Regulators at the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE) have issued permits for the country’s first private mobile money platform two years after opening the financial sector to non-financial institutions.

Kacha Digital Financial Services is set to begin operations as the first fintech firm to venture into the lucrative mobile money market. According to Yigermal Meshesha, manager of marketing and business Development at Kacha, it took the company three years to develop the platform.

Only financial firms, particularly banks and microfinance institutions, were allowed to provide mobile banking services until two years ago. This changed after the central bank Governor issued a directive in August 2020 allowing non-financial institutions to join the fray. Mobile money platforms enable users to receive remittances and pay for various goods and services virtually, linking their accounts to saving accounts at banks.

Kacha, incorporated in 2019, is one of 13 fintech companies that have applied for permits from the NBE. Its regulators are reviewing the applications of three, a senior official of the NBE disclosed to Fortune.

Unlike other countries where telecom firms hold the reins, Ethiopia’s mobile money market had been dominated by banks. The arrival of the state-owned Ethio telecom’s Telebirr last year became a game-changer. Telebirr allows users to deposit, withdraw, and transfer funds using a mobile application or a USSD code. It has garnered close to 22 million users following its debut in May 2021, attended by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD).

The new entrant, Kacha, is committed to starting operations with a three-month trial period. It has joined the market with Abreham Tilahun as its founding chief executive officer (CEO).

Abreham worked in the banking industry for 16 years, serving as vice president for retail banking at Lion International Bank. He began his career at the former Construction & Business Bank as a clerk, serving for five years before embarking on an 11-year stay at the Lion Bank. A father of four, Abreham studied accounting at Addis Abeba University and received a graduate degree in business administration from Jimma University.

Regulators have also approved the nominations of seven directors of Kacha Financial Services. Among them is Tewodros Ashenafi, a businessman with a background in oil exploration. He is a founder of Southwest Holdings – a company involved in logistics and real estate – and chairperson of Ambo Mineral Water. He also bought a property in Gambella town, Ethiopia Hotel, from the state through privatisation.

Kacha’s journey began with 13 founding shareholders, though the number has since grown to 13,000.

The company’s executives declined to disclose the equity raised from shareholders. However, payment instrument issuers must register a minimum paid-up capital of 40 million Br to engage in mobile banking, microcredit, remittance facilitation, and local money transfers.

“We’ve fulfilled the minimum paid-up capital requirement,” said Abreham.

The CEO plans to integrate the mobile money platform with 30,000 agents and financial institutions. Kacha will launch operations in November this year, disclosed Abreham.

The road ahead will be trying for him and his team.

More than a dozen mobile banking, wallet, and money platforms are under financial institutions. Combined, these platforms facilitated 320 billion Br transactions last year.

Private financial firms garner customers through mobile money outlets. Dashen Bank’s Amole mobile wallet has about 3.5 million users. However, the state-owned Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE) stands tall among financial firms, with 5.4 million users on its CBE-Birr platform. CBE-Birr accounts for nearly 40pc of the country’s 14.5 million mobile banking users.

Telebirr overwhelmed many of the platforms over the past year. It has facilitated 29.5 billion Br in transactions since its launch.

Mesay Woubshet, director of communications at Ethio telecom, is unfazed by the impending competition.

“We’ll launch additional services soon to keep up the momentum,” he said.

Tewodros Tassew, a financial technologies consultant, warns that unless fintech firms join the industry with differentiated services, they’ll be overtaken by Ethio telecom.

Kacha plans to team up with microfinance institutions to reach unbanked segments of society.

The consultant, however, argues mobile money transactions are dominated by personal transfers of cash and mobile top-up payments, which may not be in much demand among Kacha’s targeted demography. He foresees Telebirr will continue to dominate as long as the financial sector remains closed off to foreign firms.

The Prime Minister expressed his administration’s strong desire to open the sector to foreign companies during Telebirr’s illustrious launch last year.

PUBLISHED ON Jul 23,2022 [ VOL 23 , NO 1160]

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