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When Sahar Ben Hadj Falah was recently given a book as a gift from a friend, the traditional present came via an untraditional channel: the friend transferred her the money via a mobile payments app, which the 29-year-old Tunisian then used to send the gift to her home.
Paymee is a mobile money transfer app that launched in Tunisia last June. “It’s the first time I’d heard about something like this,” says Ms Ben Hadj Falah, a principal’s assistant at the American School in the capital city, Tunis. “It works great.”
Marwen Amamou, Paymee’s founder, says the app allows those who cannot easily access financial services, but who own a smartphone, to shop, transfer funds and pay bills online. “It’s more secure, more practical, you don’t have to look for change,” he says. Users load money onto their account via terminals located in various locations around the country.
Financial inclusion — the mission to provide underprivileged populations with access to financial services such as loans and bank accounts — is critical for competitiveness and growth in the region. Yet start-ups and governments in some countries have struggled to convince people to embrace digital banking.
In the Middle East and north Africa, fewer than half (44 per cent) of adults over the age of 15 have a bank account, according to 2018 data from the World Bank, compared with 68.5 per cent globally. In Tunisia alone, this figure is 37 per cent.
Since Paymee’s launch, Mr Amamou says the app has attracted 2,200 users. If successful, he says, it could contribute to Tunisia’s strategy to increase access to digital finance.
Tunisia has a population of about 11m people and 14m mobile phone subscriptions. Increasing the adoption of mobile payments could offer an easy route to expanding financial inclusion in the country. Yet just 2 per cent of Tunisians have a mobile money account, compared with 4.4 per cent worldwide.
Progress on capturing “unbanked” groups has been slower in Tunisia than for some of its neighbours. In 2017, Egypt was chosen — along with China and Mexico — to be part of a World Bank Group initiative to research and advance financial inclusion in developing countries.
Egypt is part of the bank’s Universal Financial Access 2020 programme, which aims to bring 2bn unbanked adults across 25 countries into formal financial systems. This followed a 2014 move by the Egyptian central bank to ease regulations and lower capital requirements for banks to encourage them to open mini-branches in areas of the country where most people are “underbanked” and rely heavily on cash transactions.
“Mena [Middle East and north Africa] countries have become aware, with a little delay, of the importance of digitisation and also mobile payment,” says Zouhair el Kadhi, an economist at the Tunisian Institute of Competitiveness and Quantitative Studies.
The Tunisian government’s Digital Tunisia 2020 project was launched to create jobs in digital industries, develop secure payment systems and grow the number of households that have internet access from one-fifth to three-fifths. Over the past couple of years the scheme has also received financial support from the African Development Bank and Chinese communication equipment maker Huawei.
Yet efforts to promote digital finance have had limited success, according to Ahmed El Karm, president of the Tunisian Professional Association of Banks and Financial Institutions. In October, he highlighted the 13bn dinars ($4.3bn) worth of cash circulating outside of the banking system.
Paymee’s Mr Amamou believes one reason for this is that many people still “don’t trust bank accounts”. He says it was difficult to convince people of the advantages of transferring money and paying for bills on a phone instead of using cash. “A lot of education is still needed,” he argues.
Mr Amamou says Paymee is the first product in Tunisia that does not require users to have a bank or postal account. However it will soon face competition as a rival app called Shemsfm is scheduled to launch later this year.
In Morocco, Wafacash, a subsidiary of the country’s largest bank Attijariwafa, last summer launched Jibi, a digital payments app. But here too, changing the culture around cash will take time.
People need to physically “feel bills in their hands” in a transaction, says Kenza Hihi Guillouli, a communications manager at Jibi. “Moroccans aren’t ready yet,” she says, adding that its goal to make the banking system more accessible is a longer-term one.
Mobile banking could prove transformative for the region. Involving telecommunication networks in the process and making use of the high take-up of phones could catalyse the banking sector to take greater strides, while competition from start-ups like Paymee could also help foster change among traditional institutions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mr Amamou is optimistic about the adoption of mobile payment technologies: “Tunisians like new things, new apps,” he says, “if they see other people using it, they’ll start using it also.”
Yet for the time being, at least, Ms Ben Hadj Falah will take a little more convincing. She still holds a fondness for more traditional payment methods: “I use cash a lot, I like using cash,” she says.
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