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AQ Feature

Can You Pay Me Now?

In providing banking services through cell phones, Africa leads Latin America.

From afar it looks like an evangelical campaign. Alongside the squat white building that houses the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Kathlehong, a poor South African township 16 miles from Johannesburg, a group of young people clad in identical black T-shirts and jeans, carrying leaflets and small packages, chatter quietly. Occasionally, one or another breaks off to intercept shoppers making their way through street traders and on to the nearby “mall” lined with cheap food and clothes shops.

But the message these young people are selling is communication, not salvation. The youth are “Wizzkids,” sales agents recruited by Wizzit, a South African company formed in 2004 that has pioneered the use of cellular phones for personal banking and money management. The Kathlehong campaign began in August, but Wizzkids’ team leader Siphiwa Mngomezulu says that about 800 local residents have already signed up as Wizzit customers, using their cell phone accounts to transfer money and pay bills.

Mngomezulu, 24, a former police reservist who lives in the area, claims he will have no trouble meeting the company target of 400 new customers a month. That may be because his Wizzkids have already made some influential converts, such as the owners of a few local shabeens (bars) and the pastor of the nearby church.

While Mngomezulu admits there are community skeptics who worry that this is a “fly by night” business, he says, “we are getting the message across. It is getting better all the time.” Wizzit is cautious about releasing figures, but according to a report by the Boston-based Aite Group published in February last year, it had acquired 200,000 customers.

Wizzit was born out of a conversation between Brian Richardson, who once worked in marketing for the local operations of Barclays Bank, and became the company’s co-founder and CEO, and Cyril Ramaphosa, a former trade unionist who is a prominent leader of the country’s governing African National Congress. “He told me how difficult it was opening a bank account for his son,” recalls Richardson. “And then he laughed and said if you think it is difficult for us at the top end of the pyramid, you can imagine what it is like at the bottom of the market.”...

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Latin America, Can You Pay Me Now? Richard Lapper, Cell phone banking, Africa, Wizzit, South Africa, Financial Times

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