advance of the launch of the service.

As of June 2016, Airtel Africa has had an average of 703 cross-border merchant transactions per month along with 6,000 unique users (informal sector traders and businesses) in the entire EAC who regularly use the service since they launched it in a limited scale in May 2015, with $327,064 cross-border money transfer being transacted over the project period of 18 months.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

Despite the acknowledged successes, the project’s implementation was not entirely challenge free as there were delays in the delivery of the agreed milestones; the main obstacles to progress including the following:
  • Airtel Africa had difficulties in securing national level regulatory approvals as there is no common regulatory framework present in East Africa. As a result of this lack of uniformity of regulatory approach, continuous engagement with the regulators (Central Banks) and partners in each country was required, while also having to adapt to changes in the regulatory environment, this approach resulting eventually in the securing of the regulatory approvals for service delivery in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.
  • There was a delay in the technical integration of the International Money Transfer (IMT), so cross-functional meetings which resulted in a partner selection (BOAK) helped close the technical integration faster and solve this challenge.
  • There was a delay in the initial stage of the project’s implementation as there were miscommunications between Airtel and its partners that lead to confusion being promoted about what the project would deliver to its service users and what was required from the relevant service regulators. A process of continuous engagement and unified communication between Airtel, the service regulators and partners helped solve this challenge.

Conclusion

This project will highlight East Africa’s leading role in introducing innovative and development-driven remittance transfer methods and products that will reshape the ability of financial services to reach rural and isolated markets. The project will highlight the role of technology in deepening the marketplace and stimulating competition, in closing the gap between rural remittance recipients and financial services, while also playing a key role in further promoting the use of mobile financial services at the expense of bricks-and-mortar based financial establishments. Trade provides one of the pathways to empowerment as it elevates one from a position of mere producer and consumer to investor with a broader horizon for self-fulfillment and financial gain. This project seeks to resolve the challenges related to cross-border remittances, to restricted access of financial services and to consumer information; the service facilitating deeper trading links and more meaningful income prospects for all.