M&A Africa: Standard Bank Eyes Universal Payment Plan With Fintech Acquisition

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Written by Dana Sanchez

One of South Africa’s largest banks, Standard Bank has acquired a majority stake in Firepay, the team that built SnapScan, South Africa’s largest mobile payments product.

Standard Bank has hopes this move will advance its efforts to be a universal bank, the company said in a press release.

Africa has the highest mobile money adoption rate in the world, but it’s hardly universal, catching on in certain countries such as Kenya — birthplace of M-Pesa and mobile payments — and not so much in others like South Africa, where more people have access to bank accounts.

In a country where more than 75 percent of people have bank accounts, South Africa-based mobile phone operator MTN Group pulled the plug on its mobile money service earlier this year, saying it’s not viable there, according to an earlier AFKInsider report.

In a similar move, Vodacom stopped offering mobile money service M-Pesa in South Africa in May, citing lack of demand and South Africa’s advanced banking sector, My Broadband reported.

Cash is still king for the vast majority of Africans, who don’t have access to banks and conduct their daily financial transactions offline, according to a report in Bitcoin Magazine.

Standard Bank operates in 20 sub-Saharan African countries and in others around the world. It operates under the name Stanbic Bank in parts of Africa. African markets include Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, Mozambique, Côte d’Ivoire, and Malawi.

In addition to SnapScan, the Firepay team’s technology platform enables payments for WeChat, Standard Bank said in a press release.

China’s massive instant messaging platform WeChat has more than 700 million active users — mostly in China — and hopes to compete with Facebook’s WhatsApp in Africa. South African media giant Naspers owns a 34 percent stake in WeChat parent, Tencent.

“We are excited about working more closely with the Firepay team and think that there is an excellent strategic fit between their capabilities and Standard Bank’s vision for a truly universal bank, both in South Africa and throughout the African continent,” said Wendy Pienaar, SBSA Head of Emerging Payments, in a prepared statement. “Firepay’s experienced team and industry know-how will be used to bolster Standard Bank’s emerging payments strategy.”

Industrial and Commercial Bank of China owns a 20 percent stake in Standard Bank.

According to KPMG’s Payment Developments in Africa 2015 report, 94 percent of retail transactions in urban and rural Africa are conducted in cash, Bitcoin Magazine reported. That means just 6 percent of transactions are made with bank cards or e-payment systems.

Credit card adoption is notoriously low in Africa, whereas mobile payment systems are rising. More Africans have mobile phones than they do bank accounts. However, mobile money and e-payment adoption is still in its early stages for most of Africa.

Countries with the highest internet adoption rates, such as South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya, also have the highest e-payment adoption rate.

South Africans are outpacing countries globally in terms of online mobile adoption, ITWeb reported.

South African respondents in a 2016 Nielsen survey showed that 67 percent say they use their phone to monitor spending and manage finances, compared to 32 percent globally. The 2016 Nielsen mobile shopping, banking and payment survey polled 30,000 people with online access in 63 countries.

Mobility is driving a digital transformation in South Africa’s banking industry, said George Kalebaila, senior manager for Africa telecoms, media and Internet of things at IDC.

“We should expect further disruption in this area in the medium- to long-term,” he said in an IT Web report.

In the short term, security concerns and data costs remain barriers to adoption of online payments. In the survey, 57 percent of South African respondents said security is a concern, and 23 percent said the cost of data is a barrier to doing more online banking transactions.

Still, e-commerce spending is expected to more than double in 2016 compared to 2015.

“In 2015, mobile shoppers accounted for 3 percent of the total e-commerce spend in South Africa and this is expected to increase to 7 percent in 2016,” Kalebaila said.

The cost of providing a mobile money service has become prohibitive for mobile service provider MTN, said Larry Annetts, chief consumer officer of MTN South Africa.

But MTN’s decision to shelve its mobile money service does not mean a complete exit from financial services, he said.

While banks and mobile payments startups would like to see large-scale adoption of mobile money and other digital payments systems, the reality is cash is likely to remain king in Africa, according to Bitcoin Magazine. Low internet penetration and a lack of trust in the financial system are expected to help keep the status quo.

Firepay was formed in 2013 to apply new mobile payments technology to build innovative products, according to Standard Bank. In 2014 Firepay launched SnapScan in partnership with Standard Bank so customers could pay for things using their mobile phone. SnapScan is used by hundreds of thousands of customers at more than 32,000 physical and online merchants.

The South African Customer Satisfaction Index of 2015 and 2016 rated Standard Bank lowest among South African banks for customer service, according to Business Tech.